If you’re anything like me, you have a lot of relatives back home who voted for Trump. This could make the holidays very, very uncomfortable.
I’m no stranger to uncomfortable holidays. A decade ago, when I was in college, my evangelical family tried to make me break off my relationship with my now-husband. That was one of the most horrific experiences of my life. These tensions haven’t disappeared, either. I get heat for not spanking my children, for not homeschooling my children, and so on. All of this makes for horrible terrible very bad no good stressful times. I’ve been negotiating this for years.
Many of you, like me, have experienced this sort of family tension before. For others, though, it may be new. Today I offer a primer, based on my experience.
1. You do not have to spend time with your relatives.
It is okay not to visit your family for Thanksgiving—or Christmas, if need be. Today we have the ability to form our own families, families bound not necessarily by blood or law but by love. Progressives and conservatives disagree on how to define the term “family”: conservatives view families as bound by law and blood; progressives view families as bound by love and care. Put together a group of friends and have your own Thanksgiving dinner. Plan an alternative Christmas celebration. You do you.
2. Maximize the control you have over situations.
If you do spend time with relatives, make sure you have the ability to leave. The last Christmas I spent at home before leaving for good, I did not have a car. Things blew up between my father and I in a big, scary way, but I had no way to leave. I was stuck until my ride could come get me and take me back to college. Don’t end up stuck. Make sure you are able to come and go as you please, so that you can leave if you need to. Have an exit strategy. Your family will treat you differently if you do.
3. Walk out of the room when necessary.
In the past, I perfected the ability to walk out of the room when a conversations between relatives made me uncomfortable. The ability to just walk away could feel powerful—and sometimes I’d have a relative come up to me afterwards and apologize. Walking away can make a statement, too. In an era of Trump—when bad ideas badly need confronting—this strategy may need adjusting, but even here, effective confrontation can’t take place if you are not in the right headspace.
4. Set boundaries regarding conversation topics.
Years ago I told my mother that I would not talk with her about either religion or politics—that if she brought these topics up, I would be opting out of the conversation. To my surprise, it worked. She has respected these boundaries, for the most part and our relationship is better for it. You can set boundaries, too. In the era of Trump, I may be rethinking exactly where I put these boundaries. Still, the point remains—your family can’t make you engage on topics you would rather avoid. You can opt out.
5. Pick one specific point to make.
For years, my mother could spin a conversations such that my mind into a pretzel. To prevent this, I would latch onto one specific outrageous thing she had said to me or done and hold onto that. It helped ground me. As we go into the holidays, I’m planning to do something similar in situations where Trump comes up—to latch onto one particularly outrageous thing, to state it and explain it and back it up, and to leave it at that. Remember, they can’t make you continue to engage in a conversation you are finished with. You can make your point and be done.
6. Don’t get sucked into shouting matches.
You know that situation where two relatives are screaming at each other across the kitchen? Yeah, I’ve done that. It’s a bad idea. Those around you may not be sure who is the “good” guy and who is the “bad” guy. They’re apt to judge you for losing your temper regardless of the accuracy of your statements. If you feel a situation like this mounting, take deep calming breaths. Make your statements clearly and forcefully, and if things get too heated, bow out.
Something Needs to Change
As I’ve been thinking about all of this and ruminating on it I’ve come up with three additional points to make. See, this moment feels different. I’ve spent years ignoring comments my family members have made about Obama, or about socialism, or about welfare. Oh, I’ve sometimes butted in—I once went on an impassioned tirade after a relative mocked concern for Native American removal and genocide. But overall, I’ve picked my battles sparingly. I’ve focused more on me and what I need, on my own frame of mind and on not letting my family get to me. And now here we are.
1. Take Care of Yourself—You Matter
I’ve seen some people deride people’s need for self-care. The idea seems to be that if we focus on self-care rather than on creating meaningful change, we’re going to find ourselves in a collapsing world. Self-care, then, becomes selfish and self-centered. I disagree. Self-care should never replace meaningful activism, but we can’t take action if we’re burned out. You need a core to draw from.
2. Don’t Let Things Slide—Confrontation Matters
Many of us (particularly those who are white) have put up with vaguely (or openly) racist comments from relatives for years now. We ignore it, because it’s just Gramps, or it’s just Uncle Mike, or what have you. We need to do a better job of confronting these comments, because they are not harmless. This confrontation can be simple and brief and doesn’t need to devolve into a shouting match, but it’s critical.
3. Don’t Feel Useless—Seeds Matter
Growing up in an evangelical home, I often heard it said that if we shared the gospel but our target didn’t convert on the spot, we had still “planted seeds.” I’m no longer evangelical, but I like this metaphor. You have no idea who may be influenced by your words. Cousin Jennifer may hear your response to Gramps. Or Aunt Carol. You may help them feel bold enough to speak out too, and who knows, even if Gramps brushes your comment aside, he may ruminate on it. Change isn’t always immediate.
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