A 21st Century Journalism Project

When Home is a House to Avoid

In People on May 1, 2012 at 1:13 pm


Most people look forward to coming home. Ideally home is at least the one place where there is safety and security, a place met with welcomes and relief.

It is an ideal luxury many people simply don’t have. On the outside the home of a dysfunctional family may look like just another house on the block—it might even have the nicest lawn and gardening. Even the inside can appear homely, a Netflix movie in mid-stream on the TV.

Put two or more people in the same room, and everything goes to hell.

Members of dysfunctional families may feel most alone while at home.

A normal appearance might save members of a dysfunctional family from public embarrassment of what ensues when the family has to interact, but it complicates any effort to escape it if you perceive growing up this way as everyone else did: “They were pretty normal. Everything must be all right. Every family bickers.”

At first Sara (for privacy’s sake, is Sara Rokhlin) insisted her family wasn’t all that unusual. Then at college she’d listen to her friends talk about their families, their parents and the family feuds they had.

They were shocked when she mentioned having KFC for Thanksgiving because no one could really cook. Her friends grew up with family recipes spanning generations, families who tended to regard holiday meals with more reverence and dedication than religion, so the contrast turned that particular matter into a sad joke.

Over time the shock turned into concern when she let it slip that her family almost never hugged her. Ever. Then she mentioned that she was the Cinderella of the house, managing household chores almost exclusively despite having two other sisters.

The little things started to add up. The KFC-for-Thanksgiving-joke was losing its mirth; it was a symptom of something not to be laughed at.

Sara began to admit that maybe her childhood wasn’t as normal as she thought. She felt a lot of anger toward her family and hated going home for breaks from college, hated the endless arguing, doing all the chores while her sisters get off the hook, and the utter disrespect her family has for one another.

The Rokhlin family of five has lived in Erie for eight years. Her father, an alcoholic, left ten years ago, having never married her mother even after having three kids.

Recently Sara learned that her father got another woman pregnant.

“Dad’s a drunk,” Sara said. “I don’t even know where he is. I have no idea about the other woman he got pregnant either. I don’t even know if she had the kid yet. Last time I talked to him he said he had a place, but I’m not sure I even believe him.”

They struggled as a family even before financial problems complicated their interactions. Her grandmother is retired, her single mother works while going to school and coping with health problems, and the younger two sisters spend their time on hobbies and church camp while Sara does the laundry, mows the lawn, or builds bookshelves and other new things around the house—because no one else will lift a finger.

They argue mostly about who does what chores around the house. Most of the work is done by Sara, her grandmother cooks. Sara doesn’t think her mom even knows how to cook, and none of her sisters can, either.

Sara resents that her sisters refuse to help out and consequently have no practical skills.

“I think they feel entitled that they don’t have to do work. You can ask them to do something, but they will say they had a hard day at school or something. There’s always an excuse. I don’t think they grasp the idea of actual work. They’re spoiled,” she said.

“My youngest sister goes gymnastics. She can lift her entire body onto a bar but she can’t lift a bundle of laundry. And Katherine… Katherine and her religion irritate me the most. She’s so hypocritical. She’s pure sloth and disrespectful. She now believes her Christianity is the Christianity.”

Despite her sisters’ faults, the greatest source of her resentment for them comes from their family interactions.

“I don’t like them because… once they were born, I was replaced—as far as treatment goes. I do all the work. Mom doesn’t realize they’re out of control. Every time I defend myself, I’m the villain or I’m the one being disrespectful.”

Sara has reached the point where she can’t stand being home. Once her roommate gave her a ride home to pick up some things. In her frenzied rush to leave because they started arguing when her mother wanted her to do some chores before she left, she tried to unlock the car door and almost broke the car key.

“The source of all this is a lack of communication and being forced to live in a small house, and seeing each other all the time makes everything worse. Seeing each other adds fuel to the fire. You can’t escape,” she said.

“At home there needs to be less yelling and equal share of the work. There isn’t enough respect or understanding in the family. Just listening to each other would help a lot,” she said.

Although dysfunctional families exist across the spectrum of income, the working poor have an even tougher time getting out of the family setting because of cycles of financial dependency, and the habits (and lack of skills) of the parents tend to be passed down to their children.

Sara wants to move out as soon as possible because she is tired of fighting a losing battle with her family and doesn’t want to deal with their problems on top of her own.

Transitioning from a working poor dysfunctional family member in college to independence, though, usually isn’t easy.

Members of dysfunctional families can seldom do anything about the entirety of the problems, and it is not always a good idea to try. Both the Kansas State University and the University of Illinois have great support information for people coping with dysfunctional families.

It’s easy to focus on “working poor” issues like underemployment or a lack of health insurance, but some people have problems which hit closer to home, problems even money can’t fix.


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