What the Holidays Are Like When Your Family Isn’t Perfect

Not every dinner table will be merry and bright

table set for dinner

Before every major holiday, at some point, I find myself standing in the greeting card aisle of the grocery store. Or sometimes Target. Looking for one specific card. I need a card that is directed at my mother, but doesn’t overdo it. In a perfect world, this card would probably say something like “Merry Christmas Mom” on the front, and have a relatively vague platitude on the inside. “Wishing you happiness in the new year,” sounds about right.

Finding that card sometimes takes ten minutes (lucky!) but most of the time it takes closer to thirty or forty. Then, I put the card on the floor of the store, and I snap a photo of it—outside, then inside. I put the card back, and on the way home I repeat the same text message conversation, the only text message conversation, that my mother and I have every holiday.

“What’s your address, I want to send you a card.”
“I don’t have an address.”

My mother does have an address. She’s actually had the same one for a few years now; I recently learned that over the summer, after a series of unfortunate events. But we are in a standoff about addresses. I won’t give her mine, she won’t give me hers. And so after I make sure that, again, I won’t be getting her address, I text her the pictures of the card. This, and a phone call on each holiday, concludes our interactions.

Estrangement’s Not Pretty Enough For Instagram

As we drove home from Bryan’s parents’ house this past Thanksgiving night, bleary eyed and full, I checked my phone and realized that my mother hadn’t tried to call me. I’d also not gone through my typical song and dance of seeking out a card. There was no usual holiday phone call, from my mother or me, because this is the first holiday season that I will spend fully estranged from her, after the aforementioned series of unfortunate summer events. Our holiday talks never end in anything but tears, but in that evening moment, the absence of that phone call made me cry all the same. I flicked over to Facebook and Instagram, seeking distraction, but the flood of happily bonded families and perfectly set tables I found there only made me feel worse.

It’s so pervasive, the idea that everyone around you is having the perfect holiday. No one else seems bothered by splitting their time between houses, no one has angry relatives guilt tripping them for their lack of appearance at this or that holiday event. Everyone’s social media feeds light up, filled with curated moments: perfectly decorated trees, piping hot mugs of cocoa, matching Christmas sweaters for the entire family. Perhaps it’s because we perceive Christmas and the holidays as such a universal experience, one that’s meant to be shared. Or maybe it’s because we’re all trying to find some perfect moments amidst the mess. But sometimes, I find it isolating, and exhausting.

There’s nothing like the social media constructs of a holiday like Christmas to make you feel like you have to act a certain way, that your family must look a certain way. Don’t put your lights up before Thanksgiving; you don’t want to be seen as that overzealous person who loves the holidays too much. Put your Elf on the Shelf in a new pose everyday, with props of course, or clearly you don’t care about your kids enough. Volunteer (and tell people about it), or you’re not giving enough back to your community; you’re just embracing holiday consumerism. And my least favorite, an insidious theme of seasonal movies: reconcile with your family, because holidays.

The Grinch Who Stole My Perfect Family

No one wants to feel like a Grinch for calling out the obvious: holidays can be tough.

It’s something we can easily admit to ourselves, or even to those closest to us, but it’s hard to tell the rest of the world at large. Sometimes, while friends and acquaintances sit at home with their families, listing the things they’re thankful for or laughing with each other, we’re coming home to brokenness: a mother who won’t be there (for so many years running, you can’t even count them), a grandparent who may not last through the season, one relative or another in rehab, a sibling so emotionally absent they might as well not be there at all.

Or maybe we only come back to an empty apartment, undecorated, because why bother? In those moments, it’s hard not to wonder how on earth to find some sliver of holiday spirit amidst the bitterness that can sometimes be the reality of life.

Making your own Holiday Spirit

But the thing about the holidays, as an adult, is that it’s up to me to make them what I want. This is the life I have. It’s hard, but it’s real, and every day is an entirely new one, a chance to shape the future for myself. And the people that gather around me for the holidays—they don’t have to be there. I’m sure they’re dealing with their own bitterness, their own realities. But they showed up, and they’re making the effort to show how much they really care.

