Disapproving family muddles midlife choices

I’ve recently moved to a new city to start over. I am 51 years old and have been “starting over” roughly every two years for the past 30. My family, God bless them, has been mostly supportive of this move, but at this point I sense from them a tone of resignation: “He’s a great guy, talented, but never managed to find himself.” I feel great about this latest life change, very positive. But at the same time I wonder if my family is writing me off. Am I being paranoid? Should I perhaps embrace their resignation as a good thing, a way to relieve pressure on myself? Can having nothing expected of me be a good thing? — Rick in Los Angeles

Dear Rick: Congratulations on your move to Los Angeles. We hope you will stay connected to J. and our San Francisco Giants.

When you reference your family, Mensch wonders specifically whom you mean. At 51, you are smack in the middle of life (we hope) and family could mean a spouse, young or grown kids, parents, siblings or even close friends. Who are these people whom you fear have diminished their expectation of you or written you off? If it is a spouse or children, Mensch believes the matter is potentially serious and in need of repair. After all, we have to live with our spouses every day and certainly hope for the respect and admiration of our children as they grow into adulthood.

If it is a parent or parents giving you these signals, it must be quite hurtful. Most of us crave the approval of our parents and strive not to disappoint them. However, there comes a time — and age 51 is about right — when we must insist on living for ourselves. Mom and Dad can, and most certainly will, have their opinions. We are commanded to honor them, not live for them.

Or is it your siblings causing the problem? Our relationships with our siblings might be more complex than with spouses, parents and children. We spend the first and formative years of our lives living, bathing, sleeping, traveling and fighting with our siblings. They are our best friends and our worst enemies. Then, rather abruptly, we go our separate ways, build more important relationships and start new families. And yet, a note of aloofness or disapproval by a brother or sister — even (especially?) one we see rarely — can send us into a serious funk.

Which brings us to you, Rick. It is human nature to care what other people think, especially family. On the other hand, it can be a worthwhile endeavor to transcend those feelings, especially if they have a negative impact on your mood or self-confidence. If it’s your spouse and/or children with whom you are having this problem, Mensch urges you to speak with them and clear the air in the interest of harmony and mutual respect. If it is a parent or parents, you might choose simply to grin and bear it. It’s hard to keep them from pushing our buttons (even after they’re gone), because they laid the wiring.

When it comes to siblings, the choice is all yours. You do not answer to them, and they probably don’t want you to. It’s possible that, rather than resignation in their voices, you are hearing their distraction with their own lives and worries. To quote the late Maya Angelou, “Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at.”

As to the last part of your question, Mensch unequivocally does not believe having nothing expected of you to be a good thing. Hopefully, you expect something of yourself. Now that you are in new surroundings and feeling positive about making a new start, you have the opportunity to think hard about, and act on, what is important to you. And while you’re at it, it might be worth exploring how much of the attitudes that you attribute to family members are projections of your own feelings and anxiety.

Jonathan Harris
Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. He can be reached at advicemensch@gmail.com.