This weekend is Thanksgiving. In a couple of months will be Christmas. Several months after that will be Easter, then Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and July Long Weekend…all of these occasions for times with family.
The week running up to Thanksgiving can be a preoccupied one at a counselling centre. And the week after it, is definitely affected as well.
Here is what I know about hosting family gatherings:
1. People often put unfair value into hosting family gatherings.
The very act of hosting the big dinner is unconsciously turned into a measuring stick of how important one’s family is.
Hosts put a lot of pressure into the “perfect gathering” where everything is perfectly cooked, there are multiple salads, and everyone gets their favourite pie. The decorations are specially made, and the centrepieces are planned ahead of time.
It’s like there is a belief that one’s love is measured by Martha Stewart-esque perfection and intensive labor.
And the whole thing is no dang fun…just a pile of stress.
And there is little joy in the hosting…and sparse little time for actual lovin’–the laughter, the sharing, the casual conversation…the joy of simple connection.
2. Hosts who invite and encourage help host gatherings that are often more fun.
If someone offers to bring something–say YES! Have a mental list of side dishes or desserts that can make your life easier so when people offer, you know what to say. When people stand up at the end of the meal to help carry dishes into the kitchen to load the dishwasher–say THANX!
Quite frankly, I love it when people accept my offer to bring something. I feel useful. When I’m only making one dish, it gives me a chance to google a new recipe and fuss a little. It’s nice to know that there is one less thing for the host to do. And it increases the sense of community when those who can, are able to contribute something.
When I grew up, and we were at my Oma and Opa’s house, there was a monstrous crew at the table with all the children and grandchildren–a tiny house and no dishwasher. Cleanup was part of the fun of the evening. It wasn’t something that we tolerated to get to the fun…it was part of the fun. The dishes were washed in the kitchen sink and the pots and pans were washed by a second crew in the laundry sink.
Get over making it “perfect”, and welcome friendly and casual chaos that has people feeling welcome and comfortable to be their own imperfect selves.
Here’s what I know about attending family gatherings
1. These days, family gatherings can be a huge hassle and no-win situations.
…with competing and overlapping invitations. A couple may both have divorced parents with separate homes, and their children may have non-custodial parents. There are times when there isn’t time to accept all the invitations. There is no making everybody happy.
Without making tough choices, a person could rush from one huge turkey meal to the next, and still feel like they are disappointing a parent, a step parent, an ex-partner…dragging around exhausted and frazzled children who hate the whole thing.
Give yourself permission to develop a realistic and quality schedule that works for all those involved…yourself and your kids included. Alternate occasions…skip some expressing regrets and the reason behind the choice. Don’t expect everyone to understand all the time. Sometimes even those who do understand will be disappointed. That’s OK. Disappointment is part of life and it doesn’t kill anyone, and its a sign that you are wanted.
Develop a sustainable rhythm early on…create space for new traditions. Having Thanksgiving time with one family either one week early or late may make it a more special experience and something that can be cheerfully anticipated.
2. Doesn’t matter how old you are, when you sit down at your mama’s table, there is a tendency to feel like a 12 year old.
You know what I’m talking about, huh?
Old insecurities, petty jealousies, sibling rivalries suddenly come out of no where and hijack your normally sane and mature mind. Seeing siblings around the table can bring up feelings we forgot existed.
A person can find themselves experiencing all sorts of things that one hasn’t felt or thought about for years…and then acting in a manner that is more consistent with being an adolescent than a fully grown adult.
- A successful businessman suddenly feels like he’s just a twerpy little brother
- A capable young mom feels like she is performing (and failing) in her role with her sisters watching
- An son who runs his own business cowers as his father criticizes his new haircut
Long forgotten parts of ourselves get tapped into when we enter into contact with people whom we have known in another context and in another time. Our body feels the familiar space of what it was like long ago, and it all floods right back.
Expect it. Plan for it. Plan things to remember that you might want to gently remind yourself: “When he pokes at me, it makes sense to respond like I did 20 years ago, but I’ll be OK. I’m a grown man/woman and I may not be perfect, but I am much more than this poke”.
3. Alcohol is an unfortunate and big part of most of these gatherings.
Lemme just be really crass about a very real truthful equation:
Alcohol + family gatherings = Good business for counselling offices
Quite simply: you can’t unring the bell, people.
The Tuesday after a long weekend where there are family gatherings generally have a few messages on the answering machine from folks who have experienced the trauma of a family gathering gone wrong. And generally, there was alcohol involved in the downward spiral.
Alcohol loosens tongues. People say things that shouldn’t be said, or in manners and times they shouldn’t be said. People say things that aren’t true…but those things aren’t forgotten.
4. Family gatherings challenge alliances.
I’m not just saying this cuz I’m writing this with Survivor playing on the television in the next room…alliances are huge at family gatherings.
It’s painful for a wife to go to her in-laws for Thanksgiving and watch her husband be more loyal to his parents than to her:
- He laughs when they criticize her
- He is silent when they make comments about her parenting
- He agrees to the summer vacation next summer with his folks even though they decided ahead of time that they wanted to vacation alone.
It’s agonizing for a husband to go to his in-laws for Thanksgiving and watch his wife be more loyal to her parents than to him:
- He asks her not to leave him alone with her dad…and she disappears with her mom to a neighbours house for a few hours
- His father in law asks pointed questions about his not getting a promotion, and how little income he makes, and challenges him to “try harder”…and she is silent
In family therapy, we often think of families in diagrams…and we position family members with dots relative to each other. In healthy families, husbands and wives are closer to each other than others. If a spouse is closer to parents than to his/her partner, the foundation for marital struggles is huge.
Another part of the alliance is supporting your partner…sure, you didn’t grow up with his parents, and maybe his dad has bad breath and tells bad jokes…but it’s his dad. Going to a family gathering is an act of love.
Does your partner know you have his/her back at the family gathering this weekend?
Family gatherings at Thanksgiving (and other times of the year, for that matter) are a complicated tricky business. They can be painful, triggering, and a ton of energy. The can be tricky to schedule and navigate. They can be exhausting at multiple levels…and can feel like a minefield for new wounds or the reinjury of old ones.
They can also be times of laughter and reconnection, increasing the strength of the ties that bind family to one another. Stories are re-told, and there can be collective sadness and joy at the memories that are reminisced. Family gatherings increase the glue that connects people…there is benefit from that strength in difficult times ahead. Favorite foods shared remind those around the table of common roots in ways that strengthen the soul.
With careful and deliberate boundaries and planning, courage to be authentic to one’s values, and vulnerability to open oneself up to connection, family gatherings can be times of goodness.