Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Ask Polly: My Mom Keeps Guilting Me About Visiting For Christmas!

is this you?Dear Polly,

So it's the Holidays again, which means everyone's going to come at you bitchin' about family. Let me throw my hat in the ring as a member of that (sizable) contingent. My mother and her husband live near where I grew up, about a seven-hour drive from where I live now. My father and his wife live out of state; I only see them twice a year or so. My two younger sisters both moved far out of state (to the same town no less) with their children within the past year and a half. The reason for this background—I'm the "only one left" close to visit my mother.

She's a sweet woman, but every time the holidays creep near, she starts in as the Cruise Director of a massive guilt trip. Why don't I (and my partner) stay with them for Christmas? "We have plenty of room! I'd love to see MY ONLY SON this Christmas. We can have Christmas Morning Together!!!" (Not exactly appealing. I'm coming into my late thirties and don't have children of my own.) This is a double squeeze as my birthday falls a mere two days after Our Good Lord Baby Jesus's (with whom she has a very, very close personal relationship).

It's not like I'm leaving her in a lonesome empty nest. Her husband has three grown children, all of whom have families of their own (my how the ChristFolk take that 'fruitful and multiply' line to heart). Most of them live close by, and she's surrounded with scores of kids and grandkids. The dinner is the long table of adults with two card tables full of rugrats, huge turkey with all the trimmings, massive tree, choir music; it's a dozens of prayers and invocations kind of holiday. It's a postcard Christmas, and I'm grateful that she has it. It's what she likes, and what she wants.

However, it's not how I (nor my partner) roll. We've been together for coming up on three years, and when the holidays come around, we just like to spend them quietly together. Go on vacation somewhere (often near where my mother lives, making turning her down all the more difficult). See friends. Drink and smoke and swear and be merry (all of which are verboten at my mother's domicile). We're Obama-loving, atheist, chimney smoking, whiskey swillers. To top it off, I'm a CIS straight dude and my partner is a female bi queer with an ex-wife. Imagine how that conversation with my mother went the first time around…. "So she's confused, then? Is she on drugs? Was she abused as a child? I should pray about this." My mother, her husband, and his entire brood are Born Agains. Nice, generous people who are always kind and sweet. But it's still uncomfortable; there is nothing to talk about, nothing to drink. And you have to watch your language for Chrissakes. Every third season or so, one of her husband's kids will challenge me to a debate on my atheism. Yeah. It's a really fun thing to discuss when there isn't a cigarette or a scotch around for miles. My partner thoroughly enjoyed all the ruckus in the household during the Prop 8 times, I'm sure.

Here's the final caveat. I'm happy to visit her around the Time of Christ's Mass. I've seen her every year since I was in college for the Holidays. I just have zero interest in the Events. The Big Meal, the Prayer, the 400 people in the house, all of them with little Jesus Spawn running around. In years past, I've even stayed the night. But since I've been in this wonderful relationship, I've wanted Christmas to be our thing, as a grownup adult couple. As such, we do not want to stay the night at her house (remember, the Good Lord requires us unmarried thirtysomethings to sleep in separate bedrooms for the duration). We'd have no cuddles for Christmas on her turf.

When I told my mother, gently but firmly (for now the third December in a row), that this is an adult vacation time for us as a couple and, since we have no children, Christmas morning holds no special magical allure, she told me I was being selfish (a very old, common retort from her) and that Christmas was "not about me." The implication is, of course, that it's about her, then. Again, we are totally going to be stopping by as I (and now with my partner, we) do every year. Again, I see this woman around the holidays every year. We just don't want to stay the night, do the Christmas Eve / Christmas Morning, Big Meal with Lots of Prayers thing. We want to stop by on the 23rd, or maybe the 26th, and spend the afternoon and have a quiet, small meal, and then drive back to our cozy hotel and fuck like the cute, secular, unmarried adult couple that we are. I explained this, (for now the third December in a row) thusly: "Mom, we'd love to see you this year, but as I've told you before, we don't feel comfortable staying the night at your house—particularly when you insist we have separate accommodations. We'd like to be in a hotel like usual." To this she said I was being "childish." She suggested I "grow up." Then things usually devolve into why I'm not married yet, and when am I going to get married, and why I don't have children yet, and when will that happen.

