Do Great Expectations = Great Disappointment in Families?

Recently a friend and I were talking about our lives in terms of what we thought they’d be like when we were younger and what our lives turned out to be. We discussed whether life had for the most part exceeded or failed to meet our expectations. We’re both pretty happy people and we came to an interesting realization. Neither of us had much in the way of expectations when we were younger and really don’t today either. As a result, we’re both pretty happy with the way things are going.

“Low expectations,” my friend exclaimed, “that’s the key to happiness.” We laughed but in considering it later, I realized he may be on to something. Especially when it comes to family. We all have expectations about family relationships, I think. We’re pretty much wired that way from the time we are young. We expect our parents to love us and to take care of us when we are children. We expect our siblings to love us and be our playmates when we’re kids together. Then we take those expectations into adulthood and maybe that’s where we go wrong. If we have high hopes and great expectations and our family members don’t meet our lofty goals, we come crashing down amidst the disappointment. From there the disappointment could lead to anger, to adult sibling rivalry, to fighting for parental approval and any hope for a healthy adult sibling relationship falls apart.

Perhaps the key to happiness here is to lower our expectations of family. Maybe we have to treat family members more like we treat our friends. With our friends we don’t just expect them to treat us fairly and with respect. We understand our friends owe us nothing unless we earn it. We accept the fact that good friendships are the product of work, of give and take, of treating people with respect. We don’t just expect our friends to be good partners, we know we have to work for that, to be good partners in order to have them. We understand inherently that we teach our friends how to treat us by how we treat them.

But maybe with family, we often just believe things will be good because they should be. Unfortunately, what I’m hearing from people who read this blog is that philosophy isn’t working so well. Too many of us are disappointed in our sibling relationships. The family waters are tougher to navigate than those of friendship. I’m seeking to understand why that is. Why do I and so many people I’ve connected with find loving friendships but fail to develop loving sibling relationships? Why are we so lost in the weeds in these waters?

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Are our expectations too great or is it something else entirely?

A Tale of Two Sisters: Choose Your Own Ending

This week marked my sister’s birthday. It’s the 22nd one she’s had since she stopped talking to me. In an earlier post I wrote about how I wasn’t sure if I’d recognize her or if she’d know me. I’m sorry if you can relate to that because you’re estranged from a sibling. It pretty much sucks.

But this week I had a realization. I don’t have to be miserable every time I think about my sister. I can choose to remember a good memory and to replace the pain with that memory when I think of her. Truth be told, I don’t think of her that often but on weeks like this one, it happens and it’s a bummer. Not any more.

You feel what you feel in life but you can choose your reaction to it. That’s what I always taught my daughters. You can’t control everything but you can control how you react to everything. (or most things). So this year when my sister creeps into my brain I’m going to remember this.

We were young, maybe 14 and 9. We were watching the “Beverly Hillbillies” on TV and the daughter in the show, Ellie May, was playing with a bra. She didn’t recognize it as clearly, “hillbillies” had no use for undergarments of that nature. (Wow, was that show offensive or what? Good thing the PC police weren’t around then.) So, the character used it as a slingshot. Well, that was simply hilarious to us and we started to giggle and then to guffaw loudly enough to bring my father into the room. “What’s so funny?” he wanted to know.

Neither of us could say the word “bra” to my father. My sister probably was wearing one and definitely couldn’t say the word. This was a girl who had to recite Shakespeare for school and wouldn’t say “Damn” so she walked around the house saying, “Out, blank spot.” She was clearly not saying “bra.”  I said nothing but Dad was waiting for an answer. My sister sensed my discomfort and gave him a satisfactory answer. “She has a funny accent,” my sister explained. My dad left the room. We looked at each other and started laughing all over again. We shared a secret and a giggle. Very rare indeed. The fact that this is one of the only good stories I can tell about a nice moment with my sister is in itself pretty telling about our relationship growing up.

But, here’s the message of this post. If you are hurting from the actions of other people be they family, coworkers or anyone else in your life, remember this — you can’t change them but you choose how you react to them.

Happy birthday to my sister. I hope you are enjoying a good laugh, albeit not with me. I am smiling at a memory of us, that’s what I choose this year.

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Surviving A Family Vacation

I live in a lovely place where huge family groups come to vacation. When I say huge family groups, I don’t just mean a lot of groups. I mean the groups are each huge. Folks rent enormous vacation rental homes, some accommodate 25 people under one roof. They actually choose to spend a week with all of those people, most of whom are relatives.

