Asked and Answered:

Exits and Entrances

You can’t choose who your kids love – their hearts and hormones do that.  And you can’t  choose who they stop loving, either, or when.  All you can do is watch as the romantic vicissitudes of their lives reverberate through the family whose – omigod! – matriarch you seem to have become.  So when they found  partners  to spend their lives with, I first exhaled and then exulted. And when things changed, I cried not just for them but  for my own losses, too – another daughter, another son, other peoples’ grown kids who by then had also become my own.

When my son married, ,  I praised his wife with very faint ‘damns’ but  was the very model of a modern, encouraging, supportive mother-in-law thereafter. Six years later when they filed for divorce, I was sad that history seemed to be repeating itself – not only my son’s, but his father’s and mine, too.   So it came as a shock to me when  my ex-daughter-in-law and I got to be friends – after they were divorced. I don’t mean just polite to each other, I mean really good friends, who go to concerts together, never miss a chick flick and check up on and in with each other on a regular basis.   I’m still not sure how it happened except that she grew up after their divorce (okay, maybe I did, too), and we somehow were able to reach out and cut each other enough slack to create a real, mutual and loving relationship.  I  really respect the effort she and my son have made to be better as co-parents than they were as partners. And when my  daughter’s marriage ended in divorce, too, ten years and two children later, I was even sadder because I miss my son-in-law, a man who not only delivered my first granddaughter on the bathroom floor when his wife said the baby was coming Right Then, but stayed behind to wash the floor   before he followed them to the hospital. I’ve  called and written him, though not as freely as I once did and I miss his family, too;. Should I e-mail or call them? If I did, what would I say? What could I say, except isn’t it too bad, isn’t it sad ?I miss the  private hope this marriage represented,  that they’d escape the legacy of their own parents’ divorces and not repeat it themselves. I miss them as a couple, as I realize again that even though my kids’ former partners may some day be replaced in their lives, they won’t be in mine. And of course, I worry about my  grandkids,, even though their parents keep reassuring them that Mommy and Daddy still love them and their lives won’t change.

Except they will, of course.  And so, again, will mine.


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“Home for the holidays” is a phrase freighted with good and bad associations, real and imagined memories, and cultural nostalgia for Norman Rockwell’s glistening turkeys and Hallmark’s snowy feel-good specials. It’s also a season when existing emotional tensions in the family and issues that have been simmering between or among the generations often come to a boil.

Reduced to its essence, holiday disharmony is an expression of the all-too-human need to be both independent and autonomous; to be securely ‘held’ yet free to be our authentic self. It’s what happens when we hold on to family roles we’ve long outgrown: the drama queen, the victim, the baby, the martyr, or get stuck in dysfunctional family dynamics: guilting, demanding, or withdrawing. The oldest habits are the hardest to break so it’s no surprise that holiday family reunions are fraught with conflict, even with the best of intentions.

“It’s gotten so that I can almost hear the arguments and the fighting and feel the house shake when they slam the door on the way out,” says the mother of three adult siblings who seem unable to politely disagree about anything; from what happened when they were children to how they parent their own. “I’d like to go to an island with no telephones from the middle of November to the end of December,” says another client. “I hate going home for the holidays, I always have to pretend to be someone I’m not,” a graduate student adviser reports. “I can’t stand the way my son-in-law talks to my daughter; I have to bite my tongue to keep from pouring the gravy on his head,” a client tells me.

At a time when polarities are more common than consensus, differences in beliefs, values, or politics  are less likely to be amicably settled or acknowledged than argued to the extreme. And holidays, especially when fueled alcohol, often reflect the culture, tone, and context of the environment. A blue-state liberal and a red-state conservative may coexist in the same family, but not always happily at the holiday table.

It’s not surprising that family alienation is felt more keenly during the holidays than at other times, including birthdays and anniversaries. There are over two dozen Facebook groups for parents of estranged adult children and even those who report having come to terms with the situation and moved on with their lives post repeatedly about their anticipated grief, ambiguous hopes, and prayers for reconciliation at Christmas, even before the first leaves fall.

Some family members use the occasion to bring up difficult subjects, antagonize each other, demand or acknowledge uncomfortable truths or reveal family secrets. And others simply bite their tongues, refuse to take the bait, and quietly resolve to never come home for the holidays again.

It may be time for all but happy families bound by tradition, love, and mutual respect to accept the gap between the idealized family celebration we’d like the holidays to be and the reality of everyone getting there, being there, and leaving there without stress, tension, or emotional damage that can fray the ties that bind after the leftovers are finished and the tinsel vacuumed away. Time to ask our grown kids to do something else with us, at some other time, if it’s all the same to them. To tell our parents that we want to establish our own holiday rituals, but we’d like to celebrate with them another time, maybe even in another place. To look at our spouse or our close friends, and say, let’s take a trip, or even, let’s take the grandkids and leave their parents home. To say, What can I bring? to somebody else’s party, and have a wonderful time ourselves.

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