The Dysfunctional Family Holiday…And Why You Should Dump It

Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 17, 2012 in Motherhood, Mothers and Daughters, Musings, Relationships |

One of my best holiday memories: Thanksgiving with my oldest friend and chosen “sister”

As I write this, people everywhere are suffering. Even among my small circle of acquaintance, the trouble is great. One of my colleagues is watching his life partner, who was first diagnosed with breast cancer, now struggle with cancer in her bones, lungs, liver, and abdominal cavity. Another friend is watching an old school friend fight for his life to recover from cardiac surgery. Meanwhile a dear friend’s boss and his wife try to cope with the loss of a child, and one of my clients is about to see her husband go into surgery tomorrow to remove a cancerous tumor from his kidney.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

My oldest and dearest friend and I talk almost daily about the trouble in this world, how a day does not seem to go by where someone we know and care about is not struggling. And we talk, too, about why life has to be this way, why it seems to get more and more heartbreaking the older we get.

We are in our mid-30s, part of that unenviable “sandwich” generation, caring for young children, caring for ailing, aging parents, watching our friends and acquaintances struggle with their first signs of the onset of deteriorating bodies and lives. Illness, death, infidelity, divorce, births, neuroses—we are watching it all like a grand drama here in our own lives.

It is hard sometimes not to feel hopeless.

“I think it’s only going to get worse,” Sarah confides to me one night.

“I think you’re right,” I agree, realizing that despite everything we’ve been led to believe, life does not get easier with age and wisdom.

When she tells me about one of her friends who just lost her mother and sister in the last year, then struggled with her husband being in the ICU on the brink of death for weeks, only to lose a son in a car accident shortly after her husband came home, I tell her, “She should write a book.”

“About what?” Sarah asks.

“About how she has survived it,” I reply, thinking I would surely drive my car into a tree if so much tragedy befell me at once.

“Her women friends,” Sarah tells me. “That’s how she says she has gotten through.”

It might strike some people as odd that the woman did not say her family had pulled her through, so enamored are we as a culture with the idea that families are the be all and end all of existence. But that, as I and many of my women friends know, is, more often than not, a tragic myth.

Years ago, a couple I knew lost a son who was in the military. Always the loving pair with a big happy family (they had three other children) to outside eyes, this death tore them to pieces. One grieved with tears and talking; the other withdrew. They did not understand one another. Their more than two-decade old marriage dissolved within the year.

Why do families so often fail at love in the most critical of times?

It is a question to which I do not have the answer, though I have seen it often in my own life and in the lives of the people I love most dearly in this world.

Mark Twain once quipped that “familiarity breeds contempt,” and that may be true to some degree. But perhaps the greater truth is that the loving family that stands by us through thick and thin is as much a myth as Prince Charming and “happily ever after.” Yet we buy into it nevertheless, wondering what is wrong with us when our spouses, children, parents, aunts and uncles don’t provide the succor we need in times of crisis.

Taking a break from the dysfunctional family Christmas: my dad and Heidi

An acquaintance mentioned to me recently how his parents had this grand idea of having a summer family get-together where everyone stayed in a rented vacation house for a week—parents, kids, grandparents, sisters, brothers…everyone. “They think it’s going to be some big happy family,” he remarked. “But it’s never been that way, and it won’t be this time either. That’s just not how we roll.”

I don’t know if it’s how anyone rolls, to be quite honest.

We don’t choose our families, not really. We may get to choose our spouses, but most of us are so young and stupid when we do that that we might as well be picking out the cutest puppy at the pet shop on a whim of temporary adoration. It’s difficult to ask people whom we have not chosen and who have not chosen us to give us their all. Maybe they don’t like us. Maybe we don’t like them.

The old saying goes, “Blood is thicker than water.” I don’t know if that’s true. When one of my friends tells me my mother is crazy, I reply, “Yep, you’re right.”

And then I thank heaven for my friends. If I had to rely on my family to get me through the tough times, I’d be in dire shape.

Ironically though, it is with our disgruntled families that most of us spend our precious free hours—our vacations, holidays, birthdays. What should be the happiest days of our lives are peppered with disappointment, disillusionment, and sometimes even verbal brawls because we try to impose our vision of “the family” onto a group of people who maybe really don’t have a damn thing in common other than a blood line.

I know a handful of people who have made a stand against the drama. One couple I know who found each other late in life skip the family drama entirely for the holidays and have all their close friends over for Christmas dinner instead. I also have some friends that hold a “dysfunctional Thanksgiving”—a gathering of friends who have eschewed their relatives for this iconic American holiday.

I’ve decided it’s high time I do the same. This year I’m skipping Christmas. I have a long history of dysfunctional holidays that I’ve decided it’s high time I put in the past. From relatives who get into tear-inducing fights post-Christmas dinner to stressed out women who cook and bake for days out of obligation instead of love, I’m fed up. I’m taking my daughter to Disney World. And given my low tolerance for mass consumerism and waist-high people, it’s a grand testament to just how fed up I am.

Maybe one day when all the relatives who drive us crazy are gone and we’ve all divorced and remarried to people we actually like, my friends and I will join together for holidays we can actually enjoy among families we have chosen. Until then, do not be surprised to find me on a beach halfway across the world come Christmas and New Year’s…with no blood relative in sight, save perhaps my daughter.

Because life is too short to spend it being miserable among people who no more want to be with us than we want to be with them.


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