This season need not be defined by whether or not I’ll have a civil conversation with one family member. Instead, I can define it in a hundred different ways. In treasured Friendsgiving feasts, even this last one, where I sliced my thumb open and spent the whole night bleeding. In the quiet Christmas morning shared with Bryan, where we open our presents for each other and give the dog five too many toys. In the car rides to see our extended families, where I am reminded how lucky I am to not to have to fly out to see them. In hot chocolate and two blanket nights, and yearly Christmas time outings with my in-laws.

There’s always the opportunity for things to go wrong, but there’s just as much opportunity for things to go right. And so we show up. We open our hearts, and we make the holidays our own, as best we can.

Christmas Is Interesting, Like A Stick In Your Eye

As much as I can remind myself that I am not defined by my more painful family relationships, there will still come a point where all that heart opening and effort will still get to me, and where I’m going to feel like crap. Where I’m going to find myself a corner, or an empty room, and maybe cry about my family a little bit before I rejoin the party in the other room. Such is the nature of this bittersweet season, where making yourself vulnerable in order to find some happiness also means you open yourself up to a little hurt. Or maybe even a lot, unfortunately.

So if you’re finding it a little too hard to deal with the season, if you’re feeling a little lonely, if you haven’t quite figured out how to deal with the minefield of your own heavy reality, I raise my glass to you. It’s okay to not have it all together, every minute of every day. You’re welcome to share the corner I’m hiding in. Just bring some booze.

This post originally ran on APW in December 2014. We loved it so much we’re running it again!

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  • Sarah

    This speaks to a lot of my insecurities about our wedding, and the disappointment around people who haven’t shown up for us in the ways we’d like. (Eg partner’s sister who said she’d just call him on the day to find out where/when to go, rather than referring to our wedding website or paper invitation!?) All the questions about the size of the wedding, and number of family members makes me feel like an unloved freak. Thanks Lucy for validating some of my deepest fears and insecurities about not having the big perfectly loving family.

    • Partner’s sister did a similar thing here, too. Started asking about where/when things were, instead of just looking at the website.

      • Aubry

        yeah C’s sister just never RSVP’d or showed up to our wedding. We tried to get the info to her but she couldn’t be bothered to get her poop in a pile to be there. Oh well.

  • Amanda

    “In the quiet Christmas morning shared with Bryan, where we open our presents for each other and give the dog five too many toys.”

    I don’t know. That right there sounds like my perfect Christmas. Except with hot chocolate.

  • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

    Movie recommendation: Home for the Holidays with Holly Hunter and a young Robert Downey, Jr. It’s technically about Thanksgiving, but it’s about a family with problems, and the way we all get together and try to pretend we don’t have problems, but they’re there anyway.

  • ComplicatedFamily

    Woof. The family relationship described here feels a lot like my experience. For anyone else in the same boat, I have found outofthefog.net to be an invaluable resource. It’s a site dedicated to helping people deal with their loved ones who have a personality disorder. I stumbled on it by surprise, and cried when I recognized so many of my parents’ behaviors described in their “Top 100 Traits & Behaviors of Personality Disordered Individuals”. But it also felt so validating, to see behaviors that I could never quite put my finger on called out for what they really are. I can’t recommend it enough.

  • Alexandra

    At this point (and it has taken me years) I’m generally fine with my lack of a perfect family (crazy, alcoholic mother who was legally separated from father who died seven years ago) on my side until I start comparing my own situation with the situation of various friends who seem to have a way better deal as far as the family thing goes.

    That’s when the frustration, resentment, and bitterness start creeping back in. I can always tell because I’ll start having “shower conversations” in which I’ll actually have imaginary, out loud conversations with my mom in the shower. Or the car during my commute.

    This is a signal that all is not well.

    What’s to be done? I moved really, really far away, keep good boundaries, practice forgiveness and gratitude for what I have as much as I can, and concentrate on the family I built myself, from scratch, out of friends, a wonderful husband, and two kids. And I try to avoid the comparison trap. Everybody has something they hate about their lives and wish were different.

    • Jess

      Shower conversations. This sounds like a wonderful way to actually get out all the words I store up in my head.

