Girl goes home, a mix of good and bad (Part One)

have a happy babyI’m back! I’ve missed you!

What a journey I’ve been on.

I’ll start with the latest news, which has me grinning: We named our baby boy last night. We haven’t put the official stamp on it yet, and we’re still entertaining some options, but in my core I know that we’ve named him.

I’ve been calling him by his name all day today. It feels right. Makes me smile each time. It also makes me feel closer to him.

Him.

It’s a him. Knowing the gender really does change things, gives a particular shape to my imaginings.

DH’s parents are blotto-ecstatic that it’s a boy. As in screaming, laughing, and crying uncontrollably, simultaneously, on the phone. Wow! They already have a granddaughter, and so it’s pretty clear (now) that a boy is what they wanted.

My extended family has one granddaughter and four grandsons, so they weren’t really hiding the fact that they were gunning for a girl. As for me, I just wanted a baby. The one granddaughter of the family made me the above card, wishing me to have a happy one. I told her I would certainly try. (:

My visit home to Ohio was a mix of good and bad. I was surprised that I allowed the bad things to get to me, considering the happy occasion. But it seemed as though “things” got to me worse than ever!

Maybe it was pregnancy hormones. Maybe approaching the threshold of motherhood compels me to look at the unsavory elements of my family head-on, to confront and purge and clear the way for a new kind of family-making.

I do want to get to “the good.” Because the good is really good.

But I very much need to get a lot of stuff off my chest first. This is pretty personal, and some of it is ugly. It is also quite long! But those of you interested in family dynamics might be curious to read on…

As I’ve written about a bit before, my brother went through a very long period of taking advantage of my parents on many levels. They bought him cars, which he destroyed. They bought him a condo, which he destroyed (while staying locked up inside it for literally months). They supported him totally for years and years of his adult life. My grandma gave him 20 thousand dollars to fix his rotting teeth that were threatening to infect his gums to a dangerous degree—and he went straight back to bingeing on soda. He had terrifying anger outbursts. He also had a kid at age 19.

I now know that he was unmedicated bipolar. I have a lot of, ahem, feelings about all of this, as you can imagine, but most of them are directed at my parents. I was my mom’s go-to girl, the one she called for advice about my brother, and for years I begged her and my dad to get him psychological help, and to stop enabling his insanity by throwing tens of thousands of dollars at him.

They never listened to me. Instead, my mom called, helpless, what do we do?

It was infuriating, to say the least.

At one point, they sat me down and said, basically: “Daughter, what’s happening is not fair. We want you to know that your brother has burned through his inheritance already. When we die, we will be leaving everything to you.” I recall that I was watching television and eating crackers. I didn’t know what to say, as such thoughts had never occurred to me. “Okay,” I said through a mouthful of cracker, shrugging, and that was that.

Fast way forward. Brother finds wonderful wife. Brother finds much-needed medication. Brother has two more babies and turns out to be a great father.

But our father loses the family business during the recent economic horror-show. I guess this was about four or five years ago. But before this happens, he dumps their entire retirement fund (the business’s profit-sharing) back into the business, in an effort to save it.

That’s 700 thousand dollars. Poof. Gone.

I’ll never understand it. Wasn’t there some other option? Some way to protect at least part of that retirement money?

As I’ve written about before, now he and my mom are scrambling for their lives, and their health insurance. They both work hardcore manual labor jobs, which are leading to serious injuries. On top of the manual labor construction jobs my dad does on the side, he gets intermittent $25 an hour contracted supervisory jobs with no benefits and no job security. My mom works cleaning at a health spa for 9 dollars an hour. The situation is not sustainable, and they have nothing saved. They do not own their ENORMOUS house (that my dad built single-handedly, their dream house) because of the Brother Years. If they sell it, they will make $0, and will probably lose money. But living in it, they pay $2400 mortgage on top of astronomical electric and gas bills.

