Monday, June 18, 2007

My Realization About Our Extended Family, Our Community, and Our Time

I married into a huge, close extended family. Because my husband and I have different cultural heritages, I had some adjusting to do to get used to all that it entails when marrying into a large Italian family. My own family is much smaller but we are also close.

As life progressed and we had children I of course entered into that other-world of parenting and all that it entails. I guess I could say there is a culture of parenthood. What I mainly mean is how having a child means we then have all these new things we are expected to participate in. Some quick examples are extracurricular activities such as sports and Scouts. The issue is not JUST attending that Little League game but also finding time for that year-end picnic for the Little League team. It is not JUST going to practices and games but being asked to bring a snack and having to read emails about upcoming events. All that stuff takes time. Multiply all those tasks across each activity and then add it up for each child. All that stuff is sucking up a lot of parent’s time and energy!

I have all that stuff to contend with plus I have woven into our lives a community of homeschoolers so we are not living in isolation. Parents of children in school are faced with a gigantic school community. Their children do not JUST go to school but they take part in all kinds of extra things like PTA fundraisers, invited to birthday parties for every child in the class, class picnics, school art shows, school talent shows and all kinds of other events that take place outside of what we’d consider the normal school day.

Competing with our time and energy is extended family. Since we live geographically close to both my extended family and my husband’s extended family we have a lot to do. Since we are both close to our family it means we do things together. The activities vary from family to family. My own family likes to celebrate every person’s birthday with a meal and a birthday cake shared with all of us. My husband’s large family only celebrates the children’s birthdays, but it seems there are more formal large events to attend (bridal showers, weddings, wakes and funerals, etc.) and there is also the annual family reunion.

The fact that we live close to both families also creates a conflict for how to spend the major holidays and even smaller ones like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Which family will we spend our time with? Do we need to rotate visits to numerous families’ homes on the same holiday to celebrate a little with everyone?

As my children have gotten older there are more and more events in the community to choose from to participate with. For example as I said before it is not JUST Scouts but a year-end event, the annual banquet and other special “once per year” events. Well add up the “year end” events for multiple organizations and multiple children and the schedule is suddenly over-booked.

Our community also has other special events like wonderful programs at the public library. Our church offers special events ranging from children-only to entire families to women-only and men-only events.

Then there are the children’s birthday parties that our children are invited to that take place usually on weekends.

The conflict we parents have over how to spend our time and which thing to do can become frustrating. The ones who seem to have it easiest are my parent-friends who do not live geographically close to others in their family. I then realized something that I’d never realized before and something that no one had ever told me!

The first is that as humans I think we have a desire to have community. We want to do things with others. In the past this was mainly fulfilled through family. By living close with our family and even by living with multiple generations under one roof we had an instant community of our own family. I think this is why in the past there were less community events competing for our time. People were busy enough in their lives to think up, plan, run and attend all these extra events.

Next it seems to me that the ‘extra events’ in the community, including the many different fundraiser events and activities geared toward adults or geared toward families are thought of and run by those WITHOUT family geographically close. I feel these families are creating a feeling of community by doing things with strangers in our towns possibly out of an instinctual desire for community, fellowship and friendship with a large community than their own spouse and children. Those people who don’t live near their relatives have the extra time that someone like me does not have as I am already busy with my extended relatives. I really think these events and extra things that are done today which did not happen back when I was a child are being done based on the fact that now more than ever so many Americans are living apart from their extended family (for a number of reasons, the most common being that the family moved for a better job and another one being that some retirees choose to retire in resort locations and they move there from the place that they lived their entire life!).

I have felt torn in the past to find a balance in our schedule. I’ve both over-scheduled our family and I’ve under-scheduled our family. One problem with my generation is that we feel we must do it all and do things right. For me this is not about keeping up with the Jones’s but it is about doing what is expected and right and best for our children. Therefore I feel obligated to do as many things as is expected of me as a parent. For example after doing Scouting all year I don’t feel right not going to the big year end event. One year we had a direct conflict with attending the year end Scout picnic and the year end Little League picnic. (Back when I was a Girl Scout we did not have a year end picnic and when my brother was in Little League they did not have a year end picnic either.)

Due to having so many extended family members around us my husband and I feel perpetually torn about how to spend our time. We’d like to relax in our own home and do things with just the four of us. However it seems there is always either extended family or community events vying for our time. After that there seem to be an endless number of charity fundraisers happening that we are invited to attend. We can’t do it all and we don’t want to do it all. However with each thing we don’t participate in I feel guilty as if we are missing out on something or others make me feel badly for declining their invitation or for not contributing to their charity. I have also felt inadequate and wondered how other families could do it all yet I could not. Worse still is when our children become aware that we’ve declined an invitation and they are upset that they are missing out on something that was special to them.

Once I had the realization that it is our extended family that takes up our time (rather than me having some inadequacy inside of me that made me unable to do everything), I felt a relief. I shifted my perspective and tried to view everything through a new vantage point. Rather than feeling burdened by invitations with family, I feel blessed to have multiple generations alive and living so close to us who want to spend time with us.

This spring I finally came to the conclusion that I don’t have to and don’t want to compete with my friends who don’t live near extended family or whose parents and grandparents are deceased. If they go to every community activity they are invited to that is their prerogative; their lack of access to extended family allows them more free time.

