My parents, two siblings and I haven’t eaten Thanksgiving dinner together since I was in elementary school, about three decades ago. The fracture in our family is deep and old.
I’d like my family holidays to be easy. But this late in the game, I’m not holding my breath. However, even if easy isn’t possible, simple is. I can simplify the choices I make about family during the holidays and feel whole no matter what my circumstances.
Take this year. My parents floated some ideas about Thanksgiving that I’m sure they hoped we’d all enjoy. But considering their idea, I got knots in my stomach. I worried the change would only deepen the divides that make holidays hard for the five of us.
I didn’t know how to tell my parents, so I talked to my husband and therapist about my choices. Then, I asked if my parents and I could discuss the change together. I felt shaky before our conversation, but incredibly grateful when it went well. They understood my reservations and agreed the idea wouldn’t work.
But even if they hadn’t responded as I’d hoped, I knew I had at least dealt with the problem forthrightly, behaved with kindness, and created a path forward that had integrity. I knew I’d done my best to love my family well.
Having the conversation with my parents wasn’t easy. But it was the simplest route to keeping our relationship healthy and our holiday whole.
Every year, I navigate how to enjoy the holidays with less-than-ideal family relationships. I wonder when to bring up problems, and when to let slights go. Sometimes, I agonize about choosing between my sanity and family togetherness.
I’ve learned a few simple questions help me cut through the tangle of emotions, guilt, anger, and love to find a path that feels whole and sane.
1. What do I want?
When it comes to my family, sometimes I neglect this question altogether. I was always the good kid growing up. What I wanted felt beside the point, because my needs might upset someone. It was easier to concentrate on what kept the peace.
Lately, though, I have tried to begin with my yearning. In an ideal world, what would this holiday look like? How would I spend my time, how much would I see family, cook, entertain, or decorate?
Paying attention to your own wants and needs does several things.
- It encourages you to be honest with yourself.
- It cuts away the blindfold of “should”.
- It teaches you who you are.
For instance, I used to fill my holiday with baking because it seemed ‘traditional’. My “should” blinded me to a simple fact: I don’t like cookies or baking. When I finally came to my senses, I chose traditions I enjoyed.
I used to be afraid my wants and needs would be impossible to meet—so I ignored them wholesale. But the truth is, I generally don’t ask for for much. An hour of rest, quiet creativity, the option to say no to poisonous situations.
But unless you admit what you long for, it’s impossible to have it.
2. What am I afraid of?
Once, for about six months, I feared that someone I loved might hurt themselves. Later, I realized the threat of self-harm had always guided that particular relationship—and not in a good direction.
Unacknowledged fears will guide our relationships like invisible rudders. To avoid our terror, we’ll numb ourselves, avoid conflict, keep quiet, stay cynical, or avoid vulnerability.
It’s a fantastic recipe for unhappiness.
We avoid our fears for a reason—it’s a lot easier than facing them. But family gatherings force us into an awkward dance with fear. At the very least, we must decide whether to show up or not.
When you consider family tension this year, ask yourself, What’s the worst thing that could happen? And then, What’s the worst thing that could happen because of that? After a few layers of worst-case scenarios, you’ll find your bedrock fear.
Once you address your fears, it’s time to ask the hardest and most clarifying question of all.
3. What’s the road to kindness?
In her book, The Liar’s Club, Mary Karr quipped, “A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.”
Like it or not, all of us have dysfunctional families. And dysfunctional families always mean hard choices.
Do we avoid confrontation and skip gatherings? Speak up and upset people? Attend and pretend? Some other more-appealing but imaginary-as-unicorns strategy?
When I’m stumped about how to deal with my family, choosing kindness simplifies my decision-making.
Kindness doesn’t mean mealy-mouthed niceness. It insists on believing the best of people—and holding them accountable when they hurt you. It means avoiding gossip, cynicism, and bitterness.
Kindness is our best compass in family wildernesses. When considering how to be kind, I ask:
What is kindest to myself? Being kind to myself means being clear about what I want in the first place, and acting with integrity and bravery.
What is kindest to my kids? I protect my kids from toxic people, but also prioritize forging their relationships with their extended family.
What’s kindest to my significant other? My husband and I share our concerns together quickly, but also support each other’s relationships with our extended families.
What is kindest to others? Though I want to connect to friends and family, it’s not healthy for anyone if I overlook toxic relationships or contribute to them.
To my surprise, being honest with myself helps me be kinder to other people. It’s simpler to do the right thing when I’m in touch with my deepest values.
An Awkward Opportunity for Love
I used to think I had to pretend my way to the perfect ‘family holiday’. That I had to cover up my misgivings, overlook my needs, and ignore the ache in my gut. But it turns out that asking myself simple questions helps me love the family I actually have—awkward, imperfect, and beautifully mine.