Q: I so dread Thanksgiving and the requisite get together with a supposedly close family. I really don't want to go. I am considering all kinds of excuses, including the economy, to free me and my family from making the trip. I know that by the time you read this, it may already be Thanksgiving and too late for your advice to do me any good, but I still want to hear what you have to say. I know from movies and jokes and TV sitcoms that lots of other people feel the way that I do. So, I am obviously not alone. Here's my story:
My two married brothers, their wives and their eight children join my wife, my three children and me for three supposedly wonderful days with my parents down in Florida. The children range in age from three to fifteen years old. The adults, aside from my parents, range in age from twenty-five to forty-six. My parents are in their late sixties. They look forward to this event all year. They prepare food, plan activities, buy gifts and of course, orchestrate the sleeping arrangements. Needless to say it's chaos. The children actually get along, but it's impossible for the weekend to pass without the requisite fights, tantrums and tears. By the time the weekend is over, we are all exhausted. As we pack up and head out, we solemnly promised to sure that whole year does not go by before we do this again -but a year does go by. Only on Thanksgiving do we all get together.
The conversations over the weekend revolve around everyone's (adults and children) accomplishments over the last year. This gives my parents the opportunity to criticize, judge and sometimes applaud. It goes without saying that their grandchildren are brilliant and adorable, even though I always feel like they favor my older brother's three teenagers -- kids I happen to find annoying. My three kids are unfortunately between the boring ages of seven and eleven. Nothing much is happening in their lives at the moment. My younger brother's two little kids obviously get all the attention. They're cute, they respond to all the adults and they sort of command all the attention.
Then comes the conversations about us three sons. My older brother is a banker. He has a secure job and he has always been conservative as hell about money. Stay out of the market. Don't do this. Don't do that. Worse than his advice, is the unforgiveable fact that he's turned out to be right. For my parents, this only confirms that they thought all along - he's the responsible and dependable one. He's the son we should all admire and emulate.
My younger brother and his wife could not be more different. They're "artists." They both work as freelancers in advertising, publishing, etc. At the same time, they both pursue their painting and sculpting careers. They live, as my parents would say, an interesting life and they always want to hear what they are up to.
Then there's me. I'm the one who, in their opinion, is still searching. I'm a freelance writer. I write mostly about politics, which I loved and find endlessly fascinating. My parents keep asking me if I have enough money to live on. They want to know when I will enter the "real world" and when I will start to look for a real job. Just following current events and occasionally selling an article, is not what they think is responsible. My Dad keeps telling me to become a professor.
I admit that my parents sometimes do ask me my opinion about world events, and they even ask what I have discovered in my research. But, they still just continue to quote their own respected sources: the local paper or the bridge table. Conversations about politics or world events can become quite spirited in my family, but everyone still thinks of me only as an incidental part of the conversation. They don't respect me enough to think that I may be a knowledgeable source.
My wife agrees with me. She feels uncomfortable with my mother and with her sisters-in-laws. She even doesn't feel like they like her cooking. They are more aggressive than my wife is, and obviously they assert themselves in the conversation. My wife believes that my mother doesn't care about her as much as she cares about the others. They don't communicate well and don't share any interests. They don't even go shopping for food together like the others do. And, of course, my wife thinks her kids are slighted all the time.
Just reciting the story to you confirms my feelings. I'd love to stay home.
A: At this moment you are all probably in Florida sharing the Thanksgiving holiday with your extended family. In spite of your anticipatory fear, you have made the trek for the sake of memories you children will someday have of their cousins, for the sake of your parents' happiness and in the hope - no matter what the odds - that this year will be better than last.
You're right about not being alone. Many people have the same anticipatory fear of holiday get togethers. Many people believe that their family is dysfunctional -so much so that they will not be able to survive the holiday. Movies, books, commercials, etc. have exploited these feelings and anxieties so that now Fear of The Holidays is a part of our holiday culture. But family get togethers have to include downs as well as ups -- the good and the bad, fun and frustration. No family is all fun.
Your fears and anxieties about time spent with the family comes about precisely because you do love them. These are important people in your life. In fact, you are still experiencing feelings from your childhood -- like insecurity, middle-child syndrome, and jealousy. You are still looking for approval from your parents. You want your parents' not just because parental love is wonderful, but also because makes you feel like you are successfully in life. You also want them to approve of your children as additional proof of your own success. Your wife, being your wife, now shares your feelings.
What you should be asking yourself is not how to avoid these bad feelings, but what these feelings tell you about yourself. Why aren't you satisfied with yourself? When we move away from our family, we begin to develop our own identities and our own family unit. We accept the responsibilities of adulthood, and we structure it in the way that we believe is right for us. You know what your interests are, and you know how you want to spend your time, and you know how you want to earn money, and you know you have to earn money for your family. You know all of these things. You have made your choices.
So, why are you still insecure about presenting yourself as the adult you have become? One reason might be that you feel that with position or money comes authority. This is normal, but it is not the way your parents see things. From what you say, they have as much respect for your brother the freelance artist as they do for your brother, the banker. So, something else is going on.
In your case, I think you revert to old patterns about positioning yourself within your family's structure. After all, if you were actually severely afraid of your family, you wouldn't have spent the last several years going down to Florida for Thanksgiving. The fact is, you enjoy most of it. You enjoy watching your family. You enjoy the familiarity. You are comforted by the old patterns. It can be comforting to know that some things don't change.
Don't expect more from your parents than they can give to you. But expect a bit more from yourself. Ask yourself if there is something about this stage of your life that makes you nervous or anxious -and you are afraid that your parents will spot it. Maybe this is the time for you to make some changes in your life. Then next year you will come to the family gathering with some new tales to tell and renewed confidence in who you are and what you have chosen to do.
Save the drumstick for me!
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