I keep having this conversation with her every goddamn year, Polly. And with my sisters now moved away, and as I get older (and still very secular, and still very unmarried, and still very much childless) the conversation gets more passionate, more unnerving. Her position becomes that much more intractable, and my response that much more hardened. It makes me want to fast forward to New Year's. It casts a shadow over our entire vacation. Because guess what the topic of discussion at the aforementioned quiet afternoon meal on the 23rd or so? "Why or why won't you STAY FOR CHRISTMAS?!?" I may be stubborn but I'm not soulless. The guilt works, Polly. Every January I feel like a Shitty Son.

Oh what to do?


Fed Up at Xmas

Dear FUAX,

What you do at Christmas is definitely your personal choice. I understand why your mom's Norman Rockwell charade feels like a living nightmare for you and your partner. I can also understand not wanting to be pressured about marriage and kids, not wanting to pray and revel in the joy of Jesus's birthday. I get that it's asinine that you and your long-term lady would be consigned to different bedrooms. I understand the guilt and the defensiveness and anger that arise from this yearly showdown.

And yes, there's something depressing about being asked to assume this compliant, child-like role, to become one of a mob of Christians at a big table, nodding and yes-yesing and passing the gravy with a lot of people you don't care about and can barely even tolerate.

But, is the birth of Christ really so precious to you? Can you not fuck like cute, secular, unmarried adults every other night of the year? You need cuddle-time on this one magical night, or the suffering is immense—even though you don't remotely care about the holiday's significance?

As a mature adult, there are those rare, important moments when you are asked to show up, and pretend. You are asked to play an elaborate game of make-believe, for the sake of someone from another planet who nonetheless is a good person and made more than a few sacrifices on your behalf.

Now, if you were physically abused by your mother, or if she said things like, "See, son, I knew you'd never amount to shit"? That would be different. If you were gay and she rejected that and refused to accept your partner as part of your life? If she actively and aggressively fought against what you stand for? That would be one thing. Does her refusal to accept and acknowledge exactly who you are and how you choose to live hurt you to your soul? I'm not hearing that, but if that's the case, then, sure. Do your own thing, knowing that the pain of playing along with her charade would ruin your entire vacation.

But if you can simply step back and accept that you're two different people, with different quirks and beliefs and stubborn notions, if you can swallow her ridiculous rules and tolerate her tribe's idiotic lectures without feeling like your psyche is being violated and injured, if you can grasp that she wants a SYMBOLIC CHILD of hers to be there for the whole routine, for every prayer and invocation and celebratory breakfast and chaotic present-unwrapping, to demonstrate that she is loved and appreciated as a mother by at least one of her kids, then you should rise to the occasion and give your mother what she wants.

You should do it because your mother isn't battling you over your choices, day after day. She's not telling you, day after day, that you're doing it wrong. She wants you to get married and have kids, which makes her exactly like 99% of the mothers out there. Her wanting that doesn't make her particularly awful. If parenting brought her immense happiness, she naturally wants the same thing for you, as repetitive and closed minded as that might be.

Your mother doesn't fight with you all the time. Her primary battleground is Christmas. She wants this one thing from you. She wants it to an irrational extent. It makes her weepy and enraged. She wants you and your partner there, pretending that you fit right in. She wants you to pretend that you are a good Christian son. She knows that you aren't, but for 48 to 72 hours she wants you to pretend that you are.

Now, some people will tell you, "It's enough that you go and make an appearance." But that isn't the same thing. She wants you to stay under her roof, for emotional reasons. Do you know how it must feel, to be cooking and cleaning for your husband's kids and grandkids, when only one of your kids will even hang out at all, and he's only around for a few hours before he disappears? I'm not trying to give you shit, I'm just trying to make you see how lonely this holiday spectacular actually feels for her. You say you're grateful that she gets her postcard Christmas. But she doesn't really get that. It's only a postcard Christmas if her own kids are there, trust me.

Personally, I think you should give your mother exactly what she wants. Arrive on the night of the 23rd and stay until the evening of the 25th, then flee to a hotel room. I would push to stay in the same room as your partner, but I wouldn't make a stink about it if she refuses.

