One year, several years ago, I asked my mom if I could bring my then-boyfriend home for Thanksgiving. He didn't have local family to celebrate with and I thought it'd be nice to spend the day together.
"I think that would make me and your stepfather very uncomfortable," she said.
It's not that she didn't like my boyfriend. It's just that I'm happily married to someone else, and having my boyfriend and my husband both there for the holidays seemed like a bit much to her.
I decided not to push it. I went home for a family dinner with my husband and kids, and met up with my boyfriend at my place afterwards. We had dessert together, and it was lovely.
Did I do the right thing? It was the right thing for my relationship with my mom, certainly.
It would have been a different story if my boyfriend and I had a different relationship. As it was we were close, deeply in love even, but not cohabiting or working towards building a partnership. The mechanics of our lives were separate. Our families were separate. If we'd been cohabiting or otherwise building a family together, spending the holidays together would have been a package deal: We'd all go to Mom's or no one would.
As it was, I was willing to compromise. It wasn't the most politically radical move of my life, but on balance, it was the right decision for me at the time.
Going home for the holidays once you're an adult can be a tricky business under any circumstances. It can be hard to make your grown-up life fit in with your family-of-origin.
When you have more than one partner, there can be a whole new layer of challenges. Ultimately of course, bringing your husband and your sweetie home for the holidays shouldn't be a big deal. We all go out and form new relationships as adults, and our parents have to deal with them. They might not like our choice of partners, but they don't get to pick.
And if what they don't like about your date is that she's bossy or he's a bore, most family members won't feel like it's their position to say anything. They certainly won't bar you from Thanksgiving for your personality faults.
If their objection to your choice in partners is that you've chosen more than one, though, be prepared for some pushback.
Like any unusual choice, this one sometimes meets with discomfort and resistance from our loved ones. And because it's an unusual choice, without a lot of social support (to put it mildly), people feel more entitled to express their objections. It's as if you're doing something wrong by having more than partner, being a square peg in their round hole of expectations.
If you do want to take more than one partner home for the holidays, here are some suggestions for how to make it easier on everyone:
- If you can help it, don't pick this moment to come out to Mom and Dad. The holidays are a stressful time already, and they'll be more receptive and welcoming to your partners if they already know about the relationships and are making a separate decision about whether or not to include them in the family rituals.
- If you do need to come out to your parents now, there's lots of good advice about how to do it. My two cents: Stay calm, and be ready to be mature enough for both of you. Remember that this is a surprise to them, but not to you. Everyone's first reaction to big surprises is immature and reactive. Don't expect their first response to be their last or only response.
- If they already know about the relationship, you're just discussing logistics for a family get-together.
- You might offer to make those logistics easier by offering to bring food, or to come early to help with set-up or stay late to clean-up. If we're talking about Christmas and your family tends to do expensive gifts, suggest alternatives like doing a service project together.
- It's perfectly reasonable to point out that their prejudice is showing if they simply object to your sweetie being there because they see the relationship as less legit than the one you share with your spouse.
- Finally, though, you're going to your parents' home. They get to choose who they're comfortable having in their home and under what circumstances. You can't, and shouldn't, bludgeon or guilt-trip them into having your whole poly family to dinner if the scene is just going to be uncomfortable for everyone.
- Instead you can decline their invitation, politely and simply explain why, and offer to get together another time on neutral ground or at your home.
- Or you can do what I did, and let your relationship with your partners take a back seat to keeping the peace with your family of origin. I can't recommend this course of action, though I've confessed to taking it. All I can say about this is that in some situations it will feel like the right move and you shouldn't beat yourself up about it. Yes, it would be great to live in a world where social bias against poly relationships wasn't a factor. But we don't live in that world. We live in a world where many, many parents will react like mine did to the notion of having multiple partners around the holiday table, and that has to be dealt with in a way that treats everyone with as much love and gentleness as possible. Change comes in slow, small, brave steps.
Let's say your parents do welcome you and your sweeties into their home for the holidays. How best to make that go off smoothly for everyone?
Look, I'm not Miss Manners. I can't tell you exactly how to finesse the situation so that your parents will think your relationships are awesome and can't wait to invite you back. I can tell you to be polite, to be gentle with your hosts.
I don't have a ton of experience with being poly at the holiday table, since my efforts at that haven't really gotten far off the ground. What I do have is a lot of long experience being vegetarian at Thanksgiving. Some lessons from that: Bring your own main dish, so as not to burden the host with preparing a second one just for you. Don't make a fuss about the meat at the center of the table; let everyone else enjoy their meal.
Similarly, I'd be aware of the way that your family structure is potentially creating more work for your folks and be prepared to pitch in to mitigate that work. Offer to wash dishes. Bring dessert. Offer to host the whole shebang next year if that makes sense for your family.
Above all, remember that you're going to a lot of effort to spend time with these people -- all these people, your parents and your partners -- because you love them. You want them to connect with each other. Look for the comfort zone between your partners and your parents, just as you would with one partner. Don't expect them to fit perfectly together, but find the points of overlap and focus on those. Does everyone love Chinese food? Maybe skip the traditional meal and order take-out. Universal fondness for board games? Bring some and cut the conversation short in favor of a few rounds of Dixit.
Do what works for your whole family. And attempt to have fun in the process. After all, these holidays are a celebration.
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