The first thing I noticed when I walked in the door: It’s getting a little Grey Gardens on the outside of the house. Peeling paint, rubble, cobwebs, and moss creeping over everything. My poor parents. They took such pride in this house, once upon a time. But they have no money or time or energy to keep up with it.

I hate that house. Really, really hate it.

Rewind way back. I’m a little girl. My dad is down in the basement of our 800-square-foot aluminum-sided house (a house I loved), working on plans for the Giant Dream House. He is always working on plans for the Giant Dream House. Fast forward to my middle years. He is not home for dinner, because he is, after work, going to work on building the Giant Dream House. He is never home. He is always there. For years.

And then I am twelve, and we are actually inside the Giant Dream House. I don’t like it. I don’t like how big it is.

We never eat dinner as a family at the table anymore. Instead, we eat at separate times, and usually at a bar in the kitchen, a bar with a television at one end.

The Giant Dream House is so big that when I come home, I don’t know if anyone is there at first. I have to check the garage to see whose car is there to see who is home.

The house is situated on a hillside in a way that the kitchen ends up receiving little light.

The basement is cavernous.

It is quiet there, so quiet! Except when my dad watches television at full volume, and the car explosions and gun shots reverberate through the long hallways and against the high ceilings.

This is only my impression, and it is definitely exaggerated, and definitely loaded with allllll kinds of psychological baggage. But it’s the way I experience the house, and the way some of my friends and DH and my aunt and uncle have, too.

And now the house is literally sucking away their livelihood through mortgage payments and bills.

Enter: My 24-year-old nephew. He does not have bipolar, like his dad, my brother, but he experienced some early childhood trauma with his mom (drug addict) and his dad (unfit for parenthood, obviously). And then his mom’s mom, who raised him, died of cancer his senior year of high school. But it has been 7 years since then. He tried going to college for nursing school, but he quit when his girlfriend broke up with him. He came back after months of obfuscation, ashamed and directionless, and—of course—my parents felt sorry for him.

The last thing anyone needs in this life is for my parents to feel sorry for them.

They took him in. And I flipped out. I knew it was a bad idea, because for years and years I had witnessed them enabling my brother’s mental illness and monstrous sense of entitlement.

My mom said: “If we don’t let him live here, he’ll have to live on the street!” Cue furious eye-roll. I explained that young adults in his situation learn best by figuring things out on their own. He could find roommates. He could find a low-wage job while he planned his next move. The reality of his situation would provide the fire he needed to make difficult decisions and create structure in his life, and foster a sense of responsibility.

But no. It was either their attic or immediate abject homelessness, in their eyes.

So: he moved into the attic room of the Giant Dream House. And, just as I predicted, he has stayed in. And in. He is still there, years later. He recently found a good IT job that paid a decent salary, and he was (so he says) “planning on moving out,” but then he was let go because he did not have the skills to stay in the job.

I discovered he had lost his job my first day home, this visit. A few days later, I discovered that he had bought himself a brand new car. Who can afford to buy a brand new car in his situation? I’m sure he financed it, but still—is that the move of someone planning to move out on their own?

He has been unemployed, this time around, for three months so far. He says he is applying to jobs every day. The thing about my nephew is that he is one of the sweetest kids you will ever meet. So it is hard to be mad at him. I keep telling myself: At least he isn’t an asshole.

But what drove me absolutely batshit crazy while I was home is that he was watching television and playing video games all day, in his attic room. He rarely left. And he didn’t do anything around the house. My mom, after working a 9-hour shift cleaning toilets and doing laundry, at age 65, comes home and has to do all of the dishes. How can he live with himself? He should be doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, doing the grocery shopping, the cooking. He does nothing!

I’m pretty sure my parents feed him. Good lord.

I tried to show him and tell him what he should be doing around the house, but my resentment and anger made it rather difficult for me to do so straightforwardly or effectively. The last time I was home, a year and a half ago, I had a huge talk with him that lasted 7 hours and involved a letter I had written to him, which I read aloud in a shaky voice. I resent being put in this position of straightening him out, and wisening up my parents—but believe me, the Buddhist part of me realizes fully that I am putting myself in that position.

