Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Worried About People Behaving Badly During The Holidays?

Take a trip down memory lane to the last few years of your family gatherings on Thanksgiving and the Winter Holidays. Were they as warm and happy as you had wished for?

Perhaps you have taken over the role for your mom, at whose house they had always taken place before, and your home is now the place where everyone meets. You are very serious about keeping the old traditions, and passing them on to your children as well.

So, basically, you knock yourself out, doing all the shopping while your spouse helps with the unpacking. You clean the house from top to bottom and decorate to make it perfect. You spend hours in the kitchen preparing the food, ignoring the mutterings of your family, as you dole out some of the tasks.

Finally, it's Thanksgiving Day. You’re a little tired, but also excited. The table looks great and everything is cooking on schedule. Your guests start to arrive and you hope that there will be no arguments this time, and that Bob will wait until dinner before making his martinis. "Keep your eye on Bob,” you whisper to your husband. "And do what?" he whispers back.

Helen and her husband arrive with their four unruly children who run past you to the kitchen to raid the refrigerator for soda. They are “dying of thirst” from the fifteen minute ride over to your house. Things are crashing to the floor in the kitchen, but Helen has made her way to the sofa and sits down with a sigh. She is now a guest and passes the responsibility for her kids to others. Grandma is wiping up the floor.

Others arrive in a steady stream now and the conversation becomes lively. Beer cans are popping and the guys are talking football while the ladies are paying compliments due to each other on outfits, new haircuts, etc.  Back in the kitchen, your husband is opening the wine bottles, while Helen can be heard from the living room,  "Has everybody forgotten my drink?” Her husband stopped hearing her requests years ago.

While bringing in the wine for the ladies, you see Bob at the bar mixing martinis. Your stomach tightens a little. Bob becomes The Victim Of The Government when he drinks, and does not suffer in silence. Jane came late, and now approaches you with a tray of homemade sweet potato chips which you gratefully accept with thanks as she follows you into the kitchen. "Do not make me sit anywhere near that woman!" "What woman?” you ask, feeling your stomach getting more tight. "Helen,” she says rather loudly, and  you know better than to ask why.

There will be trouble at the dinner table, you already know it. And with a captive audience. Your husband puts the best looking turkey ever on the table and you follow with the rest of the dishes. "Time to eat!" he calls out beaming with pride as the "oh, what a feast" and "it smells so great" are expressed by everybody now taking their seats.

Jane gives Bob's wife a conspiratorial poke as they both glance at Helen and giggle. You look at Grandma, and yes, she saw it too and looks tense. If only you could relax and enjoy all your hard work. Grandpa says the prayer and asks for the blessings.
Everything is peaceful while the platters are passed around and plates are being filled. You and Grandma fill the children's plates, who are set up on a small table in the family room. Helen stays seated and asks for a refill of wine.

Finally everyone is eating and your husband is refilling glasses where needed. Bob is taking care of himself. The general conversation starts pleasantly enough and you want to keep it that way. "Mom, do you remember the year our oven broke down before the turkey was done?" - hoping that she would tell that now funny story with it's unusual ending. She did and everyone listened - some nostalgically, because they had been a part of it. "Wow, I remember that,” says one of your siblings. "I remember a thing or two, myself” says Jane loud enough so all can hear. Her face now flushed with anger, she begins her attack on Helen for grievances endured for too many years.

You get up to check on the children's table and Grandma is right behind you. "I think Thanksgiving is over,” she says, "but let's get the children their desert." You close the door to the dining room, but it's impossible to shut out the angry voices. As you're serving the children you can clearly hear, and so can they. "You stay out of this!" "I will say what I want and when I want. You gonna stop me?" "I wouldn't even have come if it wasn't for Grandpa and Grandma, it means so much to them!" Helen shrieks at somebody.

Upstairs Grandpa is putting on his coat and comes down the stairs with his wife's coat and purse in hand."Mother, we have to go home, I forgot to bring my medication." They both look at her purse and know exactly were his medication is. She smiles as she puts on her coat and hugs everybody near her. "Oh, Mom," you say as you squeeze her tight, unable now to stop your tears.

You now know why Mom stopped having the holidays at her house. When they were young, her children had better manners. The aunts and uncles that came in those days brought with them gratitude and good will as well as wonderful stories of their “good old days.” The whole experience was entirely different. But it is what you wanted to bring to your family, especially your children.

When everyone is finally gone you sit down at the table you had set with such pride and hope, but had become a battlefield instead. You cry for a long time before you get to the
 clean-up already started by your husband, and hit the bed just before midnight.

If you can identify with the host and hostess, and have had similar experiences on your holidays in the past because of people behaving badly, you owe it to yourself and your children to do things differently from now on.

Everybody readily agrees that family is important, and everyone wants to belong to something close knit with ties that never break, no matter what. The reality is that most families experience plenty of strife, and not every member values family to the same extent. Quite often, there are periods of non-communication, and sometimes, sadly, complete rifts. Family dynamics do not only consist of shared values and wonderful memories, but also of sibling rivalry about achievements and status that can tear all that apart when egos are big enough. Who are Mom and Dad most proud of? Who got preferential treatment? The addition of new in-laws adds another whole dimension of potential discord. Are they good enough for us, or are they looking down on us? Will they try to fit in with us, or pull their spouse away?

When you consider all those dynamics coming together for dinner, it takes a commitment from everyone to be respectful to each other and not allow good-natured teasing to slip into insult. There is an additional sense of betrayal when a family member exposes another's weakness or a past mistake. My advice is, observe the Golden Rule.

My mom told all her married children, after suffering a few awkward dinners, "If you are fighting on the way to my house, turn around and go home. No questions asked.” We got the message loud and clear.

If you still want to host that big dinner, decide now what type of behavior is acceptable in your home and in front of your children. Remember the memories they will carry. Don't invite anyone with a drinking/behavior problem, no matter how closely-related. They'll be welcome again when the problem is under control.

You can e-mail everyone now, telling them that your family is looking forward to a joyous and peaceful time, and that you are asking anyone with a grudge against anyone else to please stay home. Please come only if you want to help us celebrate the day!

If you are not the host, but instead a guest who feels loathe to go to that type of family free-for-all, bow out and tell them why.

Being an advocate for respectful behavior will not cause you to lose anyone who truly cares about you.  Stand up for your right to enjoy your holidays, in peace.

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