There are myriad reasons not to be a family.
There is only one reason to put up with your cigarette-smoking, nose-picking, inept, unpleasant, disruptive, opinionated, boorish grandparents, in-laws, cousins, and siblings. Did I mention that they are also offensive, insensitive, and inappropriate? Do I have to remind you that they tell that same inappropriate joke that wasn’t funny the first time you heard it 30 years ago? There is only one reason to put up with those folks with whom—except for biology—you have nothing in common. Is the fact that two people have a recent common ancestor and are both carbon-based life forms enough of a basis for meals and visits through the winter holidays?
Believe me, I’m with you on this one. I take you at your word. There is no doubt in my mind that your brother-in-law tried to run you over with his car, that your cousin has been stiffing you on dinner checks for generations, that the person your wife keeps bringing to family meals—are they even related to anybody?—is as scintillating a conversationalist as a dead dog and about as appealing, that the table manners of your siblings’ children are deplorable on a good day and today, clearly, is not a good day. Yes, it is going to take close to an hour to get the mashed potatoes out of the carpet. Those kids truly are feral. I hear you.
I am all about Friendsgiving and Friendsmas–if that’s a thing. I don’t blame you a bit if you have channeled your inner Popeye and have said, “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more.” By all means, you get to spend the holidays with people who care about you rather than people who criticize the way you look, the way you eat, the way you think. (That they are occasionally able to keep these scathing opinions to themselves rather than blurting them endlessly out loud is only a start.) You can blow off your unbearable relatives forever.
Or you can suck it up one more time and sit though one more unbearable car trip, one more intolerable weekend, one more unendurable meal.
Needless to say, I am in favor of families, imperfect though they may be. I wish mine were still around. I am pretty much the closest generation to headstones, thank you for asking. If you have to sever the bond with the cohort who came before you, go ahead. The distinction I want to make is about who chooses to say, “no mas.” It’s the current generation who gets to say, “that’s enough.” Adolescents can tune out, self-medicate, stop caring, give up. Parents aren’t allowed to cut and run. Parents don’t get to say, “my son is gay therefore he is not welcome here.” Parents don’t get to say, “my daughter married someone horrible therefore she can’t come for the holidays.” Parents don’t get to say, “my grandchildren are unbearable, I can’t have them in the house.”
Why are children more connected to their friends than to their parents? My guess would be their friends aren’t criticizing them from when they stumble out of bed at the crack of noon until they fall asleep underneath a pile of stale chips in the wee hours. The next time you hear an adolescent telling their friend which fork to use or to “take a no thank you bite” will be the first. Parents who are constantly and viciously critical are going to get tuned out.
Which is not to say that kids should be allowed to use their smart phones at the family meal. Only that kids shouldn’t want to.
This distinction cannot be emphasized enough. If you’ve told your kid a hundred times to put the phone away, what makes you think the 101st repetition is going to be the straw?
Stated another way, would you rather be right, or would you prefer to have someone to whom you can say, “please pass the mashed potatoes”? And yes, again, I acknowledge that the mashed potatoes are instant, came out of a box, are nutritionally worthless, and taste like cardboard without the creativity. And your ridiculous relative who brought this insult to actual food acts like she designed and built the Eiffel Tower when you have been meticulously preparing sophisticated recipes for three days. I didn’t say family was easy.
Only that there isn’t another option. Not for parents anyway. You’re too old to start over and the adoption agency is closed until after the first of the year. You have to make it happen. You have to find a way to bite your tongue, to keep your disapproval to yourself, to welcome your unbearable relatives.
Because the only thing worse that having your insupportable relatives home for the holidays would be not having them home for the holidays. There are indeed innumerable ways not to be a family. Your assignment is to ignore them all.
I would write more on the subject of making family happen, but have to go back to work trying to get the smushed instant mashed potatoes out of the rug.