Sometimes love is about showing another human being every single part of you, and having that person accept and understand you completely. Other times, though, love is about caring enough about some insane, twisted, aggravating creature from another planet that you're willing to show up and play along with their insane, twisted, aggravating alien games. Sometimes love is about getting in the car with your partner, and, as you drive for seven hours, saying to each other, "We are about to eat a steaming platter of shit. We are going to eat it and eat it and we're going to act like it's delicious."

Some partners and girlfriends and wives will not agree to such a thing. I have a feeling your lady is special, and she'll feel proud of your decision to do this.

My dad was not an easy person. He had very strong opinions about what I should and shouldn't be doing with my life. He consistently referred to each of my boyfriends as "That Guy," as in "Why are you following That Guy across the country, anyway? Playing house is hell, you know. And what's the hurry? Why don't you stay here for a few years instead? What's so great about That Guy that you need to move 3,000 miles away?"

He was not all that tolerant of me or my thoughts or feelings. He would often get annoyed when I talked about myself or my life, so I mostly listened to him talk about his girlfriends, his travels, his dilemmas, whatever. The last time he visited me in San Francisco, I woke up at 7 a.m. three days in a row and picked him up from his hotel so we could go running along the beach, and then have breakfast together. 7 a.m. was like 3 a.m. to me then. I was hungover two of those mornings. I saw doing this as a major act of generosity on my part.

On his last night in town, we went out to a bar and had an early drink together. We ended up having a really good conversation, actually, maybe the first adult conversation, between equals, that we'd ever had. But I'd told my friends to come to the bar later on. When they showed up, I was anxious for my dad to leave. He could tell. He didn't want to leave. I could tell. I encouraged him to leave. I was nice about it, but I couldn't see us hanging out with my friends. Plus, I had a crush on one of the guys who'd shown up. I needed to focus my energies elsewhere.

My dad died three months later. I don't even know those other people anymore.

It was so important for me to have things my way back then. I saw everything I did for my dad as a massive sacrifice. Sure, my dad was tough. But he loved me and I loved him. Because he made me feel guilty a lot, though, I thought that every second I spent with him was ME doing HIM a favor. I had no idea that I was the one who was lucky to be there, to know him as an adult, to joke around, to have a few drinks, to get his perspective on the world, or just to sit back and appreciate his tweaked holding-forth on the state of things. I had no idea all of that was about to go up in smoke.

Sure, sometimes I played the SYMBOLIC CHILD when my siblings didn't want to do it. I flew to Johnstown, Pennsylvania to attend my grandfather's funeral, when no one else could go. I didn't have the money for a plane ticket, and I didn't want to fly on a small plane from Pittsburgh to Johnstown, because I was very afraid of small planes. When the pilot announced that we were about to land in "John Town." My dad and I looked at each other, stricken. The pilot had never fucking landed a plane there before. The airport was on top of a mountain, and that day it was shrouded in fog.

The pilot missed the runway on the first pass, and had to circle around and try again. My father and I were quiet and pale and gulping like fish. I got off the plane and had to lie down for a minute, just to keep from throwing up. Then we drove down the mountain and arrived in a small, crowded room with my grandfather's corpse, which was wearing foundation and bright pink blush.

That trip was not fun while it was happening. My dad drove really fast, and our political views clashed, and he didn't exactly respect my opinions, unless I was analyzing one of his girlfriends' personalities. But now I feel so grateful that I was there. We didn't have much time left. How does that Bowerbirds song go? "Though I could not know then, we'd have but few times like these."

Parent-child relationships are so bewildering and heartbreaking, almost across the board. We try hard to do right by our parents, but after a while we feel like we've done enough, like we need to make our own choices and get some distance.

But when I think of the years I've wasted, wanting my mother to conform to my expectations of her instead of just accepting her limitations, it makes me sad. For years I wanted her to understand and embrace me completely, even though I wasn't doing the same for her. I could've just shown up and played along and not taken every single thing personally, for her sake. Instead, I got lost in my own anger and frustration that things couldn't be different, that we couldn't be together on MY terms.

It's hard not to take your parents personally. Maybe impossible. Your mother is seriously taxing. I get that. And if you spend the night, you may think, over and over: WHY AM I DOING THIS? At times you may feel glum and despondent. All of your shit from the past is likely to come up.