I feel fortunate that my parents are alive and still married. I am fortunate to have two grandmothers still alive. We are fortunate to have my in-laws alive and happily married. We have a gigantic family on my husband’s side. We have an abundance of family and I they are important to us. In good times we are very busy. When our parents and grandparents are sick and need our assistance we are even busier with necessary and very important activities. Would anyone dare say that attending a wine tasting fundraiser is more worthwhile than caring for an elderly family member with Cancer? If we are low on energy from helping relatives and decline a weekend party event just so we can rest and regain our energy would anyone fault us for missing that event?

Once I realized that the life I lead is different because of living so close to both extended families I felt less compelled to do so many activities in the community. Saying no became easier. When we are busy enough I don’t even look in the local newspaper to see what local special events are happening or to see what wonderful free programs our town library is hosting.

Perhaps if I had more time in the schedule and less love from extended family I’d also be looking for that love and attention from more strangers in the community. But I only have so much of my self to give to others and it goes to family first. My love cup is overflowing and I give so much of myself that I sometimes feel my well is dry. In the midst of being a wife and mother I must also find time to take care of myself and I certainly can’t do that when I’m over-scheduled and stressed out.

Realizing that a big difference between me and some of my neighbors and friends is due to the difference in our extended family situation has liberated me and I no longer feel inadequate or guilty for not saying yes to every single thing we are invited to.

At the very core, what matters to my husband and I is the quality of what we do not the quantity, and we are trying to enjoy the way we spend out time instead of measuring the bulk of activities we participate in.

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Shawna said...

You make a very good point!

I am not one of those who feels guilty about not attending social events LOL Sometimes my kids (7 of them,) when younger, would get upset...but I could only give so much and tend the home and keep finances within check.

We do have extended family--in our same town and within an hours driving distance--but there are only a few annual events we gather for and that is plenty. We can stop to visit or set up impromptu BBQ's, there are always new weddings and baptisms and graduations (my husband is one of 14 siblings) so family does keep us rather busy, especially during the later spring and early summer months, and then of course the holidays.

But I do wish to get more involved with our community as we tend to be somewhat isolated within our own town. Yes, we have our family, but it's also nice to run into people you know and just chat for a bit or to have someone to sit with and watch the games or practices.

For us, we are at a point of needing balance--we need to balance the two as we have tipped the scales on the side of being busy with family stuff and neglecting community relations.

So your point can go both ways and that makes it so valid. And you know, I hear you loud and clear when you mention that sometimes you just need time to relax and re-enegize as a single family unit.

christinemm said...

Shawna, first I want to say I love reading all your comments but usually don't reply to any of my comments as a routine so please know I am not ignorning you but just am not a big comment responder, sorry. I know that is against the typical blog etiquette. Excuse me for my fault with that.


About this issue in this blog post and your comment, one thing I want to also say that you made me think of that wasn't in my blog post is that we homeschoolers have a different twist and challenge.

At one time I put effort into making a community here in my town but in this town most shut down when they hear we hoemschool. It is hard to "break in" and "be accepted" if you are not part of the "public school clique". Some who use the public school which is rated highly as a "great school system" take it as a personal affront that we don't use that system. The fact that we homeschool puts us in a special-weird category as the typical thing in this town and county if you don't wnat your child in public school you send them to private. My town and some also here in affluent Fairfield County is of the mindset that if you don't like something you pay someone else to do it, so it is beyond some moms in my town to EVER do themselves what they can pay someone to do. (I have been told this outright by mulitiple people.) And often at "family events" or "children's events" I the mom am there with Nannies of the other children as their child care is also hired out not done by only the mom.

I have hit a dead end with cultivating strong ties for friendships in my own town. People here are just so over-scheduled and they use the community events as the main connection. Well most ring false and hollow to me. For example they consider the soccer time as social time for friendship when to me that is NOT a child's friendship.

So much is tied to the public school that my friend who uses private school also shared that despite doing many town-activiteis with public schooled kids those public schooled kids and their parents don't seek friendships with her private schooled child. Everyone is so busy anyway that the kids main social experiences are at public school. Most kids here don't spend time playing outdoors with neighbor kids which was the main activity for me when I was a child in the 1970s.

Our closest kid-friends in town are two neighbors and one boy we know from Scouts who is under-scheduled compared to his peers. Thank goodness he has some spare time for playdates to see my kids!

So while I have tried to make strong community connections for my children in the town itself it has not been too successful. On the other hand I put a ton of time into cultivating homeschooling community for me with HS parents and also for friends for my kids.

Some friends of mine swear the things we live with here are unqiue to Fairfield County and are most definately not just an American thing. I don't know if that is true or not as I've spent my whole life in CT and most recently in Fairfield County. I don't know what the rest of the country is like for homeschoolers or for parents in general.

Jessakah said...

great post :)

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

I think your final paragraph is the heart of wisdom, Christine!

I often found it difficult to juggle all of the so-called "communities" we were part of. Living in two different cultures and then adding an "alternative lifestyle" can really put the pressure on for competing activities.

We have finally chosen to limit activities is certain areas and enjoy our life together--but that entailed physically moving out of town! People seem to accept the "it's a long drive and we have to limit our activities" and do not demand as much.

I can still get caught up in rounds of over activity trying to fulfill too many promises. But now I have to blame it on myself! :)

Anyway, great post. I am planning on linking soon.