The Only Life You Can Bring to Thanksgiving Dinner is the Messy One You’ve Got

We bring the messes we’ve made of our lives to the dinner table on Thanksgiving. That can make this once-a-year family meal into a battlefield or, as more often happens, a sullen duty.

Families marred and disfigured by drugs, violence and too many divorces are incubators for fractured people without  inner peace and contentment. This kind of family robs them of their spiritual and emotional freedom, leaving them trapped in a spider’s web of resentments and anger. They can’t feel joy. They cannot share joyous times with anyone, but especially not each other. That is what the loss of family does to people.

I know people who spend all day Thanksgiving driving from the husband’s mother’s house to the husband’s father’s house, to the wife’s mother’s house, and on to the wife’s father’s house, sitting down to a full-bore Thanksgiving feast at each stop.

They are dutiful and long-suffering in their efforts to make up to their parents what their parents have done to themselves with their divorces and remarriages. Thanksgiving for them is a joyless and exhausting round of overeating and trying to make right what wasn’t their fault in the first place.

Oftentimes, these same frazzled and over-stuffed people are fresh from arguments with their former spouses over when and how to shuffle their children back and forth between them. In some families, the two spouses each have children from prior marriages and maybe one or two they’ve had together to transport around.

It all becomes an endurance march instead of a delight, a dreaded day rather than an anticipated one.

Then there are the unhappy Thanksgiving feasts where relatives who actively hate one another sit through a meal in an atmosphere that buzzes with sullen resentments and long-time grudges. All this is mixed in with the dread of the cousin or stepfather showing up loaded on drugs or stumbling from booze.

The interesting part of all this is how often the people who are leading these miserable lives full of self-inflicted misery blame society, each other and God for the messes they’ve made of the time they’ve been given in this life. The same parents who shuffle their kids on the parent to parent express and live their lives in a bath of resentment and anger will wail and whine “I didn’t raise them this way” when those children hit their teens and turn into mixed-up monsters of sexual promiscuity, rebellion, narcissism and drugs.

Thanksgiving can be a rough day for families full of people with messy lives. The reason is that the enforced family togetherness brings all their disparate chickens flapping home to roost. Everything they numb and blind themselves to all the rest of the year flies up and lands in front of them on Thanksgiving.

For one day, they are faced with the mess they’ve made of their families, the utter lack of a stable home they have provided for either themselves or their children.

We’ve made Thanksgiving tough by the expectations and endless requirements we heap on ourselves.

Let me repeat that: We’ve made Thanksgiving tough by the expectations and endless requirements we heap on ourselves. 

There is no requirement that we spend Thanksgiving shuffling our children and ourselves from broken home to broken home. We do not have to allow the family drunk/drug addict to show up and destroy things. If our relatives beat us when we were kids, we don’t have to see them now.

We can’t undo divorces. We can’t control other people. But, if we’ll stop blaming and whining, we will realize that we have absolute control over ourselves.

We can sit down with our children and our spouses and determine what matters to us on this day. The most important thing, of course, is the children. For some reason, these families who’ve made a mess of things are the first ones to forget that, so let me repeat it: The most important thing is the children.

If you’ve made a mess of your life and theirs with multiple marriages, remember that you owe them as much stability and emotional security as you can salvage from the complications you have inflicted on their young lives.

What is best for them?

Here are a few thoughts, based on my years of raising kids, seeing my friends raise kids and going with those same friends to the police station or the mental ward of the hospital to visit their kids when they were teens.

Why not, instead of dragging your kids from one of your divorced relative’s homes to another, have dinner at your house and tell your relatives they can come if they want, but they have to play nice and behave if they do? If they throw a fit, let them. Your children are more important than their fits.

If your parents haven’t spoken in 30 years and will not be in the same room together, that’s their choice. You first responsibility is to your own children. You can have a nice dinner with each of your parents in turn on some other day. But do not let them indulge their ancient hatreds and ruin Thanksgiving for your own family and your children.