But it will also be VERY INTERESTING, won't it? You will learn a few things about yourself, and your mother, and your partner.

You'll have to be content to play the good son and observe and stay calm. During the day, you'll go out on a walk or a jog or a hike with your partner, and you'll talk about your crazy mother and her crazy stepchildren at length. And after it's all over, as you're driving away to the second half of your vacation, which will include lots of cuddling and sex and drinking and smoking, you and your partner will laugh together at your mother's irritating tics.

But why not give her this gift, all the same? What you don't know yet is that this Christmas insanity is also YOUR reward. This is you, experiencing your mother's twisted joyful oddities on HER terms for once, and it's a gift to you. Because it'll be good for your heart and your soul and your memories.

Honestly, I think you're in conflict over this visit because your heart is telling you to stay overnight at her house, for her sake, even though it's fucking purgatory. Your intellect says DO WHAT YOU FUCKING WANT. YOU'RE AN ADULT. FUCK HER AND HER SHITTY NOTIONS OF GOD AND FAMILY. But your heart believes that you should be there on Christmas, the way she wants you to be.

I would pitch this plan to your partner: Crazy Christian Christmas, nutty mom, pesky kids, heteronormative nightmare, followed by alone time with you for five days in a nice hotel. She'll sigh heavily. But I bet she'll think it's really mature and generous of you, to want to do this for your mom. I bet she'll know that it'll be really interesting and weird and funny and good for both of you, to suffer through this together and bite your tongue and be as pleasant as possible.

And I bet that, once you commit to this, you'll feel better. You will feel proud of yourself.

If you know for sure that you are incapable of this, that it will scar you too deeply, well, that's your call, not mine. But you should ask yourself, "Which choice offers the richest experience possible? Which choice will make my life the most interesting and adventurous? Which choice will be the most memorable?" I will never forget that crazy trip I took to Johnstown. Even though it was taxing, it's one of my most vivid memories I have of my father and his family and his hometown. Even though your family visits are excruciating, if you throw yourself into the spirit of it and try very hard to play with little children and chat with God-fearing cousins and help your mom make the mashed potatoes, I think you'll be changed by it. People will annoy you and make you angry and you'll have to work hard not to argue and say the wrong thing. But once it's over, you will feel good about your ability to rise above your own needs and give of yourself like this.

But look, even if you don't go, you should resolve to stop arguing with your mom. She won't become a different person, or start listening to what you're saying out of the blue. She's getting older, and less flexible. Will her mind still be sharp in ten years? Will she be able to cook a turkey? Will all of those families that come to her house eventually stay at home instead? In a few years, will your mom be widowed, living in some rest home in another state, near one of your sisters? Appreciate what you have right now. Appreciate her for who she is, right now, with all of her limitations and flaws. Watch her in your company, and witness how much she loves you, how much you matter to her.

I'm sure you feel angry that I'm asking you to do this, that I'm adding to the guilt you already feel, when you were hoping I'd tell you to tell her to fuck off instead. It probably makes you feel a little sick just thinking about doing this. And it'll be easy enough for you to find some friend who'll tell you that you should do whatever the fuck you want for Christmas.

But you might not have that many years left to play the good kid. It actually feels good to play that role. It's a role, sure, and maybe it's not perfectly in line with your most authentic self. But it's a generous thing. You can play it once a year, can't you? You can put every ounce of your love for her into it, and you can play that role like you fucking mean it. Love is not JUST about being accepted for exactly who you are. Sometimes love is about accepting someone else, first and foremost, and giving them exactly what they need. I don't think you'll regret that. Twenty years from now, I think you'll look back and say, "I'm really glad I gave her that."

My dad died almost 20 years ago, and I still think about running along the San Francisco Bay with him. I didn't know that would be the last day I'd ever see his face or hear his voice. I'm really glad I didn't sleep in instead.


Are you freaking out about the holidays? Write to Polly and she'll fix you a nice homemade knuckle sandwich.

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. The terrible Santa is by Dan Century.