      • JAS

        They work. Sometimes it helps to just say the words, even if you don’t get to say them to the person they’re directed too. I have shower conversations with my mother too.

    • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

      …I have shower conversations. And car conversations. They happen when I’m angry or frustrated. I often don’t realize I’m doing it. I end up really frustrated that my brain gets stuck on loop, focusing on negative things that I can’t change. This is the first time I’ve heard of anybody else doing the same thing.

      • AP

        I do it too! It’s definitely related to my anxiety, and like Alexandra says above, it’s generally a sign that things aren’t on balance for me. Getting stuck on loop is a good way of putting it too.

        • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

          This is weirdly comforting. Why in the shower, I wonder?

      • Jessy

        I do this too and I also feels it’s tied to my anger and anxiety as well and then afterward I feel ashamed at myself for my “craziness” But I think this also happens because there’s no other way to get it out or no other opportunity and it just comes and you can’t control it

    • Lorraine

      If I really stop to think about, every single family I know that does have that picture-perfect holiday, has already lived through family tragedy and/or estrangement. If not currently, then in the past.

      Don’t be fooled by all the tinsel. If you were to ask them, you’d find out these happy families are no stranger to sadness. They just carried on.

      I used to know a family that used to have the most over-the-top Christmas ever. But the wife had a sister who died at Christmas from a drug overdose in the seventies! Her father could never bring himself to celebrate Christmas again, but she embraced it.

      It’s choices.

  • L

    This hit so close to home. It is hard when your mom doesn’t make the effort even when it is painful when she does. There is such a mixture of relief when she doesn’t show up for holidays and crushing sadness that she didn’t show up for holidays. Another article that really helped me is http://offbeathome.com/mother-with-a-personality-disorder/ the three C’s section is there is something I have taken to chanting to myself when I get low. Society seems to have this really strong narrative of “no one loves you more/better than your mother” and that has just never been the case in my life.

    • Jess

      Thank you for the idea of “you did not cause this, you cannot control this, you cannot cure this.” This is something I’m still learning to understand with regards to my mom’s behavior and emotional states, and having something small I can say to myself right now is very soothing.

      • Morgan D

        Agreed! This is one of the more effective quick summaries of stuff it’s taken me years to learn and practice! Saved!

        Also not sure what disorders are at play for you guys, but I’ve found “Understanding the Borderline Mother,” “Surviving a Borderline Parent,” and the online community and materials here (https://bpdfamily.com) to be invaluable (both in making sense of things, and in feeling resourced and connected).

  • rg223

    I read this piece when it was first published – it really resonated with me, and has stayed with me since. Thank you for reposting!

  • MrsRalphWaldo

    This year is the first I’ll see my dad on Christmas in at least 5 years. I’ve explained how I felt and why I felt that way, and he told me I was having a tantrum. For the past few years, I’d told people that I had forgiven him, but that I had no desire to be around him. I walked myself down the aisle at my wedding, even after he asked me if I was sure. But it was really my wedding that made me want to try again. I almost cried while making pies for Thanksgiving (it was always something we did together) and I’ve tried to picture what will happen when I have kids, but it’s hard. This year for the first time, I didn’t make an excuse to avoid his Christmas invitation.

    • Morgan D

      Ugh. The anticipation of those “first time in awhile” visits is just the worst. As someone who’s been there a few times (and also plans on walking herself down the aisle, and has resigned herself to her kids effectively not having grandparents)…

      I’ve gotten stuck at forgiving my parents as human beings, but still not accepting or desiring their influence or presence. I hope it works out for you and that, no matter what, you can be kind and gentle with yourself. It’s so hard, both to choose to hope, and to choose not to hope in these scenarios…

      Nothing but love and hugs for you as you decide to try again.

      • Aubry

        I hope you both find walking yourself down the aisle as fun and wonderful as I did. When people asked: “I got myself this far on my own, I can walk another 30 feet by my own damn self” was the favoured response.

