When your family becomes inverse strangers

There’s a graph I saw a while ago on the Internet that’s stuck with me. It shows how you spend your time with others as you get older. So, from ages 0-12 or so, you spend a lot of time with your parents and your siblings. Then you slowly spend less time with them and more and more time with your friends. 

At age 18, for most Americans (and for me), you then suddenly spend almost zero time with your parents and siblings. Your time with them, for the rest of their lives, is measured in days per year if you’re lucky, hours if you’re not. Most of that time is taken up by your friends at first, then your kids and your spouse, but also, increasingly, just time spent alone.

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I know this is true for me. I see my parents for probably a total of two weeks per year, and my siblings for about a week. I’ve been trying to spend more time with my parents in the past couple of years, because I’ve had more than a few increasingly unpleasant reminders that our time together is limited. But still, there’s only so much time we can spend together. Not only do we live in separate states, but, to be honest, we tend to argue when we’re together. There are only so many debates I can have about whether 7:00 pm is too late or too early for dinner and if we need to have dinner together and if we’re not going to eat together you might as well make your own dinner and I worked so hard on this dinner and all I asked you to do was to be home by 6:45 before I… need to go back home and breathe. Then I’m back home, alone, like I am now.

This is sad, of course, and maybe unnatural given the vast majority of human history. Because we don’t see each other, we really can’t rely on each other the way I’d like to. My support network in Boston consists of my girlfriend, my friends, and strangers I pay, and that’s true for everything from taking care of my dog when I’m on vacation to taking care of me when I’m sick. I’m sure that my siblings would step up if I was grievously sick (or my parents if they could), like my dad’s brother recently did for him, but I won’t ask them to drop their lives if I have the flu, and they don’t ask me, either. We become inverse-strangers, somehow, knowing intimate secrets about each other and sharing the most important moments of our lives but unable to share the mundane.

And this inverse-strangerhood means that we see each other in snapshots instead of as a whole. And then I see myself as snapshots, too, with all the little triumphs and failures of everyday life flattened out into digestible tidbits. Dinner dates and calls and late night conversations turn into “Oh yeah, we’re seeing each other exclusively now”. Entrepreneurship’s wild ups and downs, the rapid cycling between certainty of success and certainty of bankruptcy gets turned into “Work’s fine, not much to report”.

I went to my parents’ house in Florida last week to spend some time with them. While I was there, I found my dad’s collection of mementos from my and my brothers’ childhoods, giant Ziploc bags filled with report cards and newspaper clippings and school projects. I found myself enormously entertained by comparing my brothers’ parallel lives. As fraternal twins, they always had the unfortunate experience of doing everything at the same time, being compared to each other constantly, and yet being entirely different from one another. 

For example, they both had the same assignment in 7th grade to write a short story. Solicitous, empathetic Justin wrote a story about a boy experiencing the death of a mentor, and the young boy being comforted by his father and then comforting another, younger boy in turn. Boisterous, confident Jared wrote a story about a teenager narrowly escaping kidnapping by an escaped convict.

The difference became especially striking when I found their postcards from summer camp, buried somewhere in the middle of the bag. Justin, ever concerned about others, gave personal and health updates on me, on Jared, on our cousins at the camp, and even his friends in the cabin, who neither I nor, presumably, my parents, had the foggiest idea of. Jared gave updates on his athletic accomplishments (he had the second fastest time on the climbing wall), how hot and muggy the weather was, and on the unfairness of the camp’s PDA rules, which didn’t allow him to hug his girlfriends. 

As I looked through these postcards 20 odd years later, at this point closer in age to my parents when they first got these postcards than my brothers when they wrote them, I had the uncanny sense of, once again, looking at my brothers’ lives through snapshots, much like my parents must have. Some of the events I vaguely recalled, like Justin’s astonishment at how being the lead “singer” in the winning lip sync band made him so popular that 12 separate girls asked him to the end-of-camp dance. Others I didn’t, like how their friend Jordan’s girlfriend apparently broke up with him by telling him that she had a crush on both Jared and Justin simultaneously, causing much consternation within the friend group.

21 years ago, these were the events that defined my brothers’ experience and their world. When they wanted to convey to my parents what exactly their first glimpses of a life with my parents not around would consist of, something that, at the time, seemed so wonderful, this is what they wrote about. And here I was, an adult, two decades and a thousand miles away, trying to piece together who they were from these glimpses and my own foggy memories. Inverse strangers once more.