But it is so difficult to watch history repeat itself!!

What I see is an old, old pattern that led to a horrible situation for both my brother and my parents. Their indulgence and financial support only enabled my brother to be weak. While it simultaneously depleted their own (now even more) precious resources.

I don’t think I can stay at my parents house again until my nephew moves out. This will kill my mom. Especially when we have the baby. But what it does to my blood pressure and stress level is not good for me, or for my baby.

I feel sheepish that I am not able to control my reactions better. I’m not mastering my emotions.

At the same time, I understand that this situation is tied deeply to some very, very serious negative stuff that has happened in my family. No wonder it drives me crazy, has me ranting under my breath like a nut, and keeps me up at night.

I don’t want to get angry about it any longer. I want to remove myself, and let them do what they will.

But there is a problem with this live-and-let-live approach.

I know, somewhere in the back of my mind, that I will be called upon to take care of their messes in the future. They will need me. And I know that if I help them move in the right direction now, I will have less of a mess to take care of in the future.

For example: I am trying to get them to come up with a plan for moving out of that house, and move into a much smaller condo. But I know that they won’t even begin to think about that in earnest while my nephew is living with them and depending on them.

They have no plan to move yet, but they do talk about it (thank God). But they have the most remarkable amount of material objects you can imagine. They own ten televisions. They have lots and lots of furniture. The stuff they have accumulated since the 80s, and the days of 120K salary, has piled up in the closets and hallways and stairwells. It’s a dizzying labyrinth of baby boomer goods, objects sprung loose inside their cabinets and cubbyholes ever since my mom stopped being able to keep house. Tucked inside all of the crap are the things I’d really like to help them preserve, like photo albums and books and heirlooms.

But it’s going to take so much time. They need to get started yesterday.

I want to help them, but how to do it? Without creating a rift? What boundaries should I stay inside? Should I write to my nephew and tell him what I think of his behavior? Should I let them all know that I can’t stay there when I visit Ohio because I can’t emotionally handle witnessing history repeat itself? Or should I tuck all of this down inside and learn to just deal with what’s going on?

(I’m not actually looking for answers from you all, lovely readers. (: Just thinking out loud, diary-style.)

The other problem with going home that is more difficult for me to write about (hmmm, no wonder I am cramming it into the bottom of this post) has to do with my relationship with my father, and a history that spans back to my early childhood.

That I will save for Part Two.

And then I promise I’ll get to the good stuff.

 

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14 Comments

  1. Wow. While I can’t relate to the severity of what’s going on with your familly, my parents have been in much the same situation with my own brother forever. He’s 36, living at home with them, and working at a low paying job while constantly talking about getting something better but never doing it. My sister and I both think he has clinical depression, but he views mental illness with huge negative stigma and won’t even entertain the idea of going to a professional. He sleeps whenever he’s home (day or night), does nothing around the house, and is totally alone (no friends or girlfriend) apart from my parents. I guess I can take small sympathy in the fact that they have at least started to force him to pay rent and hasn’t bled them dry like your brother did, but they still do his laundry and cook his meals. This is a horrible situation to be in. I still haven’t figured out what the right thing to do with my brother is. I’m so sorry that you have to go through this.

    Reply
    • This is so similiar—my brother wouldn’t entertain the idea of going to a professional, either, once upon a time. I am so sorry you are dealing with this! That they do his laundry and cook for and clean for him is ringing giant bells of recognition over here—doing such things is a kind of passive form of abuse, infantilizing and enfeebling. It makes you feel helpless, doesn’t it? It’s so hard to know what the right thing to do is, to know what our role is, what it should be. I’m glad they made him start to pay rent. My nephew was paying $300 a month while he had a job, but I’m sure he’s paying nothing now that he is out of a job. That little bit of $ did make me feel better about the situation. I sometimes wish I could just not care one way or another.

