I didn’t grow up around either side of my extended family. For almost all of my childhood, age four until adulthood, I lived in a state where my only relatives were my mother and grandmother. I spent the summer months visiting grandparents, great-grandparents, and scores of aunts, uncles, and cousins. I relished those visits each summer, and the insights they afforded me about the people and places that wrought my mother and father and about the people who can be your earliest and lifelong friends: your same-aged cousins.
But the visits also left me feeling like a permanent tourist stumbling through a lineal labyrinth, like a kind of inside observer rather than a fully engaged participant. That kind of thing can lead to a lot of misreading of situations, a detachment when you should be more invested, and a good deal of unintended offense. And, if you’re part of a family where offense is contagious, passed along by cell phone satellite and spread through email, it can also lead to a full-on family shut-out. If you or a relative you know has ever been on the receiving end of one of those, you’re probably aware that they can wear on for years.
Not every extended family needs to be navigated as gingerly as a landmine. Some can be as easily traipsed or skipped through as fields of lilies. But it’s a safe bet a lot of us are out here walking on tiptoes. At any given gathering, you’re working hard to avoid unsolicited inquiries or advice about your marriage and kids (or lack thereof), fielding questions regarding the gossip someone’s spread about you, or struggling to dispel myths about being fast or uppity, about thinking you’re “too good,” or about “acting funny.” You’re downplaying accomplishments so it doesn’t look like you’re bragging, or you’re being taken to task for being under-accomplished. You’re trying valiantly to turn a deaf ear to your folk around the card table, playing bid whist and talking smack about one or both of your parents, knowing full well you’re within earshot.
It can be a pretty precarious series of side-steps. But often, it’s worth the dance. To quote Sly & the Family Stone’s “A Family Affair,” which is likely to play multiple times at your next family cookout, “Blood is thicker than mud.” (I’m still not entirely sure what that means, but one of my favorite uncles also says it, so I trust it’s true.)
If you’re not exactly what people would call a “family person,” but you still want to let the folks you wouldn’t exist without know that you love them, here are a few tips for successfully getting through your upcoming reunion, birthday party, or Labor Day picnic.
1. It’s not about you.
You can drive yourself crazy wondering why you’re not the family’s favorite (or why you are). You can try hard to fit in or work overtime to avoid ruffling anyone’s feathers. But the rules that apply in other social situations also apply in families: You can’t please all of the people all of the time. And some people you’ll never please at all. It’s wasted energy and, ultimately, whatever it is that annoys a family member about you probably has very little to do with you, anyway. It might be some ol’ Montague-Capulet generational beef you know next to nothing about.