Does the prospect of a holiday family reunion have you curled up in the fetal position? Can a mere roll of the eyes from your mother strike guilt in your heart for taking that second helping of stuffing? Will your brother’s annual temper tantrum have you speed-dialing your therapist? Fall can be open season for family conflict. And the holidays, in particular, seem to bring out the most competitive and indifferent personalities among us, and really no one in between. For many disruptors, busting through old family dynamics and staying out of the fray will require some 21st-century survival strategies. So before you head over the river and through the woods, consider a few of the following.
SCENARIO 1: Child free—must travel.
Whether you’re childless by chance or child-free by choice, the burden of traveling to another family member’s home has fallen to you, again. Just like the song says, to grandmother’s house you go. Or, more likely, to your sister’s place, where you’re treated like a second-class citizen. Given that she wrangles a blended family of stepchildren, grandchildren, a pit bull and two guinea pigs, she’s probably a little jealous of your perceived freedom. Likewise, your lament is understandable: “Because I’m not a mother myself, my obligations and opinions don’t matter.” If you feel dismissed or disrespected, take a walk to blow off steam, scream silently into a throw pillow or set a specific time to skedaddle. Then, when you get home, you can celebrate yourself for acting like a grownup and maintaining peace in the family.
SCENARIO 2: Look who’s coming to dinner.
You’re in the middle of a holiday feast, enjoying a bit of turkey, when the door flies open and in walks your nephew … who is now your niece. “Call me Jennifer,” she says. While that simple request may challenge everything you’ve gleaned from watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians, you still feel desperate to make everyone else in the family see the intrinsic beauty of Jennifer’s newfound LGBT identity. You’ll want to argue, explain, even force devoutly religious Uncle Allen into accepting Jennifer, and he still may not. Things may go better if you welcome Jennifer’s partner or friends to the gathering, so she has her own built-in support system. Then, put Uncle Allen’s scrotum in a nutcracker until he shows a little respect, though you can never control his real opinions.
SCENARIO 3: Suddenly single & micro-sized apartment.
After 25 years you’ve ditched the deadbeat spouse and downsized your sprawling suburban homestead. Now you want to throw a party to reclaim your self-confidence. But how to accommodate 12 guests in a 500-square-foot apartment? Repeat after us: There’s no shame in cramming the people you love into a tiny living space, especially during the season of togetherness. Remember, your space isn’t what people are coming to see — it’s you! And YOU are worthy. Accept that this is no time to take on too much. Ask people to bring a dish. Relaxed hospitality keeps things light when you’re hanging with your tribe.
SCENARIO 4: When they go low, you get high.
Booze: There’s no better time to consume it in large quantities. Problem is, your mother-in-law insists on a totally dry house. Hell, if you’re going to get stuck sitting next to your brother’s obnoxious girlfriend, at least make it interesting for yourself. There are so many good reasons to abstain from alcohol during the holidays — medical, religious and psychological — but payback through sober eyes may be the best one of all. Sneak in a few mini bottles and spike the girlfriend’s fruit punch. Oh, look everyone! See Cindy being festive! Now, see Cindy going night night.
SCENARIO 5: Wabi sabi. Or, the Zen of not giving a damn.
Disruptors take heart. You will get through this, even if your big raucous family work your every last nerve. No matter how bad it gets, try to love them despite their imperfections. Nobody’s perfect. And no matter what, the agony can’t last forever, because the holidays, like life, only last so long.
Michele Karas is a published poet and an essayist. She is also the survivor of a lovingly dysfunctional family, one that provides her with endless amounts of material. Connect with her at MicheleKaras.com.
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