64 Comments / Post A Comment

ragazza (#241,456)

Honestly not trying to be flip here, but the "no booze" part would be the dealbreaker for me in this situation–and I don't even drink that much. What about if they came to the festivities but stayed at a hotel? That seems like a decent compromise. She doesn't want them sleeping together at her house, fine, but she should understand that means they don't want to stay there.

bmichael (#213)

@ragazza You 'don't even drink that much' but 'no booze' would be a dealbreaker – after reading all that? You're ideas are those of a fucking psycho.

ragazza (#241,456)

@bmichael Should be "your"

geekspice (#246,715)

@ragazza mmmm, I think if one needs booze so much that they can't go 24 hours without it, they might want/need to take a closer look at that. The more difficult it is for someone to give up booze, the more likely it is to be a good idea.

ragazza (#241,456)

@geekspice Um in fact I go without booze for days at a time and I rarely have more than a glass or two of wine with dinner when I do imbibe. (That's what middle age does to you, kids!) What I meant was, having to deal with that family situation without the sweet relief of a drink or two was a deal-breaker for me. That's why I said "in this situation" in my original post. But hey, why not assume the worst with minimal information?

testingwithfire (#244,161)

Spot on as always. LW putting his time in now means a lot less guilt down the road. I make two seven-hour round trips every Thanksgiving and Christmas to see my increasingly frail mom. The trip is a royal PITA and my mom can be one, too.

Would I rather stay here and eat Chinese while watching "The Apartment"? Of course, on one level. But I know that when she dies I will have no question in my mind that I Paid. My. Dues. And if I were in my mother's shoes, I would want it done for me.

flossy (#1,402)

Have you thought of nipping at a hip flask for those 48 hours? Just 'cause they don't serve or condone booze doesn't mean you can't drink it, with a little discretion.

Just don't fill the flask with egg nog because that's disgusting.

sox (#652)

@flossy and only if you won't smell like the booze maybe, getting called out like that would suck.

BoatGirl (#245,744)

@flossy But on the plus side, if they caught you drinking, they wouldn't make you come back next year.

(I bet also, if you nipped out to the garage occasionally to sip from a flask, you'd find a few of your step-siblings doing the same, regardless of their professed teetotalling, bornagainism)

Gretathejeta (#255,481)

Sounds like one of those obnoxious ALTERNATIVE couples. I don't mind that they don't live like "Norman Rockwell" Or anything. I just find those people much more critical of other peoples lifestyles then even those people who live "traditionally". Just because they refuse to play pretend and rub everyone's noses in what Their oh-so-important opinions are, without considering their audience. as adults I feel like most of us, for the sake of other people, have to play pretend to get-along with other people or just omit certain truths to get by. Not while we are with the people we trust, not our close friends, but sonetimes, doing that is the kindest thing we can do to get along. The letter writer didn't have to tell his mother, his long-term ladyfriend was "bi" or even that he was an "atheist", if he knew it would only cause contention. I feel like as an adult, if you are going to be around people with a different mindset for a couple hours, the most logical thing to do is "omit" and when you disagree, smile tightly and nod, then change the subject. It just annoys me when people go into situations like that, and think that, "I'm right and I can't tolerate anything different then the sort of lifestyle I'm used to." It's closed minded and childish. If you sometimes keep some things to yourself and not bust into a place with a metaphoric t-shirt screaming "THIS IS ME AND MY OPINIONS AND LIFESTYLE" and just be kind of open, and listening, and accommodating, you can learn a lot, about your mother, about a different lifestyle than your own. Plus not drinking and sleeping in the same bed as your partner for a couple days? Not the end of the world. Grow up.

rich bachelor (#8,586)

@Gretathejeta Yeah, that's a common complaint from You People.

