In My Imaginary World, Family Lives Right Next Door

I began watching Parenthood for the first time with my younger daughter last night. Those familiar with the show will know it is a television series about extended family – parents, their four adult children, and their children’s families. They all live in Berkeley, California and life is sometimes simple and sometimes desperately complicated.

My daughter remarked several times during the evening “I wish we lived like that. I wish we were all in the same area.” ‘We’ being her siblings, her dad, and me.

After watching three episodes I had to agree. Because in this fictitious show, in a fictitious neighborhood, they live out what it is to be ‘family.’ Family through the messy, hard, mean, glorious life that we all lead. When you live in close proximity you are forced to work through some of the stuff that comes up from different personalities, different life choices, and crises that come your way. When you see each other regularly you rarely make the uncomfortable choice to not communicate, choosing instead to interact with the different people who belong to your extended family.

And in choosing to do that you create belonging. You create home and a place.

So in my imaginary world, family is right next door. 

This is one of the things that we who live a mobile life give up. We give up family. To be sure, family arises in different ways, community is born out of need and desperation and it’s good community. It’s necessary. But we give up extended family and that is not easy. We give up grandparents who speak regularly into our children’s lives and teach them what it is to grow old. We give up aunts and uncles who, crazy as they may be, each come with their particular gifts and idiosyncrasies; with a collective wisdom born of good and bad choices. We give up the spiritual dimensions of lives lived well in the realm of faith, we give up family dinners, we give up family fights and the subsequent forgiveness and making up. When we live a mobile life it is really easy to decide we won’t work through the hard, instead choosing to ignore people and not reconcile our differences and our hurts.

Family is not, and never has been, easy. In a piece I wrote last year called “Five Things I Remembered from Bowling with Family” I said this: “I have no illusions about my nuclear family, my extended family, or anyone else’s family. We’re part of a broken world and nothing shows this like family. But the glory in this is that family is a unit that God uses to show redemption in a powerful way. What is broken can be fixed, what is cracked can be restored, what is lost can be redeemed. And sometimes we see this through activities as common as sharing a meal, or in our case — bowling.”

I believe that those of us who live a mobile life, those of us who are global nomads, can work through this and end up with family ties that are stronger than ever. But I don’t think it is simple. I think we have to do a couple of things:

1. Recognize reconnecting pains. As much as we may hate it, with many family members we feel reconnecting pains. While excited to see them, we know we’ve lived a lot of life away from them and those initial moments and days of reconnecting are going to have some angst. My tendency is to want to force things, force time together and that rarely works. Giving my kids and other family a bit of space is critical to connecting. It’s a paradox, but if I let things flow than usually our time together ends up being far sweeter.

2. Understand that everyone doesn’t love family as much as I do. This is so hard for me. I think family is the best thing since sliced bread. But everyone in my extended family doesn’t agree. And I have to accept that. Best if I don’t criticize and accuse, but simply make family so appealing that they have no choice but to join in. And yes, I say that partly tongue in cheek. Because what is appealing to me may not be to others.

3. Accept that there will be reconnecting pains between our children and their grandparents. When we would come back from Pakistan or Egypt, I desperately wanted my kids to immediately reconnect with my parents. But it didn’t always happen. They all have their own personalities and my relationship with my parents is not going to be the same as theirs.

4. Connecting sometimes happens when you least expect it. And there are times when you don’t find out until way after the event. Being fully present and being real are ways that can foster those connections.

5. Don’t compare. Do not, do not, do not compare your family to others. This is a losing battle. There will always be a family that seems more together, more spiritual, better looking, far more talented, and closer than yours. There will always be a family that takes better pictures, that color-coordinates their outfits for the annual family picture. Comparison kills what you have and heaps discontent across an already complicated mobile life.

There’s far more that I could probably say, but the reality is, I am no expert and I write this because I’m no expert. I’ll close with the same words I used when I talked about bowling with family:

None of this is easy – family isn’t easy. We have enough ‘stuff’ in our family to last to eternity and beyond without grace, and to eternity with grace. But I believe in it. And I believe it’s worth fighting for…. Because ultimately God uses family to remind us who we are, to remind us that we belong, to work out the miracle of redemption and leave us with our mouths open and our lips proclaiming praise.

What about you? What do you think about family? 

