I’ve been trying to escape my family of origin my entire life.
We’re just not a “good fit.” To be clear, they are all an excellent fit with one another, but I don’t enjoy them, and they certainly don’t enjoy me. We don’t like each other, which used to torture me.
It tortured me because mythology about families runs so deep—deep enough that some people never recognize the fiction, and so spend their entire lives struggling in pursuit of what they believe is the natural order of things: family is the most important thing in life; no one will ever love you like your family; dysfunctional families are rare and shameful.
So we keep trying. Getting along with others is so important, after all (almost as important as family!). There are thousands of articles on how to survive going home for the holidays, and the main thesis is always the same: we may not like our families, but we love them, and holidays together are inescapable.
And so we pack our bags and go. We exhaust our friends with our pre-trip panic, and walk straight into the situation we’ve been dreading all year. We expose our children to abhorrent ideas, subject ourselves to tooth-grindingly offensive anecdotes, and jump through the mental and emotional hoops that have been arranged as a test we will inevitably fail. We cry in the bathroom—or smoke, or drink—and text in secret.
We return home with bruised souls, and we can’t stop. We can’t stop because our parents deserve our respect; we can’t stop because of the grandkids; we can’t stop because people would be upset. We can’t stop because if we stopped, we would be in violation of a top-tier social code.
If we stopped, we would be selfish.
My dad tried to explain the nature of families to me, during my final visit. Embarrassingly, what prompted it was that, inconsolable, I vocalized what I had never before accepted or acknowledged: that no one in my family likes me. He was exasperated by my inability to accept this is just how families are. He explained how miserable he had been during his own family visits, and how he just kept doing it because that’s what families do—they gather with people who make them unhappy and suffer through unkind comments and outright shunning. Our own happiness is an absurd thing to think about or put above family obligation.
He did not sell me on the idea.
The truth is, I’m okay being selfish, but I know most women aren’t. But I want desperately to give every single person permission to sever selfishness from the concept of happiness, and let it sail away forever. I don’t care how holidays with your family make you uncomfortable—whether you’re forced to hide your sexuality, listen to racist commentary, endure a physical attack, hear criticisms about your parenting, or whether you’re simply expected to expend more logistically and financially than you would prefer. If your family’s demands take the joy out of your holiday, consider a holiday without them.
Convention is a powerful thing. I would never have expected that I would now celebrate my happiest holidays with my daughters and ex-husband, or that happy hour with friends on Thanksgiving evening was a viable option. But these people like and love me, and I like and love them. And on our first joyful holiday with just the four of us, my youngest daughter seemed genuinely curious when she said, “Why did you keep taking us to grandma and grandpa’s for so long?”
I suppose it was because no one had given me permission to stop—to become a quitter who doesn’t play well with others, and all the other related baggage. But in case you’re looking for the same permission, these truths are my holiday gift to you:
You are not responsible for magically expelling anxiety and fear with a “good attitude.”
You are not responsible for enhancing another person’s holiday by sacrificing yours.
There’s no such thing as “just politics” right now. Your feelings of alienation are not petty.
Happiness is not selfish.
Happy holidays, friend.
Deena Lilygren lives, writes, and indulges her many obsessions in Louisville, Kentucky, where she also writes for LEO Weekly magazine. She is an Associate Professor of English at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College. She graduated from UofL with an MA in English Literature, and just completed an MFA in creative writing at Murray State University.