Why not, instead of shuffling children back and forth between your former spouses and you, arrange that one spouse will have them on Christmas day and another will have them on Thanksgiving? Then, when it’s your turn to share the kids, have Thanksgiving or Christmas early for your kids at your house before sending them off.

Never say a word of resentment or spite while you are doing this. Do not whine and complain about how awful it all is for you. Invite the extended family. Do it right. Provide your children with an actual, family Thanksgiving, even if it isn’t on exactly the right day.

Why not, instead of nursing grievances from when you were six or sixteen, grow up and accept that none of this narcissistic self-indulgent picking at old scabs matters anymore? It’s over. Be done with it.

If you come from a background where you were abused (and I mean abuse, not that your big brother had a larger room than you and your folks bought your sister a prettier prom dress than yours) if you come from a background with beatings, sexual abuse or some such, then, stay away from those people. Dump them. Be done with them.

Don’t go near the people who treated you like this. Get therapy and figure out that they are poison and live your life without them. Definitely protect your children from these folks by not letting them near them.

As for the endless list of gotta dos that we inflict on ourselves at the holidays, my advice is to get real. Your house and your meal are not going on a magazine cover. So stop worrying about it.

Thanksgiving is about Thanks Giving. It’s about bringing the bizarreness of our lives to a pause for one day and eating a delicious meal, watching some football, playing a few board games with the people we love.

Some families are able to ease the work by everyone pitching in and bringing a dish. That way no one is overloaded with cooking. If that doesn’t work for your family (it doesn’t for mine) then the person who does the meal calls the shots. Do not wear yourself to a frazzle preparing a meal for the memory book. Prepare a good/great meal and enjoy.

A few other do nots are do not plan on putting up your Christmas decorations after you eat dinner. (Unless, of course, everyone has fun doing this.) Do not use china or table settings that are more precious to you than the people eating from them. Do not expect your relatives to be anybody else than who they are on this day. If your brother-in-law always shows up late, he’ll be late on Thanksgiving. Family is home, and home is a place of the heart where this sort of thing doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t wait dinner for him. But there’s no point getting upset about it, either.

I know I’m going to make some people mad with this post. It almost certainly cuts close to the bone for a lot of people and I’m not being overly sympathetic.

That’s because I’m writing it for the children. I want every parent to make this wonderful holiday of Thanksgiving a gift of real family for them. No matter how complicated your life has become, stop, think and work out ways to provide your children with a nurturing, calm and love-filled day.

It will be a gift to you as well as them, both now and for years to come.




  • vickie

    Flannery O’ Conner seams more accurate regarding family life than Norman Rockwell.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      I think it depends on the family. Not all families are like this, but unfortunately, divorce has been offered as a solution to every disagreement or problem in a marriage and this has led to people who’ve traded spouses like baseball cards. The children who grow up in these homes are unable to even imagine what a stable home life is like, which perpetuates and spreads the problem.
      On the other hand, there are still many people who marry for life and provide stable, loving homes for their children. I believe this is something Christians must work toward in their own marriages and lives.

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  • Imelda

    Oh, the topic you discussed is quite painful and confusing. You are brave to call the mess for what it is. Coming from a dysfunctional family myself, I know how stressful it is to deal with relatives who do not talk to each other. It was difficult “balancing” our attention between them so that one would not feel favored over the other. If only people still value marriage and family as it used to be, if only people did not get lost in the me-first-and-center mentality,…

    Your suggestions are very practical and gives some semblance of order amidst disorder…

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thank you Imelda. I think most of us have relatives who are paying the price for their bad decisions and the mess they’ve made and are making of their lives. One thing I’ve noticed about my relatives who do this is that they never admit that any part of their mess is their fault. The source of a lot of their resentment comes from the fact that they blame everyone and everything else for their situations and never take responsibility for their lives themselves.