13 thoughts on “In My Imaginary World, Family Lives Right Next Door

  1. Doing family is difficult. My five siblings and I grew up in a small brick house in Chicago. We have since scattered far and wide across the 48 contiguous states. (Except for me, the youngest, in Chicago, and now Evanston. And my oldest sister, in her rehabbed Victorian-style gracious home, near the Loop.) Not to mention the scattering of my ten first cousins! Far flung, yet connected by invisible bonds of blood and family history. The old neighborhood. Some fading black and white photos. Sense of place, sense of shared history. A few, equally-fading memories of a time/place/family no longer present.

    And, the present? One of my siblings stated it last summer when we all got together. It is becoming too difficult for family reunions. The six of us: becoming too set in our ways, plus the creeping spectre of encroaching age, creakiness of joints and other physical features, not to mention the difficulty of schedule coordination. And–the rubs and clashes of family-of-origin stuff? The emotional and psychological long-ago baggage that we–all–still carry? I won’t even go there.

    Perhaps it is better to get together one-on-one. Or, perhaps three of us at a time. And leave the difficulties and crankiness of family–or, rather, family reunions–behind. *sigh* @chaplaineliza


    1. I’m so glad you brought up the one on one piece. We have found (my husband and I) that one on one works far better than family reunions unless the reunion is because of a scheduled event (wedding, birthday party, funeral) This was a mistake I made for a long time: that if we didn’t get together with the whole family there was something wrong.. But because of differing personalities, temperaments, we end up doing so much better one on one, family to family instead of huge groups. I didn’t know you were in Chicago! I have two kids in Chicago and am planning a trip there! Would love to have coffee!


      1. I would love to! Wonderful. Good to look forward to. Having been a Chicagoan all my life, I know a few things about this place. Let me know when and where you’ll be. DM me on Twitter! @chaplaineliza

        (And, don’t get me wrong. I love my family very much. It’s just . . . complicated. So’s my family. *grin*)


  2. Marilyn, I sometimes think that those of us who have lived away from family have worked harder to be more cohesive in our family relationships. Separations have never been easy. Four years of absence from family and friends was not easy. Nor were the 3 months when our children were in boarding. Two or three weeks for an aerogram to reach us seemed like a year. Going through old letters and photos remind me that we did work at keeping the home fires burning. Exchanging reel to reel tapes when we could actually hear voices of loved ones helped us to remember. Small black and white photos spoke volumes. Communication and travel being what it is today serves us well. It can also separate. Your suggestions are very valid, well thought out, deserving of our efforts to protect and maintain the family unit. Living in the same town/state/country does not guarantee a loving and functional family anymore than a mobile/nomadic one will become dysfunctional and fail. Thanks be to God for His love and concern for our families that far exceeds our own.


    1. Bettie, I love your comment. My bookshelf of 3-ring binders holding our letters to my mother and our siblings represent countless hours of writing on those thin blue Aerograms or typing with carbon copies. Then there was the joy of getting their letters in the mail. It took a lot of effort on all sides to keep the family connection but it was so worth it.


    2. I love this and I think about how creative you had to be with both your parents in your passport countries and your kids at boarding school. Thanks for these great reminders of taking effort and creativity to keep in touch.


  3. Thanks, Marilyn. We just said good bye to Dan and Carol with Sarah driving them to Toronto and then back to Turkey tomorrow. And at the same time Ruth Anne left with Bekah to go back to Philadelphia and Andrew. From the front door we watched their last hugs and goodbyes in the driveway. Bekah, not quite two, was eating her early lunch sitting on my sunny kitchen counter and said to her Grandma (Carol) “No bye byes.” Robynn reminded us sometime back that God is the One who has scattered us around the world for His good purposes. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if all of our scattered family were living in the same area. But that is a rather useless dream – the reality is far better even with the hard separations, because it is God working all our stories into His good plan. Family is where it started with each individual, and that’s where the roots are. But the wings can take them anywhere!


    1. Ahh – those words from Bekah put my heart in my throat! That must have been so hard! Thanks for this great reminder and for the reminder of Robynn’s post. Love you this day!


  4. Marilyn, I always enjoy reading everything you write. Loved your book and find it very insightful in our shrinking world. Even having spent little time abroad, the world is coming to me, and all your insights help me navigate through it more knowledgeably and compassionately.


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