I recently read an article describing the conflict occurring in the life of a young mother with a number of small children. Since it was often difficult to get a babysitter, among other reasons, she was frequently absent from many of the larger family gatherings. Unfortunately, instead of understanding and empathy from her siblings, instead of judging her favorably and assuming she had good intentions, she was attacked for not "acting like family". She felt like she was in a lose-lose situation. And she is not alone.
All too often older family members -- parents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles (the whole tree!) -- pressure young couples to conform to certain family norms or expectations without any sensitivity to the best needs of the couple and their family.
Some children need schedules more. The consequences of a missed nap or delayed bedtime in order to attend a family gathering may reverberate for weeks. Some mothers need schedules more. The consequences to them of missed naps, bedtimes or even household or work time may also have lasting repercussions.
Some children love the car. Some colicky babies even find the motion soothing. Other, previously non-colicky babies, may scream for hours when strapped into the confines of their car seats. Even some adults find long car trips wearing. Especially if, like me, you're subject to motion sickness. (TMI, as they say)
Some couples are homebodies. Some like big parties. Some like quiet evenings, some a noisy crowd.
People's emotional needs are complicated, as are their psychological needs. And as mentioned earlier, there's always the trauma of getting a babysitter. It was usually easier just to stay home when my children were small.
Yet despite all the potential obstacles to attending every family gathering or event, extended family members are rarely sympathetic, rarely understanding.
The needs of the family writ large seem paramount; the needs of the young couple/family irrelevant. But just as a true friend is sensitive to what her friend really needs, what is in her friend's best interest, so too should concerned and loving family members respond.
The question is not "Are you coming?" or a more aggressive "Why aren't you coming?" but "Are you happy?" "Can I help you in any way?" The carefully thought-out retort is not "What a neglectful cousin you are to stay away!" but "What a wonderful mother you are to be responsive to your children's needs!"
Rabbi Jacob Adler, one of the rabbi's asked to respond to the young couple's dilemma, wrote in the Mishpacha magazine article: "If you are unable to attend all family gatherings, you shouldn't feel like you have to conform to these expectations. You should try to come if you can – it's good to have a pleasant relationship with one's family – but you need not bend yourself out of shape to do so. If your siblings claim you aren't acting like family, make it clear that you are being family-oriented – you are taking care of your immediate family. No one has a right to define your priorities."
Perhaps in the merit of such love and understanding for the needs of their young family, this couple will ultimately receive greater love and understanding from their own parents, siblings, great-aunts, third cousins twice removed…I'm trying, as a mother-in-law, to bite my tongue if ever such words should spring to my lips, and keep my itchy fingers off the phone…