Natalie Brown: Don’t let reunions become the be all and end all of family togetherness

These summertime staples can leave loved ones more divided than united.

I decided we needed a family reunion therapist after we changed our summer travel plans a third time to accommodate my in-laws’ in-laws. We had seven siblings between both sides of the family, only two of whom lived in Utah. None had compatible schedules, resources, and desires, and most had in-laws who wanted their own reunions on the same prime weeks. Some even harbored desires to take a vacation with their own spouse or kids. Families were forever. And forever. And forever.

I do not know anyone, Latter-day Saint or otherwise, who feels fully satisfied with their family gatherings. But reunions can be particularly complicated for Mormons, who historically tended to have large families and emphasize family togetherness. When I voiced my frustration to acquaintances who inquired about my summer plans, almost all immediately commiserated. Entire summers — and months of planning — were being consumed by family reunions. In some cases, people wanted commitments multiple years in advance.

The grievances went something like this fictionalized list:

• My family wants to gather in Utah because it is cheap and convenient for some people, but why must my family on the East Coast bear the cost of traveling every year?

• I cannot afford the reunion my family wants to hold in Hawaii. Taking my kids would cost thousands of dollars. And now people are saying I don’t love the family.

• My siblings with children think we should split costs because I’m single and have more disposable income. Is that fair?

• I feel unloved because grandparents are paying for my sibling’s family to attend and not mine. Don’t we have needs, too?

• I’m an American with two weeks of vacation. I cannot visit my family, my in-laws and take my own break.

• My family thinks I’m flexible because I own my business, but I still have to pay my staff when we close for vacations.

• Can my divorced parents get along?

• Why does my child spend more time with her in-laws?

• Can my non-Latter-day Saint spouse drink coffee at the reunion without being judged?

And, well, you can see why I wanted an intervention. There is no reunion fix that will work for everyone, or even every year. You must decide to be the more mature person, while letting others believe they are the more mature people. In the end, my brothers and I took a siblings-only trip to the place with the cheapest flights, because it was easier than coordinating with everyone’s spouses and kids. And my family still drove to Utah twice to see various relatives. I enjoyed it.

I didn’t talk to a therapist, because I knew my truth about reunions before I even finished writing down the issues. I wanted to have back for a moment the family I remember, when both my parents were alive, all my siblings had futures of equal potential, and we were one another’s highest priorities. Families might be eternal; they are not, however, locked in time. What version, if any, of my family will I be with forever?

The process of gathering for a family reunion is as much an act of grieving as it is an act of forging new relationships. We risk damaging our families if the insistence on gathering becomes more important than respecting the choices people make to meet their needs.

I regret that I don’t live near my siblings. Had I realized sooner how much I would want my family in middle age, I would have changed my education and career plans to make that a priority. As a mother, I now believe that the single biggest thing I could have done to help my career and find satisfaction as an adult would have been moving near extended family with whom I could trade child care. Instead, we prioritized prestige and economics, and now there’s no easy way home. We are stuck with reunions.

All we can do is value what the people in our lives do give and remember this truth: Prioritizing the family is not the same as prioritizing the family reunion.

(Courtesy) Natalie Brown, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist

Natalie Brown is a writer, scholar, lawyer, mother and Latter-day Saint based in Boulder, Colo. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not reflect those of the church or her employer.

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