‘Tis the season

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On toxic family gatherings, and the importance of taking care of yourself

“They’re my family.”

“I have to go. They won’t be around for- ever.” “It’s the only time we all get together. How can I not be there?”

“I wish I could just skip the family gathering, have a group of friends over for dinner and wine.”

Admit it. The family gatherings that are part and parcel of the Great American Holiday Season add to the stress many of us struggle with this time of year. “The only good thing about it is that EVERYONE is stressed,” said my friend Geri. No matter which holidays you celebrate, chances are good that if your tradition involves getting together with extended family, you may be feeling some ambivalence about how you celebrate.

You know the scenario. A house too warm from the oven. Heavenly aromas wafting from the kitchen (or, your sister burned dinner again) and family tensions simmering under the surface or old resentments openly displayed. Whether we argue about who washes and who dries or who our aging mother should live with; raise our voices or seethe silently behind gritted teeth, for most of us, it’s a matter of degrees.

“It’s not that my family is that bad,” said my neighbor Carol, “it’s that we have unrealistic expectations. Life is not a Hallmark moment.” It really bugs Carol to have to witness her sister’s pride in a materialistic lifestyle when Carol’s made the conscious decision to live simply.

But Carol’s situation pales next to my friend Connie’s. Connie, who is parenting two children with her partner Jill, describes several family members as “openly homophobic.” But she isn’t willing to forgo family holidays. “I think you just have to suck up the snide comments from one and the cold shoulder from another because really, what choice do you have? They’re not going to change,” Connie said. “So I just bite my lip and sometimes on the way home I explode about it. Jill understands. Her family’s even worse than mine.”

Wow. That is a really powerful statement. I asked Connie why, if it’s that stressful, she puts herself, Jill and the kids through it. She looked at me as if I’d grown a second head.

Whether your family really IS that bad is sometimes a question of your personal tolerance. Minor differences can be tolerated if there is a strong foundation of love and respect.

But some families have wounds so deep or differences so profound that they are only covered with a band-aid-like veneer; when the bandage gets pulled off, the bleeding begins anew. If you have made the (sometimes painful) choice not to spend holidays with family who are abusive or not respectful of your life, I applaud your courage. It is not easy to fly in the face of tradition in a culture that seems to believe there is something wrong with taking care of yourself this time of year. In fact, it’s MORE than OK, it’s smart and so are you.

At this year’s holiday table raise your fork of turkey or tofurkey; your glass of wine or apple cider to YOU. Celebrate if you’re with family you love. Celebrate if, in order to love yourself, you’ve made a different choice. Try to put it all into perspective.

‘Tis the season.

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