As you may know from reading this blog or my book, I wouldn’t be likely to need a huge house to accommodate my extended family since most of them don’t actually speak to us. Even before the “falling out,” though, I can’t imagine going on vacation with most of the people I’m related to, unless I was being punished for some super bad behavior. So you can imagine my sheer puzzlement (or shock) at seeing hordes of family members who actually choose to be together for the week.

Since I’m a people watcher I’ve learned a great deal from observing these groups in their unnatural habitat — a big house with 20+ relatives. I also see them on the beach, playing mini golf, at the supermarket, and other places people can truly drive each other crazy. If you have such a trip coming up this summer, take heed in these tips for getting out alive at the end of the week.

1. Don’t go. Unless you want to. People who are forced to go rarely have any fun at all. They are the ones rolling their eyes and complaining constantly. They are stirring up trouble all week. If you are going on this trip to please someone else in the family, I promise you that you won’t be the only one who is miserable. Make an excuse, say you can’t get time off from work but do yourself and everyone else a favor. If you don’t really want to go, please stay home.

2. If you do go, be cognizant of the fact that people on vacation have left their minds at home. Lower your expectations for reasonable behavior. They will make dumb choices, they will do things they would never do at home, they will embarrass you in public. Be prepared to see them in different ways than you see them at home when they’re not on vacation.

3. Go outside. A lot. Spending too much time together can be dangerous and deadly. Take a break. Politely announce, “I’m going for a walk,” or “Meditation Time” and get out of the house for a while. Ten minute breaks could work wonders for your nerves

4. Let some of your rules go. If you believe things have to work a certain way, like dinner must be at 6 and everyone must show up on time and eat after saying Grace for 10 minutes, you are destined to be disappointed. Not everyone functions the way you do. Let it go. Let it be. Let them live the way they want for once. You’re not there to teach them, you’re there to have some freaking fun so do it! Also, on that point, remember this: they don’t necessarily raise kids the way you do or you think they should. Really, really, let that go. Don’t try to show them the right way to raise kids even though we all know you’re better at it.

5. About kids, yours and/or theirs….Don’t punish children on the beach, in the park or in any public place. Don’t yell at them either. The whole world is watching, they have nothing else to do while they’re off from work. So, lighten up on the kids. Definitely do not do what I saw one parent do — call out “Mandatory reading time!” Then she took two perfectly happy kids away from building sandcastles and made them sit up on the beach for 45 minutes reading a book. I’m a former teacher. I think reading is a fantastic way to spend time, but reading on the beach because you are forced to is not a way to instill a love of literature in children.

6. For god’s sake find a good way to make a group decision. Just take one vote and majority rules. I can’t tell you how many people stand in groups in the supermarket trying to decide between cereals. For the love of all things holy, just grab the Corn Flakes and go! It’s cereal, people, it’s not war and peace.

7. Which leads me to the next point. There will be leaders and followers in your group. Someone has to step up and take responsibility for decisions in order to break ties. Let the leader or leaders do their job and be happy to be a follower. Too many leaders is a recipe for disaster but too much democracy leads to anarchy. One or two leaders should be chosen on Day 1 and everyone else should just let them make their magic happen. When things don’t go your way simply find a kindred spirit in the group and roll your eyes gently so he or she will know no one is doing things the way they should be. Have a buddy system so you can telegraph your disappointment to each other without actually yelling at anyone.

8. Which leads again to the next point. Develop a “Who cares?” attitude for the week. Didn’t get the restaurant or meal you wanted? Who cares? No one else wants to see the movie of your choice? Who cares? Are you going to let that ruin your vacation? Don’t be too set in your ways and desires. Remember, this is your time away from aggravation so just refuse to let it seep into your fun times. Appreciate the sights around you or the natural beauty of where you are. Nothing else should matter.

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9. Remember who these people are. If Uncle Harry annoys you at home, the likelihood is he will be astronomically obnoxious on vacation. If you are imagining you’ll like him better in larger doses, you’re insane. You’ll like him a lot less, so just know that going in and try to steer clear as much as possible.

10. Keep in mind, these are the people who help shape you. They love you and you love them. (some of them at least) And, if all else fails, keep in mind it’s only a week. Next week you’ll be back at work, safe and sound.

I Understand if You Hate Me

In a previous post I mentioned we live near the beach. Yes, it’s a good as you might imagine. We don’t live here all the time. Here’s how we got here. Many years back we started coming to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to camp on the beach. We loved it here. There is something about the salt water environment that speaks directly to the soul. So, we camped and after our kids were born, we camped with kids and after we got older and more spoiled, we rented beach cottages for a week and lived like kings and queens compared to camping.

