Thursday, December 12, 2013

Ossified Roles, Shifting Roles

Photo by Go Dakshin
No matter the time of year, family reunions usually involve family members playing particular roles.

I have developed in many ways since I lived as a tween/teen in Orange County California in the 1970s.

Nevertheless, I found myself falling back into the role of the chatty, strong-willed, domestically inept oldest daughter during family gatherings held in the 1980s.

Was I picking up that role or was it being foisted upon me? Probably a little of both.

Because I didn't marry or have kids until my mid 30s, it was all-too easy for me to play Entertainer to the growing number of nieces, nephews, and first cousins once removed.  I was perpetually at the kids table while younger (but married) relatives took seats at the grown up table. This was fine with me.  Sitting with the kids allowed me to put black olives on my digits before eating them.

Photo by Douglas R. Witt
Then in a few short years, my ossified role as "the silly aunt / cousin" suddenly shattered. 

The remnants were swept away with the winds of change. 

Between 1996 and 2001, I got married, had two kids, bought a house and got a real job after more than a decade as a peripatetic college student.

I also became a member of my husband's extended family.

I'm 4.5 years older than my husband who has three younger brothers. My brothers-in-law are all married to women who are younger than they are, some by several years.

I'm not a "kid" in this clan.

The most convincing piece of evidence for being one of the older ones?  I'm actually older than my husband's youngest brother's wife's father.  (I'll give you a minute to sort out that relationship. Offer a more straightforward label in the comments section if you can find one.)

In this new family dynamic I'm not the silly entertainer who can't cook anymore; I'm one of those midlife aunties in the kitchen cooking all day.  Other relatives adopt the role of "The Big Kid" by playing on the floor with the nieces and nephews.

I didn't even notice how I had embraced this Grown Up role until I had been playing it for a time.

Photo by exfordy 
For the first time in years, The Austin clan gathered in Oklahoma for Christmas in December of 2004. With 10 adults and 7 kids, the house was bustling with activity.

Not everyone was on the same sleeping or eating schedule--which was actually good for sharing bathroom space and table space.

Being a morning person, I volunteered to make hot breakfast for everyone, which involved cooking to order from 6 am and 10 am each day.  I also helped with lunch and dinner.

I was setting out food when it suddenly hit me.

Instead of feeling like a beast of burden, I discovered that I actually enjoyed playing the role of "cook for the masses."  This surprised me, because I never imagined myself growing up to do this.

During my childhood, I saw the mature woman and midlife women from my extended family producing elaborate meals for a ton of people, but I never thought I'd take their place in time.   I was always going to be the ham, the clown, the entertainment committee, the big kid. 

Now my son plays that role at Austin family gatherings while I shop, cook and clean.

I wonder if I'll adopt a different role during future family gatherings? What mask will I wear in the 2020s, the 2030s, and (if I'm lucky to survive that long) the 2040s?  I'll have to remain open to new possibilities in the decades to come.


Aging Happens to Other People, Not to Me


  1. Boy can I relate to this post! Nothing brings out your personalities of years gone by like family gatherings. I am a grandmother now, but when I get together with siblings and my father I am a sister and a daughter - not a grandmother.

  2. Karen,

    It's interesting that your family has big family gatherings.

    When I was growing up in Central Washington, my dad's family had gatherings for most holidays.

    Now, people in my family live all over the country and even in other countries.

    The younger boomers and Gen Xers in my family aren't interested in big family gatherings at the elder's house. They invite their friends, not their relatives.

    It certainly is a different kind of holiday celebration.