The cover of The New Yorker this week features a turkey with different slices marked for different nutty relatives. It is an example of the dread that many families feel about the holidays. What will happen around the table this year? Will we have a repeat of the anger, frustration, silliness, shame or embarrassment that has happened in years past? Or will we just invite those members of our family whom we like, and shun the others?
I once had a wise person tell me that most families in the United States are toxic places for their members. Coming from a large, rollicking, loving family myself, I found this statistic hard to believe. But I was assured by the wise person, who had a PhD, that she knew what she was talking about. If you think about it, this is not so hard to understand.
We do not choose the members of our families. They are thrust upon us, and we are stuck with each other. The only choosing that goes on is for our mates. Our parents may have chosen each other, but they did not choose their own parents, nor their siblings, nor did they choose their children. They may have chosen to have children, but we all know that your children are just who they are, and are usually different that what you expected. And even when there is a choice, there are unknowns that come with that. Who knew that the dreams of our parents might not happen, and that the disappointment of those lost dreams played out throughout their lives? Who knew that our father would injure his back and have to deal with pain every day, causing him to drink to excess and become belligerent in the household? Who knew that our grandmother would come to live with us and cause members of the family to take sides, sometimes expressing that with violence? Children growing up with these adult scenarios going on around them will develop strategies to survive, many of which carry with them their own pathologies.
Not only do we not choose our siblings, we also cannot control the stages of our parents’ lives in which we grew up. Every brother and sister grows up in a different family, especially if they are spread out in age. Birth order, relative prosperity of the family at different times, stages in careers, illness, coping with stress, these are some of the factors that shape what a family looks like when a child is growing up. And most of these factors are not in the control of the parents and certainly are not within the control of the children.
My point is this: as we envision what our holiday visits may be with our families, we have to try to take a deep breath and rather than worry or fret about what we wish we could change about our family members, see if we can deepen our appreciation of what we do have in common, see if we can appreciate the strengths and weaknesses that have shaped who we are, and see if we can accept that we did not choose each other, but we are in the same boat together, for better or for worse.