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.