Back when all the children were still at home and we took family vacations, I’d always get excited beforehand, beginning each journey convinced we’d have a wonderful time together. I’m a devotee of ideal family life, forever in pursuit of the Father Knows Best type of vacation where everyone gets along and we have a meaningful experience together. As the first day or two of those trips passed by, I’d struggle to stay upbeat in the face of the predictable bickering, complaints about the amount of time spent in the car, indifference or hostility to the activity we had planned. Eventually I’d snap and get surly, utterly disillusioned by the experience.
During the year we lived in France, we drove from Burgundy down to Barcelona and then to San Sebastian — all five of us in the minivan for horrendous hours on end. In a series of photos over that week, you can see my mood degenerate until finally, near the end when we were visiting the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, I am stony-faced and angry. My children like to tease me about my absurd optimism concerning family life, and about vacations in particular. They all know better.
I found myself recalling those vacations this past week as I was looking forward to Thanksgiving with buoyant spirits. Oldest son coming in from Chicago, middle son flying in from California, my 13-year-old daughter eager to participate in preparing the feast. She and I made happy plans to do the marketing together Tuesday afternoon. All five of us would finally reunite for a holiday meal, glad to see one another after this time apart. Good food, meaningful conversation at the table, and maybe we’d play some games in between the main meal and dessert, just to let our food settle.
Now wait a minute.
Even a pathological optimist like me sometimes wakes up in time. I reviewed prior holidays and revised my vision of this coming Thanksgiving to conform with past reality. The boys will be eager to see their local friends and probably won’t want to hang out much at home. While they’re more or less past the phase where they bicker all the time, I wouldn’t call them close. And playing any kind of game as a family is absolutely out of the question. We’re all so ruthlessly competitive that a round of cards could easily end in bloodshed. I imagined myself feeling disappointed and depressed by Friday. Then my daughter told me she’d made other plans for Tuesday afternoon and I’d have to do the marketing without her. So much for my visions of blissful family togetherness.
For those of us who came from very troubled backgrounds, the dream of happy family life is a potent one. Many of my clients are often tortured by the thought of happy families during the holiday season. A deep sense of shame pervades their experience of Thanksgiving or Christmas, because other people — the winners in this world — are having the kind of ideal holiday I had envisioned for myself this week. So my first bit of advice, for those pathological optimists like me, is to ramp down your expectations. Rather than trying to enact the ideal holiday, where one size is supposed to fit all, plan one that fits your actual family. How much time is too much? Maybe everyone doesn’t need to come over at noon, sit in front of the TV for one or two football games, eat too much and then spend another hour or two trying to make space for dessert. Just because our culture has enshrined the all-day family event, that doesn’t mean you have to do it that way. Even if you mom told you to arrive at noon, you can still show up at three, in plenty of time for dinner. White lies are permissible.
Sometimes it seems to me that the people who have the most satisfying holidays are those who spend them with their closest friends. Too many families I know feel compelled to celebrate the holidays in traditional ways that make everyone unhappy. Surely it’s possible to celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas in a more satisfying way. In my family of origin, we of course used to spend all day together; once we kids grew up and started drinking, we’d invariably consume way too much alcohol, partly because that’s just what my family did, but also because it helped us get through it. There would be a lot of laughter, but I invariably came away feeling poisoned. Too much alcohol in my system, and too much pain — other people’s pain that I had absorbed on top of my own. Especially as the younger generation grew up, I found it excruciating to watch their lives blow up or deteriorate.
On the other hand, I have very happy memories of spending time in the kitchen with my sister. Since I left Los Angeles and moved to North Carolina, we both miss those holidays cooking together. Cooking is what I enjoy most about Thanksgiving. I enjoy eating the meal, but I like preparing it even more, especially when I’m doing it with people I love. So as I was marketing alone this morning, bringing my expectations in line with reality, I decided to focus on that part of the experience. I felt better, less exposed to disappointment, when I thought about it this way. Everyone in our family likes to cook, and they’ll be a lot of time — maybe even enough time — spent together in the kitchen, though the kids will likely criticize one another while we’re doing it and then disappear not long after we eat. An hour or two of reasonably placid (for us) family time, doing what I like to do best — that’s what I should expect, rather than looking forward to my idyllic togetherness marathon which will invariably be followed by disappointment when it falls apart and we turn out to be the same contentious, prickly crew.
And that leads me to my second bit of advice. Put yourself first. Instead of succumbing to all the sentimental messages you receive, about feeling love and gratitude during this season of giving, make sure you spend the holidays the way you’d like to spend them. If you look after your own needs first, and don’t expect too much from other people, you might find yourself having a few intermittent exchanges of meaning with the people who matter most to you. That’s something to be truly grateful for.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!