The Family Filter -- By Laura Houston
One of the best interpersonal advantages of having children is how your brain rewires itself and processes information. External family situations that would normally upset you no longer throw you off balance. Something inside of you creates an emotional algorithm that takes the data you’ve received, analyzes it, determines your energy level at that particular moment in time, and then spits out a diagram on to handle the situation effectively. It’s a remarkable feat because it happens so quickly, automatically and fluidly you hardly have to think.
Let me tell you a story with an example:
I returned home to visit my family during an emotional time. My father is quite ill, and my family is naturally stressed about it. Realistically, this may be the last time I see him, so I wanted to maximize my time with him. I also wanted my 18-month old sons to meet him, curl up on his lap, and collect lots of photos from their visit with one of the finest human beings on the planet.
But on our second day there Lyle was sick. He woke us up screaming at least six times during the night. When he threw up at 5:00am, we were officially up for the day. We bathed him, changed him, changed ourselves, and decided to go in search of food because everyone was hungry. But Lyle puked again before we could get out the door, so we repeated the process. Now we needed to do laundry since we only brought three changes of clothes for ourselves, and all of Lyle’s pajamas were stinky.
It was 6:00am and we could not stay in our room because Lyle was crying so loudly he could be heard from the hallway. My plan for the day was head to my sister’s house, and spend the day with her, but I don’t think I would be welcome there so early, so I called my mom and headed over there. Dave dropped me off and kept the car, expecting to return at 11:00am after his meetings to help with Lyle.
Alas, my mother’s washing machine was broken, but she assured me the repairman was on his way. In the mean time, I tried to get Lyle to eat something and go back to sleep. I thought he had reflux from all of the activity and the inconsistent feeding times, and I was sure it would pass if I could get him some rest. The repairman finally came and announced my mom needed a new washing machine, so my mom left to go to Sears, and I stayed to watch my father, my boys and my nephew.
11:00 came and went and my husband was still downtown at the hotel in meetings, my mom was still at Sears, the laundry wasn’t done, and Lyle was still fussy. I managed to get Wyatt to take a nap while my sister-in-law pushed Lyle around in the stroller so he could sleep. So I called my sister to tell her I was having some problems and was going to be very late. Here is what she said to me in a condensed format:
“Obviously I am not a priority for you. Your friends are more important than your family. You schedule time to have breakfast with your friends, you don’t invite me, and you can’t be anywhere you say you are going to be.”
I have to interject here and say that up until this particular morning, I had been right on time for everything, and if you have ever traveled with toddlers – twins no less – you know what a remarkable accomplishment this is. Timeliness is one of my strengths. Also, I had not even been in town 48 hours, and I still had three days to go, so there was plenty of time to see her. This was running across my mind in the form of a ticker tape. It wasn’t adding up. There was something more wrong here than my tardiness.
“Do you know how it feels to be such a low priority on your list? You say you are going to be somewhere and you’re not. You come home only once every two years, and the last time you came home you did not even give me a hug goodbye.”
I have to interject again to say that I did, in fact, give her a hug goodbye, and if you look on her Facebook page, you can see a photo of two very pregnant sisters giving each other a hug in the restaurant before we parted ways, but I did not contest it because my filter was on. Instead what I said this:
“You’re right. I have not made enough time for you, and I am trying. I’m in a bad position right now, and I can’t get there. I don’t have a car. Lyle is sick. I am sorry.”
She continued to say some unkind things about me, but through my filter what I heard was that she was really hurt and upset. She obviously loves me and had been looking forward to spending time with me for a very long time. Before my family filter was installed, I never would have heard this. I would have been arguing with her by now and engaging on the wrong things. What I felt at that moment was a touch of sweetness and compassion for my sister. I was moved that she was mad at me for not being there because, hey, it showed she cared. My sister and I have had a rough time of repairing our relationship. There has been coldness between us. This is the same woman who did not congratulate me when I told her I was pregnant. Instead, she went back to reading her paper. I think we were making progress here because she was not reading the paper. She was yelling at me. It was a gesture of love and endearment.
I apologized several times and stayed very calm and sincere. My father, who had heard my side of the phone conversation, immediately became upset because he felt it was his fault we were fighting. So I had to soothe him and explain it was not his fault that I could not leave. I called my husband and scolded him for not being back to pick me up. I also told him Lyle was really sick because I knew this would hurry him. And when Dave finally arrived, we had to take Lyle to the clinic. He was really suffering. Lo and behold, the poor guy had a double ear infection.
Now the day was really shot. It was about 4:30. Dave wanted to go back to the hotel with Lyle, but I said no way. Sitting in a hotel room with a screaming kid was not going to be pleasant for anyone, so we turned around and drove to my sister’s. When we arrived, she acted as if nothing had happened, and I figured her family filter was working, too.
The week went like that. Emotional hurricanes blew in. Angry little twisters of sibling rivalry skirted across the dining room table. It didn’t concern me. I had a well calculated, well built, emotional shelter. I took note of the storms and moved on. And I was able to do so because all of my energy goes to my family now. They deserve it. I deserve it. It’s one of the most freeing feelings I have ever had as a parent. And the funny thing is, I knew that when I became a parent this would happen to me. The small things can't get through, and the big things you take a run at with a new perspective: “How am I going to look and sound to my kids when I approach and handle this?” It’ll make you think. It makes you want to shine.