  • Nikki

    I loved this the first time around and it still holds up. My family dynamics have been complicated for all of my adult life, and I have mostly made my peace with it. But since last year, my partner’s usually-wonderful family has been treating him really terribly. This is the first holiday season he will not be spending with them and I think he’s still kind of in shock about it all. I do think that realizing you can create your own traditions and choose your own happiness over the stock photos is a huge part of making the holidays your own, so hopefully we will be able to do that this year!

  • Morgan D

    This is my first holiday season fully estranged from one parent, and I’m so grateful for the rerun of this post.

    Despite having experimented with various versions of limited-contact for 11+ years, for me the decision to go no-contact also only came after the net effect of a series of communications was particularly cruel. While it hurt then and still smarts now, I’m oddly grateful, because it made me realize a few things I needed to move on:

    That it truly didn’t matter what boundaries I established: my parent eventually found a way to push them, often in ways that left me frustrated, heartbroken, and exhausted. That, much as I want and it’s natural to want to maintain a relationship with a parent, we are all entitled to live free from neglect and abuse. That, after investing heavily in healing and growth, I can’t (in good conscience and self-esteem) jeopardize that investment anymore by continuining to engage in a relationship that is clearly toxic. That I can tell someone what I would need from them to make renewing our relationship reasonable, without issuing an ultimatum or getting trapped in a cycle of disappointed expectations by hoping they will actualy take on that effort.

    Altogether, these realizations relieved so much of the guilt and sense of obligation that had kept me in the relationship for so long.

    That said, some of my greatest fears around the estrangement are still around other people’s reactions to it. My brothers and friends understand, but will my cousins and aunts and uncles, who I’m related to through this parent? What will that mean for the holidays? I’ve always been closer to my extended family than my immediate family, and it’s painful to me that–in general, but often especially around the holidays–I feel like estrangement from one’s parent(s) is still one of our most deep-seated taboos. There’s often a preference to put heads in the sand and ask people to “keep up appearances” for everyone (else’s) comfort. Which make it extra refreshing to read about the shared pain points and chosen joys of estrangement with matter-of-fact compassion (three cheers for making your own traditions!).

    I’d like to add one, though, which I think wasn’t named in this post but has been, by far, the greatest help to me:

    When I’m crying on the way to or from a family gathering, pulling my partner aside for a hug because I need some oxytocin to get me through, or freaking out about not wanting ANY of the immediate family aspects of wedding traditions… I get to remember now that, in choosing to protect and care for myself even in the most painful of ways, I’ve gained access to that liberating feeling of relief and joy that comes only from knowing–deep down, no matter what anyone else says or does–that you truly love yourself!

    So, here’s to solidarity-corner buddies, wherever they may be! May we all be safe, happy, and free! And meet each other with hugs and without judgement when the going gets tough! Clink!

  • Em

    This is an always welcome topic on APW in the face of so many ‘yay holidays!’ posts over other sites I read. I find Mother’s and Father’s Days particularly hard, with all the gushing posts on social media about how great friends’ parents are…I just don’t have those words to say about my parents, at least not right now. Last Christmas was easily the worst ever, but I’m hoping that being overseas (with some extended family who I haven’t seen since my parents’ marriage dissolved in a very traumatic way) will make things a little bit more bearable.

  • EF

    this piece was originally published just about the time my mom told me she wasn’t coming to my (january) wedding. i’m really glad for the re-posting. and i’d love to hear an update from lucy! (any new good coping strategies? friends-mastime carols? etc)

  • ItsyBit

    I appreciate this so much. I love my people, but everyone’s got their share of problems, and last year was the first Christmas where I felt completely, totally miserable and angry. Everything just sucked. It took me a long time to accept that that’s just how it went that year, and now I’m gearing up for this year, trying to set realistic expectations for myself… anyway, thanks, APW.

  • TrueGrit

    Not saying this will necessarily help anyone else, but something I’ve always repeated to myself is, “There’s always going to be a family better than mine; there’s always going to be a family worse than mine.”

    I’ve actually repeated this about a lot of things I’m insecure about… “There’s always going to be someone smarter than me; there’s always going to be someone not as smart as me… there’s always going to be someone prettier than me; there’s always going to be someone not as pretty as me…” Sort of a mantra of acceptance, I guess.