  • Christopher Lake

    Rebecca, thank you for this post. My own situation doesn’t fall into most of what you described, but it still helps to know that I am not alone in my “messy life” at Thanksgiving. At 39 years old, I have never been married and have no children, and I am actually too financially poor (partially due to a congenital physical disability) to travel a great distance to any of the more “dysfunctional” people whom I know! Therefore, in many ways, my Thanksgiving will probably be externally “peaceful.” However, there are still the internal hurts. My mother died by suicide when I was nine years old, and every major holiday reminds me of that painful void in my life. Moreover, my girlfriend, whom I love and hope to eventually marry, currently lives in another country, and we are both too poor, at this time, to make our hopes and dreams into tangible realities. I can’t even talk to most of the family members whom I *will* be seeing on Thursday about this relationship, because they see it as an absurd and pitiable pipe dream– when we both know our love to be very real. It is very painful to have to keep one’s pain to oneself while everyone else chats about niceties, One of my only consolations at Thanksgiving this year will be the knowledge that I can offer up my pain for anyone who may need its benefits. Honestly, I don’t *fully* understand this teaching and all of its implications, but I am Catholic, so I gladly accept it and try to live it. I wish you a richly blessed Thanksgiving, my sister in Christ.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thank you Christopher. I hope you are a wonderful Thanksgiving and that you are your fiance are soon together.

  • Manny

    Fantastic blog Rebecca. It’s sad the many problem lives that are about. If you give man absolute freedom (I don’t mean this in the political sense, but in the social) then 75% of mankind will make a disaster of it. We’ve lost sight of social correcting norms such as shame and virtue and stoic self denial. We actually glorify dysfunction today. It feels like we’re in a disintegrating spiral downwards. I’m sorry but the sexual revolution has been a disaster. It’s not getting better, and I have portents that this last election is a real tipping point. I’m sorry for such a pessimistic comment on Thanksgiving Day eve.

    Bless you and your readers all for a thankful day tomorrow.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thank you Manny. I agree that we are in a downward spiral.

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  • Wendy

    Rebecca, I like your reminder for families to focus on the children. I read somewhere a quote something like this: ” Give your children what you did not get in childhood.” I also think parents need to be moderate about celebrations so that they don’t inadvertently add to the tension by trying to be superparents… Happy Thanksgiving!
    Blessings ~ Wendy

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thanks Wendy.

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  • Mo

    This is a great reminder, and a topic worth discussion.

    I think it’s unrealistic to ask dysfunctional (but not abusive) relatives to “play nice”. In my experience this doesn’t work. They always find a way to turn the holidays into a stressful affair, which culminates in a lengthy counseling session and a lot of “post game” analysis – in my case, these are siblings & nieces & nephews.

    I guess my options at this point are to make the holiday season a happy one, and try to minimize the family drama on the actual holy day for my children – because if they are going to see their grandparents we are also going to have to deal with the drama of their children.

    For example – my BIL is not on speaking terms with one of his children who is 16 who is living with her mother. In my world view, this means my BIL is invited to thanksgiving at our house, and his daughter should spend the holiday with her Mom. She informs me she is coming and is offended when I tell her she needs to speak with her dad. I know you are a blogger and not a counselor – but what would you make of that? The lack of respect that my neices and nephews have for their elders is astounding and very stressfully.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      I’ll put on my Dear Abby hat for a moment. I’ve got jackass relatives of my own. These people are all behaving like brats, from your bil, to your relatives who always find a way to turn any occasion to themselves and their issues.

      This is called narcissism. It is also spoiled brat behavior. It is unacceptable. What I do (and thus what I advise) is to tell them that they can come, but if they act out, I will tell them to leave. I’ve never had to do it, because they all know that I mean it and WILL do it, and they don’t want to be kicked out.

