Real Families are Messy
And I don't just mean the toys on the floor and the dishes in the sink.
Norman Rockwell, Currier and Ives – they did us all a disservice – with their beautiful pictures of the perfect family. Yes the pictures are lovely but no one lives like that and, consciously or unconsciously, they distort our expectations.
We imagine the perfect family, the ideal family – and then we notice how ours falls short. We focus on the imperfections, on what we don't have instead of on what we do. This is no such thing as a perfect family – unless we recognize that "perfect" doesn't mean that nothing ever goes wrong, that everyone always treats each other with love and respect, that there are no fights only polite disagreements... Maybe perfect means perfect for us – the perfect opportunity to grow, the perfect opportunity to stretch, the perfect opportunity to become better, wiser, more compassionate, kinder.
Families are wonderful – and messy – and I don't just mean the toys on the floor, the unmade beds and the dishes in the sink. Families are messy because there are so many individual lives involved, with individual needs and goals, individual weaknesses and strengths, individual hopes and frustrations. You take all these complex individuals and you put them in a home together and you get... chaos. And love and warmth and support. And petty annoyances and larger ones. And great relationships and difficult ones. And support and criticism. You get the whole stew.
Sometimes it's a "can't live with 'em" and sometimes it's a "can't live without 'em" all in the same moment. And that's okay. Because that's the reality of living.
The challenge arises when we compare ourselves to those Rockwell portraits (remember, they're not real!) or to the family down the street (that we only see from the outside) or to that family we read about (also fictional!).
When I was growing up I was enamored of Maud Hart Lovelace's series about Betsey, Tacy and Tib. In my young eyes, they had the perfect family. My favorite part was when they came in from the cold and all their family and friends gathered to sing around the piano while their mother served sandwiches and hot chocolate or lemonade, depending on the season (Yes, I know it's corny.). I always imagined I would be that mother.
Except no one in our family plays well enough for a sing-a-long and if I would have suggested such an activity, I can only imagine the eye-rolling. Not to mention, who has the time to make those sandwiches and hot cocoa!
But it took me a long time to let it go, to not feel that I was remiss somehow in not recreating that (fictional) world for my family.
Enjoying our families requires letting go of those false images and embracing the reality – in all its complications and wonders, in all its challenges and love. Families aren't easy. Families are a lot of work (duh). There is no moment when you can sit back and say, "I'm done." It's a constant process of loving and nurturing and soothing ruffled feathers and brokering peace and encouraging and...I'm getting exhausted just writing this.
But once we recognize that Norman Rockwell or Ms. Lovelace or Norman Lear or any other purveyor of popular images was not creating anyone's reality, we can stop and appreciate what we have. We can enjoy the gift of family, that bulwark against existential loneliness, those people who not only have to take you in but usually want to!
And we can recognize that with all its struggles, we wouldn't have it any other way.