“I’m really more of a family therapist. Have you considered family therapy?” The therapist asked. I was once again at the clinic of a local university seeking individual therapy for my fourteen year old. Except they’d assigned me a family therapist instead of what I had asked for. The very question spiked my anxiety, poked all the guilty places in my brain. I know that there are patterns in my family which aren’t ideal. We all spend too much time on screens. We don’t go outdoors enough or get enough exercise. We eat too much frozen food. And yet, some of these patterns we’ve fallen into were extremely adaptive and necessary survival tactics faced with the quantity of mental health issues and the pay-the-bills business tasks that we had. Were I a being of infinite energy we would have handled it all and still had regular meals together, gone on picnics, and played board games regularly. I feel terribly guilty for not having that infinite energy, even though I know that every day I made the best choices I could with the limited resources available. But when family therapy was suggested it unleashed the howling voices of self doubt which gleefully shrieked that I had made all the wrong choices. Obviously.
It was an agonizing few minutes trying to answer this question from the earnest young man who was very perceptive and thus recognized that his question had opened a huge well of emotion. He was poised to dig and help me sort all of those emotions, as surely was his job. Only it wasn’t his job. I was asking him to help my son. I’d deliberately tried to set boundaries for the therapy. I’d done so in advance, being very specific about what I was seeking. Then when I was in a room alone with him, the therapist questioned why I had the boundary in place. The howling self-doubt, the confusion about being questioned on the topic, and my own natural tendency to empathize with my conversational partner all combined to make answers difficult to articulate. He tried to be a good therapist and say accepting things, but it was obvious to me that he believed family therapy to be the one true way to solve issues, including my son’s depression, loneliness, and inability to make friends at school.
Outside that room, in the car on the way home, all the emotional noise subsided. My son and I talked. Both of us felt clearly and calmly that family therapy was not what we need at this time. For all that we have some isolationist habits and some individual family members with communication issues, those issues would be simply resolved simply by spending more time focused on talking to each other. We don’t need a mediator to help us be find hidden resentments. We already know how to discuss such things the minute it becomes obvious that they exist. I can’t count the number of difficult conversations my kids have been through with me, with each other, with Howard. We know how to talk about the hard things without letting anger or frustration make us mean. Yet I don’t think I could have convinced the therapist of any of that. Until he saw it for himself, all my statements of “I don’t think we need your help” sound like I’m scared or anxious trying to desperately prevent change and growth in family patterns. I did not have the patience to disrupt my entire family for weeks of sessions just to demonstrate that while we’re not perfect, mostly what we need is more time together not a mediator. Besides, some of the things we do have more to do with being a family of introverts than with being broken in some way.
My son and I decided that this therapist would not work for him. Which was sad, because the therapist had good rapport and my son instantly liked him. I can add one more failed therapy relationship to the list. There was one thing the therapist said which rang true to me. Patterns in the home are translated out into the wider world. Requiring my son to practice more social skills at home will help him use those skills at school. This left the problem of how to draw a family of introverts from their isolated comfort zones and into more shared activities. I’ve discovered more than once that when I want to change a family pattern, the wrong solution is exhausting and falls apart, while the right solution clicks into place and makes everything easier. I began mulling over what we should do. Part of my mulling involved prayer. The answer I got wasn’t what I expected, which is true of many of my answers to prayers.
Netflix has a show called the Great British Baking Show. I’ve never been interested in cooking shows, let alone competition cooking shows. Yet several online friends expressed what a delight this one was, in part because everyone is kind and helpful to each other rather than cut-throat competitive. So I began watching and I liked it. Up there in paragraph one there is a little sentence “we eat too much frozen food.” It has been more than a year since I cooked regularly. For a long time it has felt like I’d completely forgotten how to cook. Even on days where I had time and energy, I would stare at a cupboard full of ingredients and have no idea what to make from them. I’d come to the conclusion that I just wasn’t a cooking person now that the kids were old enough to get their own food. Then I started watching the cooking show. Part way into season two, I found myself wanting to make a trifle. Not just eat one, but also make it. Within a two days of wanting to make trifle, I got a clear answer to my prayers about bringing my family together. The answer was “cook more.”
Over the next week I considered my answer. Then one day I stuck in a frozen pizza, planning to watch more of my show while I ate it. No sooner had the pizza emerged when three family members had come into the kitchen to cook food. My quiet space was gone. The smell of food had summoned them from their corners. I shut my iPad and watched them move through the space. They smiled and interacted more, even when they were dodging each other and some of the kids were still trying to watch a video while preparing food. I began to see that if I were making more food to share, instead of food for one, that togetherness would flow naturally from the process. If I called people in to help me with the food preparation, they would be pulled away from their screens and into an activity which simultaneously engages multiple senses and encourages being social.
Of course there are potential problems with building social habits around food, particularly if the food is heavy on dessert offerings. Yet if I am conscious from the beginning to focus on healthy foods, we might all experience health benefits as well as social ones. I’m not going to perform a massive overhaul of our family eating habits. That way lies exhaustion and discouragement. I’m starting simple and small. I’m going to cook more often than I was. I’m going to keep watching cooking shows that spark food ideas. I’m going to encourage social time in the kitchen. I’m going to be patient and see what these small changes shift before attempting any more. Oh, and I’m going to cancel any further appointments with that therapist, he’s not what we need right now.