I decided it was time. The current economic climate only fueled my cause with firings and layoffs representing the new “day at the office.” If Starbucks and General Motors could lay off an army of people, I could fire my family. They, unlike a diligent workforce, had given me enough just cause to fill a Microsoft office park.
It sounded crazy, yes, but some crazy is worth considering. I walked down the memory lane of my near forty-year life. One thing was consistent. No matter how much the world revolved and I evolved, my parents, as much as they loved me, could masterfully cut me down to my most insecure self quicker than I could place fork to plate during an awkward family meal.
I didn’t want to act hastily, so I polled a few of my friends, the ones with rock-solid relationships with their parental units. I probed into uncomfortable places like only a good parent could do. “Has your family ever asked inappropriate questions about finances, sexual proclivities, hygiene, alcohol consumption, body fat and routes to work?” What about friendly game nights that turn into heated rounds of Trivializing My Pursuits, replete with home-spun questions about failed relationships, finances and career debacles?
Some friends stared at me blankly. Others laughed, especially when I mentioned my mom’s pastime of sending me magazine articles on sex and dating, with Post-It notes directing my attention to tips about condoms, abstinence and dressing for dating “success.” The more I probed, the more I learned that many had unhealthy relationships with their families. After careful analysis of the data, I came to the conclusion that the strife stemmed from boundaries—the lack of them.
Like any work-related dismissal, it’s never advisable to fire a family member out of the blue. You need to monitor behavior and then open up a dialogue when enough undesirable events have occurred. I developed a list of infringements: my father’s tabletop dancing at my wedding and my mother’s nicknaming my former husband “gigolo hussy” made the cut. (I blamed the latter on her crush on Richard Gere.) I noted their behavior and planned to open up a dialogue when the next inappropriate incident occurred. It came when I received an unsolicited airline ticket to a government career fair. The fact that I had no experience or interest in the field didn’t matter. After five minutes of contemplation, I decided to put my parents “on notice.” I called them back the next day to communicate some boundaries. This gave them an opportunity to correct their conduct. I politely informed them that if they crossed the line again, I would suspend them from my life. I could tell they were perplexed, so I gave some examples.
Mom, if you talk down to me on the phone, I will tell you to stop. If you don’t, I will end the call.
Dad, I told you not to disparage my career. If you do that again, I’m going to discontinue our weekly calls.
When their behavior improved, I rewarded them with more frequent calls and visits. When they reverted to their old micro-managing tricks, I tempered my contact, guilt free. By stipulating what was and wasn’t acceptable, I had given myself a new birthright, one that removed my parents’ ability to wage war against my life. Did I banish them for good? No, life is too short, and frankly we’re all too old to hold that kind of grudge.
But what I achieved in firing them was a justified reason to restrict their access to certain aspects of my life. I still need to occasionally remind them of the ground rules. When they break them, I put them back on notice. I’m at peace with my family for the first time since my days in diapers. I now understand that my parents have been unable to transition from the role of parent of a young child to parent of an adult child. I, however, have made the shift. I’ve grown up, and for the first time in my life, I own my adulthood.