If you have children, you start to know what kind of family you are by the time your kids reach a certain age. There’s the Outdoor Family, where everyone hikes with backpacks and water bottles, happily posing for pictures at waterfalls. The Animal Family, where cats are fostered in the basement, dogs claim the couches, and chickens roam the backyard. The High-Achieving Family, full of corporate jobs, sports trophies, and advanced placement classes.
And then there’s us, the Complaining Family. Where others collect stray cats, merit badges, and brochures from national parks, we collect whines, grumbles, and car rides full of discontentment. I’m not talking about legitimate complaints, like justified anger at bad government policies or physical pain that leaves you breathless. I’m talking about pointless, unproductive griping and grousing.
I’m not immune from complaining and certainly do my share of venting, but I don’t think anyone would call me a habitual complainer. And yet I wound up marrying one. For the longest time, my husband’s grumbling felt mostly like angsty humor and charming hyperbole. Oh you and your silly curmudgeon ways, I would think. But then the thing happened that always changes everything in a relationship: We had kids. In their chubby babyhoods, these sprite-like creatures were full of wonder at things like butterflies and staircases. But now they’re middle-school age, which means the sprite is gone and, from their point of view, everything basically sucks.
So now my husband and my kids each have a version of, The world is shit and woe is me to be stuck in it. The whines, the injustices, and the dissatisfaction all create a soundtrack of complaining that my three loved ones harmonize around. I ignore it until I can’t, at which point I start compiling their list of complaints in my head like a prosecutor building her case, until I inevitably explode and freak them out by screaming something like, Everyone shut up right now! It’s a family rule—my rule, in fact—that we’re never supposed to say Shut up! to each other.
The three of them complain. I complain about their complaining. Surely, this is all dysfunctional.
This past summer was a great example. It started with my husband complaining that there even was a summer—as in, a time when children weren’t in school. “Holidays, in-service days, spring break, and they get out in May,” he said. “They barely even have school!” I’ve heard this refrain since our oldest child started kindergarten, so I just I rolled my eyes and ignored it.
In July, we took a vacation on Lake Michigan. This meant spending money to rent a house, which was met with only mild grumbling from my husband. Paying a cat sitter seemed much more offensive to him (“The expenses just never end!”), even though our preteen daughter has made a business of cat sitting herself. Whaaaatever. We hadn’t been anywhere since 2019, and I was so happy to actually be going somewhere that even his silly objections didn’t register.
Then there was the drive to Michigan, full of construction, traffic, and idiot drivers, whom we heard about the whole way. But again, this was all just white noise for me. A jerk here who can’t merge, an asshole there who didn’t signal, la la la.
I had found a house on Airbnb between South Haven and Saugatuck. It was slightly in the country but close to everything, and it looked quirky and artsy. It had one of those cocoon-like chair swings suspended from the ceiling that my daughter had once desperately wanted for her bedroom and a sleeping porch I thought my son would love.
The kids hated it from the moment we pulled into the driveway. Their complaints didn’t stop for the whole hour it took us to unpack and settle in. Why was the couch so uncomfortable? Why wasn’t there a pool? Why did the water taste so bad? Why did we drive six hours to come to this dumb, stupid, weird house in the middle of absolutely nowhere? And who came to Michigan, anyway? Why couldn’t we go to Florida like everyone else? Did we even bring any decent food?
And there, reader, in the quirky dining room, in the house that wasn’t in Florida and didn’t have a pool but instead had well water and was in the middle of nowhere, I lost it. I mean, I lost it. Yelling curse words. Pulling out all the mom guilt and charging at them. “Do you know how hard we work to be able to afford a vacation like this?” (It was actually pretty cheap, since the house was in the middle of nowhere and didn’t have a pool. But still.) “I’m so tired of your ungratefulness! It’s rude and disrespectful, and.. .and.. .” I looked over at my husband, wanting to say, “and it’s your fault because you won’t ever shut up either!” But I refrained. “And it needs to stop,” I said instead.
Everyone was quiet. Holy shit, Mom lost it, they were thinking. Holy shit, I lost it, I was thinking. We had an hour or so of peace, until my son pointed out how bad the WiFi was. Sigh.
This all leaves me wondering if the Complaining Family can find any other identity. Why can’t we be the Volunteering Family? The Thoughtful Family? I’ll even take the Boring Family, if it makes the silly fussing stop.
While my husband’s complaining drives me nuts, he’s at least funny. Michigan traffic and cat sitting fees notwithstanding, he actually does make an effort to curb his curmudgeon behavior, because he knows whining is an undesirable quality. But most importantly, he’s not, you know, my actual responsibility.
But my children bemoaning and lamenting their way through life? That feels like it is my responsibility.
To that end, I’ve tried all the things. Getting mad at them has been most effective, though only because it shocks them into temporary silence. Guilt and manipulation have proven least effective. You know what I mean—things like lectures about genocide, starving children, and earthquakes devastating whole cities. My thinking is that if they just understood how privileged we are and how silly their complaints would sound to someone who doesn’t have clean water or basic safety, they’d gain perspective and practice gratitude.
But you can’t really shame a 13-year-old American out of being a 13-year-old American, especially when you’ve built them up to be exactly who they are.
What seems to bother me about their complaining is that it feels tied to some inherent lack of gratitude for all we have. Isn’t that what this supposed season of thankfulness is about? And yet, more and more, thankfulness feels like it’s just a Band-Aid for all the problems our world has. Slap it on and feel better. Hashtag your social post #grateful and move on to the next thing. After all, you can loudly proclaim your thankfulness and still act in cruel, selfish, and small-minded ways. American history is a case study in insincerity.
So yeah, maybe my kids’ complaining is a sign that they will be ungrateful turds for all eternity. Or maybe it’s just an adolescent stage of finding their voice that has little to do with how they’ll show up in the world as adults. Either way, isn’t it just frustrating as hell to not live up to your ideals of what you think your family should be?
The other night at dinner I felt myself again moving from that space of mild annoyance to bubbling hostility. So I took a step back and observed us. God, we all talked so much. Everyone had an opinion. But also everyone was comfortable in their skin. No one was trying to hide some shadow life. No one seemed afraid of showing who they were.
It hit me that it’s possible another moniker describes us, too: The Honest Family. What you see is what you get. And if you’re around us for any length of time, you’re going to see unfiltered humanness.
Obviously, I want my kids to be thoughtful, have perspective, and practice gratitude. What a messy, messy path it’s all going to be. But I’m glad to be on the honest route, right through the whiniest muck. Now that’s a real Thanksgiving toast. Happy holidays, friends.