So, year after year we’d come for one precious week of sun and fun and family togetherness. Then we got a brilliant idea. Why not make a lot of money  ruin the whole vacation paradise by opening a seasonal business here? So we opened an Italian Ice (water ice for those readers from the Phila. area) and ice cream shop, open from May to September. The whole family worked, even our two youngest who were about 11 and 12. Did we see the beach much anymore? Not so much. But we loved the experience and stayed in business for many years. Our kids learned myriad lessons about responsibility, dealing with the public, running a business and getting along in the world. We know working in our store had a big part in  forming the wonderful beings they now are.

After our kids grew up and couldn’t continue working all summer in the store we sold it. That presented a dilemma. Could we justify living here all summer when we didn’t have a business here? We had another business which could travel with us so we could work while we were here but could we really be people who live at the beach just for… FUN?

Spoiler alert. Yes.

We come every summer to live here. Our kids come for about a month. We all work other jobs but manage to make time to be who we once were… a family communing in paradise. We are endlessly grateful for being here. We share it with friends who are always invited to come and stay with us and many do. We have no idea what we did to deserve this lovely life but we’re pretty happy about it.

Our dysfunctional siblings have never been happy about it. It may be part of the reason why they are so dysfunctional I had to write my book about them! They have long referred to our annual move as our “extended vacation,” despite the fact that for ten years it was work and not vacation and despite the fact they’ve been invited many times to stay with us. (Given they don’t really work, their whole lives are extended vacation but I’ll overlook that for now. And, yes, before the whole family fell apart, they did come to enjoy a free beach vacation more than once.) I understand their reaction because: 1. They don’t care about us and 2. They’re jealous, not necessarily about where we live but about how happy we are wherever we are. So, they’ve repeatedly tried to hurt us in order to act out their frustrations about their lives. I get it, I really do. I understand envying my life; it’s pretty good.

What can you do if parts of your life are worth envying? (Because even my good life isn’t completely perfect, after all.) Be grateful and do what you can to continually earn what it is you have. But what about the people who resent your good life? What can you do to reach out to them? I’m not sure about the answer to that one. Haters gonna hate, I suppose. I just try not to be one of them. Envy is tough. We’ve all experienced it. We look at people who have what we don’t have or achieve what we’ve failed to achieve and maybe we’re even happy for them but we’re envious too. I know I’d envy another writer’s success with perhaps a huge book advance or a best seller on Amazon or even a blog with 10,000 followers. I don’t think it makes us bad people to envy. Maybe envy can even motivate us to work harder. What makes us bad people is acting out of envy in an attempt to hurt the ones we are envious of. I think this is a very important topic for parents to discuss with children. Explain to them, yes, you will feel envious of others but that is not a bad thing. What matters is how you react to that jealousy. You feel what you feel but you get to choose your reaction to the emotion and that is where you have power.

What do you do to fight the green-eyed monster when it strikes you? Is there anyone you envy? Have you ever told anyone you envy them? I never have but I think maybe I should.

Meanwhile, here’s your moment worth envy. I suggest you take a one-minute mental vacation imagining yourself here. It could help!

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Free Book Today! Great Story, Well Told, Fast Read

Tales From The Family Crypt is FREE Thursday, May 28, 2015 and Friday May 29, 2015! If you’re looking to read a true story that reads like a novel, this book is for you. And, please if you do read the book, take a moment to review it on Amazon and Goodreads. Please share this post and pass along the heads up about my free book giveaway. Thanks! You can click here to get the book on Amazon. Don’t wait, though, it will go back to regular price on Saturday.

10 Ways to Leave This World More Peacefully

In my previous post I suggested (gently and with music) people take time out of their lives to talk about death. Why? Because it’s the one thing we all have in common and yet, we’re doing it pretty poorly. We don’t talk about death because we’re afraid it might happen. Newsflash: It’s going to happen. We are all going to go sometime. If you talk about it you’re going to die, and if you don’t talk about it, you’re going to die. But if you discuss it your death could be easier for you and for everyone you love who cares about you.