Gretathejeta (#255,481)

@rich bachelor I get annoyed by my conservative friends who do the same type of bullshit. I have super conservative friends and super liberal ones. I've learned a lot from both types of people. I just get annoyed by closed minded ness, contention,and being so stuck in your ways you refuse to put up with living life a little out if your comfort zone. My family varys wildly in secular and political beliefs and I've learned to be an adult and keep my mouth shut on a lot if occasions to keep the peace. When one of my relatives can't do the same, I feel like they are acting impulsively, like a child or a teenager. Maybe it's cause I've lived in other cultures, but I've learned the skill to blend in when necessary. It's a vital one in making and keeping relationships. I guess, be tolerant, be open and be accommodating to lifestyles different than your own, especially if it's for your mother and only for a couple days.

rich bachelor (#8,586)

@Gretathejeta Well, I was mostly kidding with how I worded the response, but I have had plenty of times where I was more than happy not to talk religion/politics with relatives or strangers who I didn't see eye to eye with, and they wouldn't let it go. When I tried to demur politely, that's when it suddenly became "Oh, so I guess the tolerant people aren't so tolerant of other people's views, huh?" When all it really was was me just wanting to keep the peace and not seeing us debating things contributing to the overall good.
And yes; I've seen too many times where someone thinks they're Speaking Truth to Power when they proclaim their sexual orientation or atheism or whatever to a roomful of people who didn't ask. What they're actually doing is Annoying the Relatives, which is something else. I'm not sure what I've seen more of though: that thing or the usual Relatives Putting You On the Spot number.

Gretathejeta (#255,481)

@rich bachelor prob seen the "other thing" more since coming to the states. It's become almost insufferable, but while I feel like I can say, "let's agree to disagree" with conservative people in the states when they talk about something hairy that makes me uncomfortable, I feel like really liberal people want to raise their voice and shoat, and then completely dismiss me or try to bully me about having opinions that don't jive with their own, because they are "Speaking Truth" and I'm some closed minded whatever, even though they only read stuff that jives with what they think, and associate with people who think the same way they do, and they've never really experienced the world much more than that because it makes them too uncomfortable and that makes them angry. So those people, I usually keep my guard up pretty high so I don't say anything that will set them off. They just have a tendency to "announce" their opinions, when nobody asked. It's frustrating, because I def see those people cut off friends and family alike, pretty indeterminately, for the sake of their lifestyle or alt. opinions. LW sounds by the letter like one of those folks, especially for the fact that his family, who he knows is conservative, knows these details like his girlfriend is bi and that he is an atheist when you know poor ma isn't going to understand or agree. These are things that can't be seen and since LW only spends a couple days with, need not be brought up in the first place. LE seems like a person that would sacrifice family over lifestyle and feeling comfortable for a couple days.

sox (#652)

This holiday boundary setting post from the hairpin a couple years ago offers up some nice strategies for when things get tense.

I agree with the part of ragazza's comment above about pushing the sleeping in the same room thing. If you can find a way to calmly but firmly express that respect on this issue needs to go both ways, maybe she can understand that the alternative is you staying in a hotel.

Good luck everybody!

scaryca (#225,013)

"Sometimes love is about accepting someone else, first and foremost, and giving them exactly what they need."


rich bachelor (#8,586)

This might well be the first time I disagree with Polly. Here's my advice:
First off, you are indeed an adult, and these gatherings aren't good for you. They also do your relationship with your mom no good, either. As far as your lady being "proud of you" for forcing yourself to go to this shit-fest, don't count on it.

Secondly, while time is indeed a factor -she's not gonna be alive/active/alert forever- you still can see her plenty of other times when there's not a small army of annoying assholes in her house. She either will or will not understand this, but again; you're a fucking adult, and must be able to write your own ticket. Any sort of "three months later, he was dead" type guilt-trippery is just over the damn top: hey, tomorrow You might be dead. We can only know so much.

Thirdly, when you've reminded your mom that there's other days in the year and other siblings she could harass, the discussion needs to end. Same as when the Christer children wanna throw Pascal's Wager at you for the twelfth time; you say, "I'm not gonna do that," politely. Then tell them politely again. Then, since they probably have no grace or social skills, they'll wanna try again, and that's when you tell them Rudely. You and your mom love each other, and that's why both of you need to make efforts not to poison it. Show her how.

