November 19, 2018

Dear Deborah

Family events do not necessarily create closeness. Painting “Tompkins Square Park” by Morris Shulman, from “The Jews in America,” 1994

One Big, Happy…

Dear Deborah,

I have always had the fantasy of having a big family. I complained bitterly to my parents about being a single child, with no relatives in the same city. Now, I am married to a man who has three children and who is tied to his parents and huge, extended family. Every week, there is at least one wedding, bris, bar mitzvah or holiday gathering. Every time I turn around, there are family expectations, craziness, chaos — and I can’t be me.

For example, last Labor Day, we were put in charge of hosting the family’s annual picnic at the park. Because I was a relative newcomer to the family, I didn’t know about everyone’s tastes and made what I considered to be a beautiful, gourmet spread. Things weren’t as perfect as I thought — the food was “too gourmet” for the kids and in-laws, and they complained. Instead of thinking, “Too bad, I did my best,” or “I’ll have to learn about their tastes,” I took it personally, felt like a failure and let it affect my mood long after they had moved on.

My friends and parents say that it’s my problem and that I need to loosen up and get used to being in a large family. My father teases me about getting what I asked for.

I really love my husband and am learning to love his children — although I must admit that I cherish our time alone (his ex has the kids about two-thirds of the time) — but he becomes a different person with a different personality around his big family, and I lose myself; I hate who I am and how I feel so lost. He is too busy for me and seems annoyed by what he sees as my dependency.

I’ve tried to discuss this with him, but to no avail. He says pretty much the same thing as my parents and friends. I find myself getting “sick” a lot to avoid family functions. I know I need to learn that it’s not my problem, to not let their moods and criticisms spoil my time — but I don’t know how, and I am beginning to dread Labor Day. I fear blowing it again. Any suggestions?

Lost In Crowd

Dear Lost,

“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family — in another city,” quipped George Burns. It sounds like you are still in shock from your own romantic notions about the big family thing, aren’t you? You are overwhelmed, uninformed and lack practical experience, yet it is time to stop whimpering and to roll up our sleeves here and dive into a crash course on Self-Micro-Management in Large Families.

First, call the kindest person in the family and tell them you need some help planning the Labor Day picnic menu. He or she will feel flattered, and you get to learn about the tastes of these pedestrian eaters. So stop trying so hard, and hit the deli. At these gatherings, instead of attempting to get along with the whole herd all at once, focus on activities with one or two of your stepchildren or, better yet, another family neophyte because, remember, they too might be frantically bailing water out of the same boat. Also, start inviting just one family member, or couple, at a time to socialize outside of these, uh, conventions.

You get the drift. It’s about building individual relationships so that you have some way to begin connecting the dots of your new leviathan of a family. Also, it sounds as if your husband may not be too sympathetic, having always been in his big family, to what it’s like to be bit player in a cast of thousands. So explain, without sniveling or expecting him to solve it. If he is not called upon to fix it, he might display some compassion.

Artist’s Way

Dear Deborah,

Why would a grown woman spend every evening drawing? My 29-year-old attorney daughter has never taken an art class in her life, because she couldn’t draw a straight line. Now, suddenly, she has an insatiable appetite for art classes and goes to classes most nights and weekends. My wife and I are concerned about these activities, especially since we invested at least $100,000 in her education.

We worry about her neglecting the duties of her job, and not engaging in the business of a social life and finding a husband. We don’t know what to do with her. She insists that her life is just fine, that she’s on track with promotions and friends. Any thoughts?

Concerned Parents

Dear Concerned Parents,

Why does she love these art classes so? Perhaps they are a much-needed contrast to her day job. Perhaps she always wanted to draw but lacked the confidence, and through these classes, she may have discovered a hidden talent. Who knows? Maybe the classes are her social life. Or perhaps she hates being a lawyer but doesn’t have the heart to squander your “investment.”

In any case, it’s not your call. She’s an adult, with an adult job, making her own decisions. As parents, just because you invested in your child — a human “commodity” — does not make her your own. You’ve expressed your concern. Now