By Esther Mann

 

Dear Esther,

I am the father of four children, ages ranging from 9 through 17. I grew up an only child and always hoped and prayed that someday I would head up a beautiful, large, and close family. My wife comes from a different type of background. Though she has two siblings, there is a lot of dysfunction within the family, and she doesn’t really see much of her entire family. She, too, also wanted to someday have a very close-knit family of our own.

When our children were very young, we made it our business to make Sundays special. None of this sitting around without a plan. We would go to museums, movies, ice skating, and other activities that we could all participate in. We really had good times. We spent a tremendous amount of family time together.

We also always stressed to our children how important family is and how lucky they were to have siblings and that they should always be close to one another. As mind-boggling as it is to us, somewhere along the way something went wrong. I can’t pinpoint when or how, but it seems that our children somehow managed to slip away from each other and, to a lesser degree, from us as well.

The vision I had of a wholesome family, everyone wanting to be together, staying close emotionally and physically, is now just a dream that is fading away. When everyone is home, it seems everyone is retreating to their own rooms, doing their own thing. Even on Shabbos, during the Shabbos meals, it takes tremendous effort to get everyone to sit at the table long enough to get through the meal. It’s not like they fight with one another, and I’m thinking maybe that would be at least something. There is just little to no communication going on between them. It’s like they are four ships in the night, floating around our house, passing each other by with no interest in each other.

When we sit together, there is an awkward silence that my wife and I feel that is very uncomfortable. Who would have ever thought that a man could feel uncomfortable sitting at his own table with his own family? It’s just so crazy.

The fact of the matter is that our children are all very different from each other. Different interests, talents, personalities, and styles. But they are, after all, from the same DNA. Shouldn’t that count for something? At least a vague interest in one another?

Is there anything a parent can do to draw their children closer together? We’d love to see them become the best of friends. That was our plan. But at least to encourage them to be interested in what one another has to say and be interested in belonging to a family that is close. It’s hard to shake off this feeling of failure and sadness over the current state of our family. This is not what we assumed would be the outcome of having a large family. Any hope for us?

Disappointed

Dear Disappointed,

You are not alone in your desire to have a tight, loving family. I believe it is the dream of just about all parents. We all have this vision of our children viewing their siblings as their closest of friends, their confidants, their most loyal supporters. Many of us grew up watching T.V. shows that presented just this sort of happy family. How easy it all looked! How typical and lovely.

You and your wife are particularly sensitive to this issue, as neither of you had the gift of a close family growing up. You both entered your marriage and parenthood well aware of the possibilities and prepared yourselves to do everything in your power to create a most beautiful family. It sounds as though the two of you did everything right …. or at least enough right that expecting a different outcome from the one you’ve gotten wasn’t magical thinking. It would have been the most logical outcome to the home life you presented to your children.

If we can figure out what went wrong, we would be closer to figuring out how to right the wrong and turn this situation around. Likely, the disjointed family you describe has nothing at all to do with you or your wife. From what you describe, you provided them with the experiences, advice, and tools to make it all work. And yet it hasn’t. As strange as that may seem.

Within families, there is often the issue of “fit.” Is the outgoing mother the right “fit” for her shy daughter? Is the accountant father a good “fit” for his artistic son? Regarding spouses and friends, we carefully select our own and, hopefully, wisely consider what traits we believe will work best for us and with us. Then we ultimately take credit when a great alliance emerges, or, conversely, assume responsibility when the relationships don’t pan out well at all. On the other hand, sometimes parents, children, and siblings can seem quite random in the way that they show up in our lives and, in the worst possible cases, in the way in which they do not jive well with others.

Based on what you’re sharing with me, it sounds as though your four children, whom, very likely, are each terrific unto themselves, have not formed any sort of meaningful attachments to one another. Though, as you say, they share the same DNA, there are a lot of ancestors who contribute to this complex combination that ultimately defines each of us in our own unique way.

Can we force our children to connect with one another in a serious way? Unfortunately, we cannot. We can impose a level of respect that should exist within our household (and pray that it sticks). We can hold our children to high standards when it comes to etiquette and pray that modeling our own kindness and sensitivity is duly noted. And if we’re very lucky, our standards will be incorporated and expressed in their daily behavior. But if your four children feel that nothing is drawing them toward one another, and they are the type of individuals who need the draw and can’t randomly connect with anyone, just because… you have to work on accepting the fact that (for now) your dream has not come true. And it doesn’t make you or your wife a failure.

I’m guessing that some people reading this column, and probably those are the people who lucked out with children who adore nothing more than being together, are probably shaking their heads and wondering why I’m not suggesting “game night” every Sunday evening. Or taking the family out to dinner once a week. Or insisting that everyone sit at the kitchen table together every evening for dinner, sans any electronic devices, and take turns talking about the most interesting thing that happened to them that day. We can all come up with all sorts of creative settings that would ideally pull your four children into the same head space. But can we make them enjoy it? Make them crave it? Anticipate it? Contribute to it? In your case, considering all that you’ve done already, the answer is probably no. For now.

So after this downer response, I want to stress that relationships can change dramatically over time within families. Very often, children who can’t stand each other wind up adoring each other as adults. Your children are all relatively young, so we have no way of knowing how this story ends. You may someday look back on this stage of life and find it hard to believe that there was ever any issue whatsoever, because at that stage your children will have finally discovered in one another much to appreciate and connect with. Be open and hopeful for change. Stranger things have happened.

For now, continue giving over the same messages that you’ve been giving over since the time they were born. Stress the importance of close family relationships and the importance of unconditional love and respect. Do your best to engage them as a group, but go easy on yourself when they can’t seem to hold it together as you would like.

As I mentioned before, we don’t know how this story ends. But for now, try not to compare them to others or go too hard on yourselves or them. We do the best that we can, but, ultimately, so much is really out of our hands.

Esther

Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at mindbiz44@aol.com or 516-314-2295.

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