We’re expected to be there, but it’s miserable for everyone. So we’re not going, says Laurel Hermanson.
When I was little, I had two sets of grandparents: city grandparents and country grandparents. On my mother’s side were Nanny and Beepa. They were affluent and sophisticated and lived in a stately colonial in an upscale Connecticut neighborhood. They gardened and went to parties and took their boat out on weekends. On my father’s side were Neema and Beepa. They were older and lived on a farm in a tiny town in Wisconsin. They had cows and a big barn and a pony that pulled a cart.
I loved them all with my whole heart. Our family visits to Connecticut and Wisconsin are some of my best childhood memories.
My daughter also has two sets of grandparents. (She would have three if her father’s parents were still alive, but they both died before Gigi was born.) On my side are Gabba and Grandpa. They live in a quirky town on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. On her stepfather’s side are G-Mac and Papa. They live in a tiny town in Minnesota.
My ex-husband and I moved to Portland from Chicago because we planned to have kids and wanted to be closer to my parents. Since we were just a four-hour drive away, we visited often. I drove up for birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or just for fun. My ex and I also spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas with my parents, almost always at their home.
When Gigi was a toddler, she loved visiting my parents and they loved having her. They enjoyed her because she was fun, and when she stopped being fun she wasn’t their responsibility. When she misbehaved, it was attributed to my parenting failures. If she threw tantrums or had trouble sleeping in a strange crib, the raised eyebrows or crossed arms didn’t bother me much because I was used to being under the critical eye. And always, in the back of my mind, I believed Gigi was still too young to notice.
We missed Christmas with my parents for the first time shortly after my ex and I separated. Gigi was 3, and we were stuck in Portland following a snowstorm. The year after that, I wasn’t invited home for Christmas. Gigi was with her father, and I was living with a man whom my mother had introduced me to and then decided she didn’t like.
After that, much of the growing tension between me and my parents centered around holidays and visits, and who was welcome and who was not.
About a year after I left the man my mother didn’t like, I was in a relationship with someone new. I couldn’t wait for my family to meet Brad. I was smitten, and apparently still seeking my parents’ approval of my life choices. We took Gigi for a three-day Thanksgiving visit, and while Brad connected easily with my father and brother, my mother didn’t seem to enjoy herself.
Gigi was 5, and her big, often willful personality had begun to assert itself. There was nothing subtle about my mother’s criticism of her behavior—and my parenting. (During Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant, I overheard her tell a friend, “She lets her get away with it.”) Something in Gigi’s little brain must have sensed judgment, or maybe my reaction to it, because she acted out with a vengeance. The easy love she’d felt from my parents was gone, along with her tolerance for being the only kid in a houseful of prickly adults. I couldn’t blame her, because I knew how she felt.
The next spring, my mother planned a big outing on Mother’s Day weekend. She sent a group email in which she mentioned that she hoped I would be visiting with my daughter. I did what I suspect many grown, maladjusted children of narcissistic mothers might do: I avoided the whole thing by not replying for a while.
I knew I was expected to show up, but I didn’t want to go. For the first time, Gigi was old enough to understand what Mother’s Day was about. I had celebrated my mother for 43 years, and I wanted to spend this day with friends and my fledgling family. I wanted to relax and enjoy the holiday, to let the day be about me. When I finally replied to my mother’s “unvitation,” she was furious, and she detailed the many ways I had disrespected her and my father in a series of increasingly angry emails.
Later that year, we took Gigi to spend Christmas with Brad’s family in Minnesota. That week was lovely for Gigi and, by extension, for me. No one questioned her tantrums, because Brad’s parents and siblings were not so far removed from kids behaving like kids. I worried that his family might judge Gigi, but my concerns were in my head. I was still minding my parents’ opinions out of fear.
Brad’s family enveloped Gigi with the love I remember feeling from my grandparents and aunts and uncles. I asked Brad’s mother, “What should Gigi call you?”
She said, “G-Mac, like all the other grandkids.” Like all the other grandkids.
Brad and I weren’t yet married, but his parents and siblings treated me and Gigi like family. Within days, she was playing with her “cousins” as if she’d know them forever. She begged to see G-Mac and Papa every day. We stayed with Brad’s sister and brother-in-law (who let us sleep together in their home, which my parents refused to do), and she bonded with her “aunt” and “uncle” and shadowed their son as if he were a teen heart throb. I thought I might explode with happiness for her.
Gigi’s happiness was captured digitally and spilled onto my Facebook page. My parents saw the photos, and instead of saying something nice or even “liking” them, they both unfriended me. They were not happy to see their only grandchild having fun with another family. In their minds, we belonged with them, regardless of what we wanted, or how miserable Gigi would have been.
Brad and I are now married, and the three of us travel to Minnesota twice a year—once in the summer and once during the holidays. Aside from the long days that bookend each visit, we look forward to each trip. We love spending time with everyone, watching Gigi in a completely new environment, literally and figuratively. She runs wild in wide open spaces, and thrives among a family of fun, funny, kindhearted people who love her and dote on her and never roll their eyes when her behavior is less than perfect, or even downright obnoxious. This year will be our third Christmas there, and she’s been excited about it for months.
Brad and I sometimes talk about what it would be like to stay home for Christmas, to get a tree and decorate the house, to start our own family traditions that Gigi will remember when she’s grown. Yet we always choose Christmas in Minnesota with little discussion. I can’t help but think that our decision is made easier because, while his family would be disappointed if we missed a year, they would not be angry. They aren’t angry people.
I love my parents. I will always love them. I never anticipated that Gigi would grow up not knowing them, nor do I want that. Someone once told me the healthiest thing I could do for my child would be to allow her to see the dysfunction in my family, but to stand up for myself and for her, to be a strong role model. Yet there is no standing up to some people without causing drama that makes everyone uncomfortable, and I’m not ready for that. I’m a mother, and my instincts still tell me to protect my young daughter from unnecessary pain.
The holidays are tricky for many adults, and I imagine everyone navigates the season in a way that feels best for their families. I’m lucky to be able to choose between two families, when many people have no family at all with whom to celebrate the holidays. For now, I love spending Christmas with my husband’s family because they have become my family, Gigi’s family. We choose to be with people who want us to be there, instead of people who expect us to be there.
Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. Her essays have appeared in online magazines including Daily Life, Everyday Feminism, Jaded Ibis Press, and Ravenous Butterflies. She blogs occasionally at disgrace under pressure. Follow her on Twitter.