      Reply
  2. Man I can relate to a lot of this. Spending any extended amount of time with my family just drags up all the bad feelings. And yes – what is with baby boomers and the need to build a monument to their hard work?

    Reply
    • Oh, I hear you. Baby boomers and their monuments and trophies. My dad grew up in poverty, one of six kids, son of a coal miner in West Virginia, so you can imagine the obsession. I hope our kids don’t have bad feelings when they visit us in the future….I heard a news program recently about how recent generations actually like and respect their parents, generally. Maybe the generational gaps are shrinking and the dynamics are generally reshaping for the better. I think that baby-boomer thing, the 80s and entitlement, really caused a lot of problems for a lot of families.

      Reply
  3. This is hard to read, I can’t even imagine what it’s like to live through…one question (which you might get to in your next post) but now that your brother is stable, what is his role in this? Does he support his older son? Would he ever help support your parents?

    My in-laws are like this, but to a much more minor degree. They support my husband’s sister and her daughter and make HORRIBLE financial choices. I am already steeling myself for the day they become our problem and praying it’s not as bad as I think it is…

    Reply
    • Ah, so you understand!

      It’s awful, isn’t it, steeling yourself for the day they become your problem. It makes me furious at them, but also feel guilty as hell, because they have done so much for me. I told DH last night that a big part of this is feeling protective of *him* and our little family—he works so hard and I don’t want this to be a financial drain on us, especially since we are only just now finding some footing after having gone back to school and started second careers.

      I meant to mention more about my brother. Yes—the resentment I feel has a lot to do with the fact that I feel myself stepping into the role that *he* should be playing in his son’s life.

      My brother is now more stable, but his history has made a total mess of his credit and his job history, and I fear he may be unemployable forever. So he is the stay-at-home dad while his wife works full-time. They are doing fine, but they live frugally and a bit close to the bone. They definitely don’t have anything extra financially.

      And as for the guidance and structure a father should show his oldest son in sorting out his life—I have no idea what is going on there. Does he feel guilty about not being there for his son when he was younger, and like he doesn’t have the right to be the disciplinarian now? Is he simply too busy with his 5-year-old and his 9-month-old? Does he not see anything wrong with the situation, since he depended on my parents himself for so long? I haven’t talked to him about it, but I need to….carefully.

      Because another thing that is going on is that for the first time in my life, my brother is telling me he loves me and misses me. He hugged me a lot during my visit. I feel like we are *finally* putting together a relationship. He was quite mean to me as a kid, and then he was just this unmedicated monster who was putting my parents through hell. But now he is at peace, and it is wonderful to see, and wonderful to feel his love for the first time. I feel very protective of what is happening and am trying to help foster its growth. So the truth is I’ve been avoidant about talking to him about his oldest son and what is happening. I sure wish my parents would. *That* is what actually should be happening.

      Families! No wonder I spent years writing short stories about dysfunctional families, and now am a clinical social worker who has specialized in family work. And no wonder I have spent decades living far from home.

      I get so homesick, and I miss them—there is SO much good, especially in my extended family, and the boisterous, fun gatherings we used to have. But when I go home I remember how tangled it all is now.

      Reply
  4. If there’s one thing I’ve learned lately (and trust me I can relate to your story), it’s that we can’t fix their messes. We feel responsible to, but we need to live our own lives. My parents sound much like yours. Repeatedly I’ve been the parent and bailed everyone out. It’s so difficult when it’s family but sometimes they need to learn to clean up after their own mistakes. (side note: I’m still trying to figure out how to completely detach from the resentment, the need for acceptance and the recognition for everyone I’ve done).

    Reply
    • I hear you. This is exactly what my therapist says.

      The only problem—one I am hashing out with her, and with DH—is the very practical one: What happens when they can no longer work, and they have no money? If they don’t start devising major plans now, I will have to help them in major ways, and I think I’m trying to steer them in the right direction so that I will have less of a mess to deal with in the future.

