Two years ago this week, my little sister announced she was pregnant. I responded with Giuliani-like grace: “You’ve got to be joking—no way can you afford a baby. I mean, come on, you can barely afford your dog’s food.” Needless to say, this was not the joyful reaction my sister expected, and we didn’t speak for two months.
Apologies are all well and good, but even better was turning my guilt (did I really have to bring up dog food?) into action. As soon as my sister started speaking to me again, I became the most supportive aunt-to-be in the history of auntdom. I read pregnancy books. I helped her think up names. I even bought a Bugaboo stroller, just to make sure my nephew rode the mean streets of Hoboken in style. And now that he’s here, an absolutely gorgeous one-year old, I am, of course, the kid’s biggest fan.
It’s so easy to screw up your relationship with your family—an accidental insult, a skipped holiday—but luckily, it’s almost as easy to make things right. The river of love that connects most families runs deep: an honest apology and some heartfelt reparations, and soon enough that river is once again flowing smooth.
Stop battling the stepkid’s other parent over breakfasts, bedtimes, and everything in between. Come up with a job description that you, your partner, and the other parent agree on. This way, all the adults will know what is expected and not expected of you—and you will understand what your role and goals are vis a vis the child(ren). (The clearinghouse Stepfamily inFormation offers a good example.) In the beginning of the relationship, try not to be the sole party responsible for the kid for long periods of time. Finally, accept what you can’t change: If the custody battle was acrimonious, do not try to make anything better, and do your honest best not to take sides.
Start visiting a family member suffering from dementia This won’t be easy, but keep in mind that the visit will be harder on you than on your loved one, and that it can do no harm. Try to learn all you can about the disease so that you understand what your loved one is going through—the National Institute on Aging has some good information. During the visit, look for quiet, simple, repetitive activities to do together: fold the laundry, water the plants, or take a short walk together. Remember, the person might only be able to concentrate on one activity for twenty minutes or so, so stop if he or she becomes unsettled. And remember that even though your relative might not remember who you are, your kind attention and support will be an incredible comfort.
Break up with your family—gently You’re a grown-up, even if you don’t always feel like one, so it’s time to stop schlepping to Scarsdale every Sunday for family day and start building your own social network. The simplest and most effective thing you can do to cut the cord is to turn off the phone. It’s easy to forget that the phone is an intrusion into your life — one that you are under no obligation to respond to. So, if your family calls every night at dinnertime, turn off the phone during dinner. (Those of us who still use landlines can benefit from a sophisticated call-screener.) Set limits on how often you will call them back. If you currently talk every day, cut down communication to twice a week. If your family gives you static about your sudden unavailability, just explain that you’ve been surprisingly busy. Soon, the more measured level of communication will become a habit—and begin filtering through the rest of your relationship with them.
Pay back your parents for paying off your Visa Even if you think you’re broke, you can afford twenty-five bucks a month; set up a monthly autopayment into your parents’ account immediately. Next, get a copy of The Complete Tightwad Gazette, which offers literally hundreds of tips for ways to start saving right now—not at your next raise, not when you finally make that big sale. As your income increases, increase repayment incrementally.
On the other hand, if your parents want to turn their loan into gift— but it’s important for your own self-esteem to pay them back— first, explain to them that it’s a sign of your respect for them that you repay them. If they refuse to take your money, give it to a cause that’s important to them (find a good non-profit here) and have the charity send them a letter notifying them of the gift.