Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Family Codes

I often assume that people are like me. And most often, they really aren't. Even my very best friends. They don't keep in touch the way that I would. They don't get angry at what would enrage me. They pick fights where I wouldn't. They laugh when I don't. They parent their children differently. They spend their money when I would save it, save where I would spend it. We are different.

What I never fully appreciated is how true this is with families. I knew families were different, obviously, all you have to do is sit at someone else's dinner table. But I didn't really appreciate the power of the family code. We all have our own individual codes that wind us through life, but what's a little creepy about a family code is that it's shared by a whole group of people -- a code of conduct, of interaction, the "givens" in exchanges. What's also a bit creepy is that it's hard to decipher the elements and workings of the code even in one's OWN family. Such subtext...

Aspects of a Family Code: What is talk about, what is avoided. How direct or indirect conflicts are, anger is, general newsy communication is. What expectations are for "being connected" to one another. What expectations are for sharing information. (Expectations are a big part of the code). What hurts -- things that are done? that are undone? What is funny, to whom. Who sets the tone. What stays unspoken. What gets resolved. How do people reach resolution. Family humor. On and on.

Maybe it takes our whole lives to keep pulling apart the strings of our own family make-up.
Becoming part of another family and clashing and colliding with the hum of their code helps. Beginning one's own family, faltering, floundering and finding our own ways, helps too.

I'm reading Joyce Carol Oates' novel We Were the Mulvaneys about a family of 7. She talks a lot about the family code and the unraveling that happens when the code is broken...

I find myself wanting to make some judgment or conclusion about family codes -- that they are limiting, or redemptive, or need to be broken -- but really I think they just are. They are, for good or bad, how we've become family and learned to meet each other again and agian.

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