Tag Archives: family communication

Speaking of families…

Last week I wrote about the extended iterative dialogue that it takes to co-ordinate a McKay family holiday (or a trip to town to get bread for lunch). When Mike read the post that night he laughed.

“That’s ten conversations and four emails you put out before I emailed my parents about this,” he said.

There were at least two reasons for this. The first of those is that Mike is considerably busier than I am at present. The second is something I’ve learned since getting married…

[Drum roll, please]

Not all family systems operate the same way.

I know, it’s a total revelation, isn’t it?

Mike and I met for the first time, after three months of letter writing, in Australia. He flew over from PNG while I was home for holidays and came to stay at my parents place with me for ten days so that we could figure out whether or not we were going to date.

On his first morning there, my Dad marched out onto the porch and handed him the phone.

Mike looked at him blankly.

“You can give your parents a call and let them know you’re here safely,” Dad said.

“Uh,” Mike looked confused. “I emailed them. They know where I am.”

“But don’t you think you should give them a call?” Dad asked, while I tried not to giggle.

“If I call them from here, they’re going to think something’s wrong,” Mike said.

“But they might be worried about you,” Dad said.

At that I did giggle. Mike had spent much of the last two months on remote islands in the South Pacific, and I had been in Ghana and Kenya. Neither of us had rung home during any of these trips.

I knew what Dad was doing. He wasn’t just trying to assuage any worry Mike’s parents may have been feeling about his safety. By handing Mike the phone and inviting him to use it to make a long distance call he was less trying to send the message, you should call home, than the message, our house is your house, make yourself totally comfortable.

The problem was, Mike was only picking up on the first of those messages, and he was starting to look a little hunted.

“But if I call them they will be worried about me,” Mike said.

As I recall this ended in a stalemate. Every couple of days for the first week Mike was there Dad would wave the phone in his general direction and Mike would look confused and a bit uneasy.

Now the following is offered with the disclaimer that I still have a lot to learn about Mike’s family. I may not exactly be on target with this, but here’s one thing I think I’ve learned so far: Mike’s family tends to be more direct than mine.

If Mike’s family wants to make you feel at home they say, “make yourself at home.” When his Dad wants to make me feel part of the family he gives me a hug and says, “welcome to the family.” His Mom says, “I hope my son is treating you right and, by the way, if you have any arguments I’m on your side.”

When Mike and I decided to get married I expected (in theory, anyway) to learn things about Mike’s family – ways of doing things, styles of interacting – that were different than what I’d grown up with. What I didn’t expect was that I’d learn almost as much about my family.

They warned us in marriage counseling that, when in doubt, we should rely on the spouse whose family it is to interpret what’s actually going on and what the appropriate course of action might be.

“You should each act as mediators and translators for your own family of origin,” they said. “It can take five or ten years, maybe more, to really understand the family culture your spouse comes from.”

At the time I thought that was a little extreme. Ten years? Seriously?

But now, watching my own family through two sets of eyes, I’ve seen enough operating system collisions involving them and Mike that I’m not so sure anymore.

Don’t get me wrong – these have not exactly been “two oil tankers meeting at high speed on a freeway” moments. They are usually more “two rowboats drifting past each other in the night” moments. But one thing they have taught me is that while my family can be direct, we are also, often, very indirect.

A couple of months ago Mike and I were with my parents on a ferry in Canada. It was crowded and busy, so Mike stood in line and got us both all some food while Dad went to find a table. Mum and I wandered over when they’d gotten everything sorted.

Bacon cheeseburger, as requested, and French fries. (Yes, there were many valid reasons for finding – when I weighed myself on a baggage scale in Vancouver airport the night we left for Laos – that I was five pounds heavier than I had been one month earlier).

Anyway, back to my burger. My burger that had mayonnaise on it.

When I opened it up and saw this I said, “Oh yuck,” and proceeded to scrape off the mayonnaise.

About ten seconds later, my mother leaned across the table and said to Mike, “When Lisa says ‘yuck’ she doesn’t mean, ‘you screwed up’, she just means that she doesn’t like mayonnaise.”

“But I did screw up,” Mike said, “because I knew that, and I could have asked for no mayonnaise. But what you’re saying is that I shouldn’t take it personally when Lisa’s not happy?”

“Yes,” Mum said, not even glancing in my direction.

“Oh Mike,” I said, leaning across the table beside Mum, and grinning. “That’s one of the things Mum is saying, but it’s not even the most important one. The primary message in what she just said wasn’t for you at all, it was for me, and that message was: When Mike has stood in line for twenty minutes to get you lunch don’t you open up your burger and say “yuck” you little ingrate.

Mum laughed.

“You’re very good,” she said. “That’s exactly what I was saying.”

“No!” Mike was dumbfounded. “How could you possibly get that out of what she just said???”

“How could you not get that???” I asked.

Mike took a bite of his own burger and sighed. “I don’t understand how you – an Australian – managed to grow up mainly in Africa and the US yet turn out to be so Asian in your preferred communication style. On the bright side, I guess you’re going to fit in well in Laos.”

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Family Planning

This week Mike and I have been trying to lock down an itinerary for December. We hadn’t planned on going anywhere this December – we decided we’d had quite enough travel in the last eight months, and we’d already been in Australia and Washington DC several times during the last couple of years. No, we were going to enjoy having our feet on the ground and the coolish weather in Luang Prabang (they promise me that it is coming). This Christmas we were absolutely, definitely, staying put.

