A personal note on family

Carlotta Cerri

Just recently, some unfortunate events made me think about the meaning of family.

I grew up in Italy, a very family-oriented country and culture, and I was taught that family is sacred, and family gatherings are to be attended by any means possible—the showing-up part seemed to be the true display of love.

I once got upset at my aunt for not coming to see me in my only trip to Italy during my first pregnancy, I kept thinking “I’m just a 5-hour car journey away, she’s known it for months, she could have made an effort to come say hi. What can possibly be more important than seeing and hugging your niece after a year, especially now that she’s pregnant for the first time?”. I didn’t even stop to wonder what her reasons might be, I was disappointed she didn’t show up and I didn’t talk to her for months. Today, as I share this with you, it makes me feel silly, childish, selfish.

It might be because I became a mother and my priorities shifted. Or maybe I simply evolved as a human being, and became a more empathetic person.

Today I know family is not about the big events, the reunions, the birthday presents, the Christmas wishes. It’s not about who showed up at my wedding, or who came to see Oliver and Emily when they were born (although it was nice to have the grandparents and my sister here). It’s not even about having a good excuse not to show up—there doesn’t need to be an excuse to begin with.

Family is something else.

It’s my husband changing his plans last-minute to stay with me and the kids when I need help. It’s my sister jumping on the first plane and staying with us for weeks when I was on bed rest during my second pregnancy.

But it’s not even that much, to be honest.

Family—especially long distance family, like mine—is a phone call, an email, a message once in a while. Family is who keeps in touch. Family is who respects one another—genuinely, not because some label demands it—who gives the benefit of the doubt, who understands each other instead of pointing fingers.

But most of all: family to me is to not expect ANY of the above.

Expectations of any kind—financial, affective, social, professional—poison relationships. I often feel like people expect anything and everything from family members just because of this haunting label—“they’re family”—and because they think it’s their duty to be there, to support, to respect, to care for one another, to talk and share sorrows and joys, to attend reunions (or to have a good enough excuse not to), to want to be together, to show the best version of one another or to accept it when the worst comes out, instead.

That is not what family is.

I feel we have to revisit the true meaning of family, learn to not have expectations and to recognize it when we do—even deeper, hidden expectations that we’re not fully aware of. Only then can we have meaningful relationships with our family members, and teach our kids family values—not the socially expected ones, but the real and honest ones, the ones that will really make a difference for your close and extended family.

And a few more cobweb-like thoughts—each one could be a separate blog post that I’ll never have the time to write, so here they are:

  • Respect to family members is overrated. Respect is a two way thing, it’s never to be expected based on age, experience or family hierarchy—it always has to be earned, even when it comes to family.
  • Children don’t owe their parents. Now that I’m a mother I feel even more strongly about this. We parents choose to bring children into this world, so, if anything, we owe them.
  • Never mix money and family. No matter how good your relationship is with your family, money will always find its way to ruin it, even just a little bit. Not worth it.

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