Think this isn’t going to be a problem in your family? Think again. It’s a problem in way more families than you think. Even in the ones who least expect it. Death brings out the worst in people. While the battles are often motivated by money, greed isn’t the only motivator. We love our parents and we want to hold onto them so some folks go to battle over sentimental items or power. We battle trying to prove “Mom always loved me best.” Or, “I really was the best child Dad raised.” We battle over who gets the pin Grandma wore to her wedding or who gets to keep the watch Dad got when he retired. (Yeah, that used to happen!) If you doubt my suggestion about how big a problem these battles are, Google Family Inheritance Battles and How to Avoid Them. Heads up, though. You’ll get 13,100,000 hits. More than 13 million suggestions for staving off what might be ahead.

I don’t have 13 million suggestions, just 10, but if you follow any of them, you’re likely to avoid having to read through the 13 million suggestions later.

1. Talk about your death with your adult children and talk the death of your parents with your parents. Discuss what you believe about the end of life and how it should be handled. Ask them what they believe. Air this topic out, don’t shroud it in darkness. Letting light in by simply bringing up the topic over  family dinner will make it way more palatable.

2. If someone “Pooh Poohs” you and says, “Let’s change the subject, this is too depressing or too morbid,” simply respond gently. “I don’t think it’s morbid at all. It’s just a reality we all have to face and won’t it be a lot easier if we face it together?” Because the truth is, it will be easier to handle end of life together.

3. Have a will. Where there’s a will, there’s a way to a more peaceful transition. If you are reading this blog, you’re probably an adult. If you don’t have a will, you have no way of knowing what will happen to the things you care about after you die. In some states if you die without a will the things you own and the money you have may go to your state. No one wants that! (Except maybe your governor) Writing a will may be done best with an attorney but if that doesn’t work for you don’t worry. There are will templates on the Internet. There are free options and a few you have to pay to download. Look at a few, choose one you like and fill it in as needed. State who gets what after you die and don’t leave anything to chance. Then make a few copies and sign each in front of two witnesses. Keep a copy for your records, maybe even two copies, and give the others to a few key people you trust.

4. Talk about love. Ultimately most of the family battles over money are really over love. If you air your feelings openly while you’re alive, if you resolve conflicts while you’re alive, you won’t have your heirs battling over your grave.

5. Be open about the reality of your plans. If you do have a will, let your family know what you’ve included in it. It’s best if you don’t use your will to deliver any sort of message you should have delivered while you were still breathing.

6. There’s a saying, “When you assume, you make an ass of u and me.” It’s so true in terms of family battles. You might think you have the perfect family and so you don’t have to worry about anyone fighting over anything. I’m happy for you if you feel that way and I hope for your sake you’re right. But, you know what? You’re probably wrong. Even in families where everyone feels close it’s hard to predict who will start fighting when a loved one is sick and/or dying and everyone is stressed out. So, if you do have a loving family, protect it by doing what needs to be done in advance to avoid battles later… even if you’re sure your family is immune to such rifts. They’re not. No family is.

7. Pick a point person, give someone what’s known as “Power of Attorney.” What that means is that you are allowing someone to act with your full range of power over your money and your life, acting as your agent as if they were you. You choose this person to make decisions for you if and when you can’t make them anymore. Choose someone you trust with your life, because they literally will be running your life. Don’t choose two people because they would then have to agree on every point and that will be very difficult for any two people to do. You can choose one person and a back up person but not two to serve together. Power of Attorney is only put into place while you are alive and can’t function. Once you are dead the executor of your will takes over in decision-making capacity. And, yes, the same person can serve in both ways if you want that. You can also break up Power of Attorney and choose one person to make financial decisions and one person to make health decisions if you prefer.

8. Consider how you want to die. Do you want to be kept alive at all costs? Do you want to be hooked up to machines which may breathe for you and/or feed you? Do you want to be kept alive beyond the time you can fully function? Do you want heroic measures done to save you despite how infirm you may be? Okay, these are ghastly things to think about. I get that. But you know what’s more ghastly? It’s forcing your loved ones to make these choices for you without knowing for sure what you would have preferred because you never said so.

9. Let superstitions go. Cannot stress strongly enough what a waste of time these distractions are. You can’t “luck” your way out of dying.

10. Seek help. If you can at all afford to do so, check with an attorney in drawing up these legal papers. It may cost a bit but that money might be very well spent if it helps your family avoid problems later.

I hope you take this matter seriously and yet not think of it as too sad. Death is just a part of life and it doesn’t have to be disastrous. If you have any suggestions to add you think might help folks going through some difficulties with this, please comment here and share. And feel free to send this post along to everyone you’ve ever met in your life, especially if you’re related to them!

Be the beacon of light that helps your family find its way to peace. They’ll thank you for it . (Okay, they probably won’t but you’ll know you did the right thing!)IMG_2860