I feel guilty for not calling my family

It's not that I don't love them, but I moved away and talking is a chore

Published December 23, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I love my family, but I often don't feel that I do enough sometimes. Ever since college, I've become more distant from them (literally and figuratively), immediate and extended. My politics, which used to fall pretty much in line with my parents', have now done a complete 180, and any talk of anything political can quickly devolve into a shouting match, and the less I say about religion, the better. As a former Catholic, now atheist, I've reduced my mother to tears more than a few times. I've been accused of being disrespectful during such discussions, but I consider my strict adherence to rules regarding debate to be to keep discussions fair, not to be disrespectful. I've since learned that without a mediator, it's best not to argue with some people. I won't go into specifics, though, as this isn't really the issue at hand.

My hometown was always a bit small for me. I always craved traveling and living (for a time at least) in a big city. As a result, I've moved from a city of about 500,000 to one of almost 3 million. Most of my family has stayed back home, 90 percent of whom live in the same state and 90 percent of those in the same city. They can and do see each other pretty much weekly. My work schedule and finances allow that maybe a few times a year. I talk with my parents weekly, but rarely anyone else, especially my sisters (two of whom still live in our hometown). Recently my grandmother had a heart attack (albeit a mild one, thankfully), and I found myself guilty that I wasn't home like most of my family to be there. Though I must admit, part of this guilt came from feeling like fellow family members were a bit resentful that I wasn't home either. Also recently, I learned from my dad that his father is still suffering from severe depression from the death of my grandmother three years ago, and he asked me to give him a call, if only to say hi.

I can catch an earful sometimes from my parents about not talking enough to people I should (especially my grandparents), and I feel genuinely guilty for not doing so, but another part of me just doesn't make the time to do so. I can be told I should call so-and-so just to say hi, but I find myself never consciously making the time to do so. I love my parents and sisters and grandparents and family, but I just don't ever make time to call and say hi. To be fair, I never really make the time to call just to chat with anyone, but why can't I find the motivation to do so with my family?

My family also tells me that my nephew, who is particularly close to me, misses me a lot and he wishes that I lived back home again. To which I can only shrug. I like my life in the big city and being on my own, but it's clear that I'm breaking with the tradition of my family of having a close-knit (again, literally and figuratively) relationship. I feel guilty for living 1,300 miles away; I feel guilty when I have to fly back after a holiday visit; but most of all I feel guilty that I don't have the urge to talk to them on a semi-regular basis and that sometimes I out-and-out dread it. I have no reason really to resent my family. They've never done anything that would make me want to disown them, but I feel incredibly selfish that I sometimes find talking to them a chore (and I don't know if family members think of me as selfish as well); that I'm not as close to everyone as my sisters are; and that I would often prefer to spend more time alone or with friends than with family. Why do I find interaction with them to be a chore sometimes? Why can't I be the family member that everyone else seems to be? What's wrong with me?

The Black Sheep

Dear Black Sheep,

I suggest you do two things, one long-term and one short-term. In the short term: Call your nephew. Just call. It's that time of year.

In the long term ... well, let's just stick with the short term a little more. In the short term: Make the calls you have been putting off. Be honest. Pick somebody, one person in your family that you can be honest with. Maybe your nephew is too young to get into all this with. So maybe your nephew is not the person to get honest with. But get honest with somebody. Pick somebody in your family you can be honest with. Call that person. If it's hard to make the call, say it's hard. If it's hard to be living so far away, say it's hard to be living so far away. If you feel bad for not being more in touch, say you feel bad for not being more in touch.

You can do these things. You'll feel better after you do. It's the holiday season. Lots of people are having a hard time. A few people are just filled with holiday good cheer and making everyone else feel like losers, but most are neither ecstatic nor depressed, just trying to get stuff done and put a good face on it. Many people are seeing family members they don't see often, in social settings that are novel and fast-changing; certain people are going to be overwhelmed by too much contact; others are going to be impatient with the ones who are overwhelmed; certain people will be having surprisingly strong reactions to stuff for no apparent reason and only later will be sorting out why they had these reactions. Dread of certain conversations will be rampant. Certain people will drink too much and make confessions. In others, long-held resentments will flower. Feelings will be hurt accidentally, even by people with the best of intentions. The young, hip and beautiful will sneak out, have their pleasures, and radiate derision and boredom toward the rest. Many will feel alone even when surrounded by love. Most of us will somehow get through it.

You're not bad. Maybe you're different. But that doesn't make you bad. Maybe you have higher hopes and dreams than the others. That doesn't make you bad. You're following your dream.

What can you tell your family members? You can tell them that you love them and miss them and you're following your dream. You're doing what you have to do.

And, long-term, I guess the thing is, and this goes for pretty much all the letters I've ever answered: Long-term, for the rest of your life, you are going to occasionally have conflicting feelings and you will need to develop a method for determining what is going on. I mean stopping in the middle of a feeling and sitting down on the floor or on a wall or at your desk and asking yourself, with passion, with courage, with commitment to the truth: What is going on? What am I feeling? Am I running away from something? What am I avoiding here? Is there something present in my consciousness that I don't understand? Is it possible for me to address this thing, whatever it is, this big ball of avoidance and confusion, this big ball of pain, this big ball of black nothingness from which I very much would like to turn away? What is this thing that has appeared before me? What am I looking at?

That's what you need to do long-term: Interrogate your reluctance, your instinctive turning-away; interrogate with love and acceptance: What is this? Is it fear, is it pain, is it a memory? Is it a picture of your grandparents, is it sadness about possibly losing them, is it guilt about not responding sooner, is it fear of being rebuked or scolded? What is here? What is present? Ask yourself, What can I know about myself that I did not know before? What can I accept, with open arms, that I did not accept before? How can I move forward?

And who can I call next?

This is a great topic for the holidays.

I wish everybody a good whatever you're having. Enjoy the break from the routine, have some laughs, enjoy your friends and family if possible, and do something you haven't done before.

And make the call.

By Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Family Since You Asked