      My therapist asks: “Why will YOU have to deal with the mess in the future?” And my answer is: Because they are my parents and I will help them when they are in crisis. Yes, that is my choice, but I think it is the ethically responsible one.

      When I asked my mom: “What are you going to do during those years when you guys can’t work, and have special needs [as all elderly people end up having], but can’t live in your own place or in assisted living due to finances? And you are too young and healthy to live in a nursing center?”

      She just shrugs. Sigh.

      Reply
      • I feel you. We get guilted into being the parent and the responsible one because we care. We care too much because they should care more themselves! It’s hard to get out of that circle.

        Reply
  5. awe so sorry girl! It was hard to read. You have been through so much and you are such a strong woman! I admire you more than I did before (if that was possible).

    Reply
  6. I see a lot of similarities between what your parents do/did with your brother/nephew and what some Chinese parents do. They are definitely enablers. Many people live at home when they are in their 30s. It’s a slightly different situation but my youngest uncle has been gambling and losing money. He has borrowed a lot of money and the loan sharks have been bothering my 90-year-old grandmother. Long story short, my grandmother helped pay back some money and my mom helped too. Guess what? My uncle continued gambling and borrowing money. Loan sharks come to my grandma again. So finally she realized this is a hole that will never be filled, she is going to change her phone number and hopefully these people won’t bother her again. Different details, but similar circumstances. If my uncle knew that no one would bail him out, he probably would have to stop borrowing money from loan sharks… or maybe he would not. But having people there paying back the money that he borrowed definitely doen’t help him get back on his feet. I am so sorry your family is dealing with this.

    Reply
    • It is very similar! You know, I think people can become addicted to weakness and dependence, if that makes any sense. There is a certain feeling that happens when another person swoops in a takes care of your messes. (Typing that out, I see it goes back to babyhood—sounds like a mama bird swooping in to take care of baby bird.) I’m very sorry to hear about your uncle—aaaack. Pain. You have to wonder how a person can do that to their own mom—but then again, it sounds like he has just never learned how to take care of himself on his own, so it makes sense that his mom would bear the brunt of his irresponsible need.

      I want to raise a responsible boy. I know it is possible—I see it in DH. He’s amazing. His parents are kind of nuts. How did they do it? What did he figure out on his own, or in spite of them?

      My parents were a safety net for me for years, back in the day. It took a massive amount of self-direction to pull myself out of that muck and try to become a person on my own. It took staying away from home for long, long periods of time, and learning how to refuse material gifts. I don’t know why I was like this. Perhaps watching them with my brother. I was always rather contrarian, wanting to define myself with characteristics opposite from the unsavory ones I saw in my brother and my parents.

      Reply
  7. Tess

     /  July 10, 2014

    omg. I can relate. Can I ever relate. Father took $$ out of retirement fund and took out a mortgage on huge dream house to fund small company. Father died. Company went under during recession. DH & I tried to save it. It goes under.

    We felt responsible for mother’s economic circumstances. Tried to help. House way too big and expensive and full of stuff. Sister moves back in with husband and baby. Nobody is working. Big mess. My mom gets put in charge of their pitbull. She broke her wrist while walking him. Sister gets a divorce, moves out briefly, comes back with new partner and child and is pregnant again. Sister starts working but Mom still mostly supporting everyone with small amount of retirement funds.

    DH and I will most likely be the ones taking care of things in the future.

    I’ve learned that I cannot control anyone else. I cannot get them to listen to my plans or advice. I cannot get my Mom to protect herself financially. I cannot get anybody to budget. I’ve created a lot of tense family relationships because I gave unwanted advice. My DH and I no longer stay at the home for longer then 1 night for visits.

    They are adults and we have no control over their actions. We have to let it go. We have to let it go because our advice Does Not Do Any Good. For whatever reason they do not want to protect themselves, and they are getting something out of the situation.

    I’m so sorry.

    Reply

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