Unfortunately, though, we have good friends. Regrettably, a couple of them (yes, you, Tristan and Amber) chose this year to fall in love and get engaged in Fiji in a sunset-drenched blaze of romantic glory. And, alas, they invited us to their wedding – in December, in Australia.

So Mike and I have been talking tickets this past couple of weeks, and budgets, and leave from work. We’ve been talking weddings and family gatherings, the power of positive presence at key moments, and how much it meant to us that people came from near and far to witness our wedding vows last year. This December, we decided, we absolutely, definitely, wanted to try to make it to Australia.

I think Mike thought that once we’d decided this, it would be as simple as seeing if he could get leave, setting our dates, and booking our tickets. But he hadn’t reckoned on family planning.

No, people, not that sort of family planning. McKay family planning.

I don’t know how our particular family planning dynamic evolved. I suspect it’s the product of decades spent trying to co-ordinate five schedules across nearly as many countries. Throughout the years everyone in my family has had to learn to think ahead, and in many different directions at once, when it comes to travel.

If, for example, we can forecast that Dad will be returning from Africa around the same time that I will need to go to Australia to sit University entrance exams, we can plan for me (one week after I return from ten weeks in the Philippines) to fly over from Washington DC, meet him in Heathrow, and travel on with him to Australia.

If we can spot that I’ll be in Africa for work on a particular date far enough in advance, this allows Mum and Dad to plan work to overlap with me in Kenya, and then me to plan a three-day stop-over in Washington on the way back from Ghana to spend Thanksgiving with Michelle and Jed.

In my family it seems that we are all well-trained from years of practice to be scanning these puzzle pieces – the four other moving targets that are our immediate family members – and to be trying to fit those pieces together.

Particularly in the case of my beloved mother case, it is also not just international travel schedules that are the focus of this sort of scanning. Over the course of thirty minutes and approximately the same number of plan-iterations, my mother can (and regularly does) transform a simple plan along the lines of “someone needs to go to town to pick up bread for lunch” into:

  • Matt and Lou take one car and go to Riverside for a coffee date.
  • Michelle and I drop off Mum at the bakery to get the bread for tomorrow’s lunch (since we’ve changed the plan to have lunch at home today). Mum will then walk from there to the drycleaners.
  • Michelle and I drop off Dad at to the hardware store to buy a replacement washer for the kitchen sink tap. He will then walk from there to the Coles to buy milk and bananas.
  • Michelle and I go to the butcher to buy a kilo of sausages, run a container full of fresh cherries four streets away to my grandparents, and circle back around to my pick up first Dad, then Mum.
  • We go to Riverside to meet Matt and Lou and all have lunch together there before going from the cafe straight to the beach (“so don’t forget to pack sunscreen, and swimmers, and hats,” Mum will say, “Oh, we’re almost out of sunscreen, I better go to the pharmacy after the drycleaners and before the café, or maybe Matt and Lou can do it…”)

This sort of constant “scope-creep” of the plan can drive Michelle, Matt, and I unreasonably crazy.

Sometimes one of us will put their foot down.

“That’s it, no more. Mum, we’re sticking with this plan. No more changes. No pharmacy. This is the plan.”

“But why?” she will ask, genuinely mystified as to why we have lost patience with this endless dialogue in search of the most efficient plan ever concocted.

“Because,” we will answer, secretly enjoying this parent-child role reversal that we are now occasionally entitled to, “that’s just the way it is. And until you get your own field hospital during a civil war to manage (which you would excel at, by the way) you’re stuck with us. And we’re done with this planning process.”

So I’ve been thinking a lot about family planning this week as Mike and I have been trying to plan for this possible trip to Australia. For Mike, it’s meant several hours of chatting with me and researching tickets online. For me, it’s also meant six separate skype chats with my parents, two calls with my sister, one with my brother, one with a friend in Sydney, three all-family emails, and one children-and-spouses-only email. We are all trying to make sure everyone stays on the same page – and to feel our way forward and fit pieces together in ways that make sense for everyone. We are trying to answer these questions all at once:

Are Mike and I going to fly over together or separately? Are Michelle, Tahlia, and Jed going to come over this December from Washington DC, and/or are Matt and Lou going to go to them? Can Mike and I also link up with Matt and Lou (who are in Canberra), while the wedding is in Melbourne, and Mum and Dad are up near Brisbane? Is there any way I can co-ordinate with friends in Sydney too, or is that just too crazy/expensive? Are Mum and Dad – who had been floating the idea of a family holiday in New Zealand in February – going to be discouraged by this shifting timeline? Should we/can we shoot for a family gathering in this December between the wedding and Christmas, or try for next year instead?

Sometimes, I will admit, when I’ve just spent two hours on airline websites researching possibilities it’s enough to make me sigh deeply and wish briefly for a smaller world – not just a world where we’re all closer together, but a world with fewer variables in it.

But in many better moments I know that this is what Elizabeth Gilbert would term a “champagne problem.” It is the problem of someone rich in loved ones and in possession of enough disposable income to get on the plane in the first place. It is the problem of someone who is wealthy indeed.

As of yesterday the tickets are booked – well, those from Laos to Australia and back again, anyway. Still to sort out are the in-country movements, dates, and flights. Michelle, Matt, Mum, and Dad… I’ll be in and on skype tomorrow afternoon. Let’s chat.

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