      If they come and act out, don’t have them back. When they start whining about being dis-invited, tell them they cannot come because they act like jackasses. When they start trying to engage you in a big debate about that, tell them you don’t care about their reasons, only their behavior and shut the conversation down. You have no responsibility to engage in circular arguments with jackasses who enjoy circular arguments.

      You may need to sweep some of the bad offenders off your holiday invitation list if you want a happy Thanksgiving or merry Christmas. If you have children, you not only have a right to do this, you have a responsibility to do it. There is no reason why they should be subjected to this kind of deliberate misbehavior. They deserve a happy home at Thanksgiving and Christmas, not a mental ward for self-indulgent jerks.

      As for the bil and his daughter, it’s your house. Have who you WANT there. Who YOU want. Your bil doesn’t make the rules at your house. Neither does your niece.

      Do not let your bratty, spoiled neices and nephews model their bratty, spoiled behavior for your children. Tell them to behave or they can not come to your house. Then, make it stick.

      My experience is that all these people will do their best to engage you in their narcissistic game playing — they seem to like nothing better than endless whining arguments that give them an opportunity to be the center of things while they complain. They’ll have both you and themselves in tears in nothing flat. Don’t do it. Just tell them the rules and then get out of the conversation. It’s best to do it over the phone for this reason.

      You need to start taking control of your own home. If you don’t, it’s not going to BE home for you and your family.

      As for your relatives, if you make them play nice or leave, they’ll straighten up. It will take time for them to believe it, since it sounds like they’ve been running over you with their garbage and think they have a right to. But they’ll come around. If they don’t, let them go be wackos somewhere else.

      Now. Dear Abby hat off.

      I just happened to think. If there are enough people in your family who can have fun together and not make the family gathering into a messy brat-off, you might just isolate and ignore the whiners. What I mean by that is if you have one uncle or aunt or some such who is always talking about miseries past, the rest of you can just patronize them a little and ignore them.

      What you described was something else; family gatherings turned into counseling sessions and bitter push and pulls.

      Also, I have a general rule that anyone over 80 can pretty much say whatever they want and it will be tolerated. Of course, my over 80s are sweet people.

  • Mo

    Rebecca – thank you so much for your response.

    I think my husband and I have wasted too many years of our marriage tolerating bad behavior at the holidays. It has been complicated because some siblings have married jerks (now divorced but not less complicated) so in order to spend the holidays with brothers and sisters, parents and your children’s cousins, we have put up with bad behavior. now that some of the kids are older they seem to be taking after the creepy parent.

    I think your advice is very sound. I think our fear has been spending the holidays alone – and offending our parents. As it turned out on Thanksgiving, I was firm with my niece that since she is not speaking to her father it wasn’t a good time for her to come over. My nephew who was also not invited actually just showed up at the door which was quite dramatic and added a lot of unwelcome drama to Thanksgiving. I felt so overloaded at that point I was doing my best just to get dinner on the table and take care of my children. But my husband and father-in-law tried to address it and only let him stay if his father was okay with it, but my brother-in-law was in tears that children have no respect for him. Unfortunately not looking forward to Christmas or New Year’s – but I truly will do my best to take your advice heart.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      It’s hardest at first, when they test you. When they start believing you mean it, it gets easier (and their behavior often improves.) Blessings.

  • http://NA Lorraine

    I woke up Thanksgiving morning, thanking God for this day, for my family and a special friend. The joy in my heart was such that I sang the whole day, knowing my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren would not sit around our table for Thanksgiving meal. I then texted my children, sending a message of thanks for having them in our lives and that they were a blessing to us. Enjoy your day I said. The one guest who could come to join us came in at the last minute. She then shared her afternoon experiences in visiting the sick and bedridden people she knew. The only one we put first in our lives is God. Out of this intimate relationship flourishes a love that nourishes a family that was once shattered. In putting God first, everything that day fell into place. And this is the first Thanksgiving I hear from all of my adult children. I give thanks because what was once shattered is being made whole.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      That sounds beautiful Lorraine. Blessings.