Some people make the annual pilgrimage back home even though they know their feelings will be ignored, their identities questioned, their experiences minimized. For those of you in this group, I offer an option: Don’t go.
As the holidays approach, many people are making plans to visit family. Most everyone can expect some stress and annoyance from chaotic family gatherings but in a subset of cases the damage is more profound. Some people make the annual pilgrimage back home even though they know their feelings will be ignored, their identities questioned, their experiences minimized. For those of you in this group, I offer an option: Don’t go.
My parents have been dead almost 20 years. I have six siblings but don’t have regular contact with any of them. I was ambivalent about the distance for many years, but I didn’t fall off of a cliff when I started spending holidays away from them.
Many people are brainwashed into believing that blood is thicker than water. But why?
That point of view is a relic from the age where extended families banded together for survival. Multi-generational homes were common. Children were taught the family business. Economic security was based on familial ties.
This interdependence is no longer an inescapable reality. As such the rationale for continued adult relationships with our parents and siblings can be the same as for non-blood relations — if your family respects you and feeds your spirit then nurture those bonds. But if they treat you poorly? Walk away.
I was sexually abused by an older brother for several years during my childhood. I kept this fact a secret into my 30s. However, the dichotomy between my inner life where I struggled with what had happened and my outer life where I repressed those feelings led to severe depression. Telling my secret was important for my recovery.
My siblings reacted in a variety of ways. Some offered no response. Others believed my story of abuse and expressed sympathy but wanted me to re-bury my feelings as soon as I’d excavated them. At least one thought I was outright lying.
As a child I kept my abuse a secret because I feared that I’d be demonized for capsizing the family boat with my revelation. My adult experience of telling my story was a confirmation of that very fear. No one yelled at me. No one called me names. They simply refused to engage with me on the topic.
I don’t hate my brothers and sisters. Some of them have been very crucial supports at different points in my life. I do have a sense of owing something in return for their generosity. However, I am not willing to bury my past to maintain those relationships. Instead I focus on paying forward the good things I received from them. Rather than paying my debt back to my family, I seek to return positive things to the world as a whole.
I didn’t have to walk away. I could have continued showing up at the holidays and having superficial conversations about my job, my chosen family, etc., but for what purpose? To conform to an outdated social norm that we stick with our family of origin no matter what? So I could forever relive the most difficult moments of my life?
I reject all of that. The holiday season does not need to be about driving ourselves into the ground stressed over obligations and forced community. What if Thanksgiving to New Years were instead a time to focus on being our best selves, expressing gratitude for who and what nurtures us, and sharing what we have with others. That task is nearly impossible if we simultaneously are reopening old wounds or creating new ones all for the sake of a family that tears us down.
Over the years I have spent the holidays with many combinations of friends and chosen family. Some events have been large celebrations, others modest gatherings. For Thanksgiving this year I am going out to dinner with my wife and son. We will spend the day enjoying one another’s company. I hope my siblings all enjoy the day as they choose to spend it, but the reality is I won’t have any pangs of regret over our separation. I’m satisfied with my choice.
Anne Penniston Grunsted writes about parenting, disability, and family life from her perspective as a lesbian mama. She lives in Southern California with her wife and son. Read more of her writing at annepennistongrunsted.