479282710@twitter (#255,486)

@rich bachelor Seconded. I see both sides, I really do. And I feel bad for FUAX's mother and I feel bad for FUAX because in this situation, no matter who does what, someone is going to be butthurt about it. And that right there is the problem. It's the holidays. It's supposed to be time to relax and share with those you love and ENJOY the time together. As an adult couple with no children, I respect that they want to maximize the mutual vacation in a way where they're calling the shots. Also, here's a thought, instead of projecting her guilt from her father's death, what if it was Polly's partner who had passed suddenly and she hadn't gotten to spend a quiet, special holiday alone with them like they'd always wanted? Might add a different perspective.

rich bachelor (#8,586)

@479282710@twitter Indeed. Another thing I kinda didn't exactly say in there too is that sometimes you get called an elitist just for showing up. You might be doing just fine with everybody else, but the family hothead just isn't having it. And because you were trying to do the Right Thing and show up, swallow your pride and Just For Today it all over the place, you now have to put up with someone who thinks your life is some sort of insult to theirs. And if you say something back, you're the troublemaker.

I don't know any better advice than to just tell people to walk away from families that are toxic in large numbers. The point could be made that there's far worse things than having to argue with a blowhard all afternoon, but the point is that you shouldn't have to as a condition of seeing one's loved ones. You have agency; that's what being an adult is.

triggermarie (#234,742)

@rich bachelor It certainly sounds like his mom is not approaching this the right way or listening to his concerns about sleeping in the same room as his partner. HOWEVER, he comes across as really condescending in this letter, especially talking about his mom's faith, which seems really dear to her. If that manifests itself when he's with this family, then he might be justified in being called an elitist.

Chrissimas (#255,484)

This made me want to weep. I think that sometimes as adult children, we get angry if we feel our parents can't see us as anything other than their children, but we forget to try and see them as anything other than parents. That means that you do things for them without seeing it as a favor, like Polly said.

I wish I could send this to my brother and he would read it and think about it really hard and change the way he thinks about our mother. That won't happen because it won't. Everything he does for her is a favor (and he thinks he's being the good son) and everything she does for him is his due. Haven't quite figured that one out yet.

16495665@twitter (#249,599)

I am in favor of the visiting-but-staying-in-a-hotel part. Then you know you have an escape coming. And if her house is full of people already, you won't have to stand in line for the bathroom/shower. I have softened towards my relatives, like Polly, over the years; at the same time, I have also established some boundaries. One of those would definitely be, You Don't Get a Say in My Love Life, so the no-sharing-a-room thing would be way too much for me to deal with.

There are also many possible dodges to avoiding Defend Your Atheism/Politics challenges. Fed Up needs to put some energy into learning those. Or simply refuse to be drawn in, by declaring, "It's the holidays, let's just be a family today, not have a political debate," and refusing to say more. If he needs a motivator besides making mom happy, he might think about all those little godly spawn, to whom he and his partner may be the only example of an alternative they've ever seen. There is value in being the Subversive Family member; one of those kids might discover they are gay, or atheist,and need someone to talk to someday.

tagny (#255,588)

@16495665@twitter Yeah, I'm with you. And screw the 23-25; are you KIDDING? I vote stay in a hotel on Christmas Eve, have breakfast and stay during Christmas Day, then take off. If that.

But I am also a member of the Stay Away at Christmas tribe; I find the pressure and the anxiety and the crowds of family and noise so stressful that I go home at other (quieter) times of year to visit instead. I feel for this LW. Two days of that bullshit is TOO MUCH.

allyzay (#321)

Polly's response is fucking horrifying, makes a lot of shitty assumptions (that aren't borne out in the actual letter, frankly?), and openly belittles emotional abuse (versus physical abuse which I guess wins?) and I'll leave it at that.

Bryan Keller (#3,804)

@allyzay Yeah, the advice here is very much catering to this (seemingly insufferable) mother's wishes. This guy is an adult. How about he invites the mother and her husband to his house for Christmas, where drinking and smoking is allowed/encouraged? They would decline and feel self-righteous about it. He is asking for permission to do the same. Permission granted.

sharilyn (#4,599)

@allyzay I'm not reading emotional abuse here. Maybe immaturity? Some codependence possibly? But emotional abuse seems a bridge too far.

av6 (#216,788)

@sharilyn I didn't see that at play here, either. Frankly I think a man in his 30's should be able to deal with a couple days of maybe getting some judgemental comments about his life. If he's secure in his choices he needn't care. And the great thing about being an adult is that if people are truly horrifying to you, you can walk out.

migraineheadache (#1,866)

@annev6 I would also add that having the same beliefs isn't shangri-la – my family are liberal atheists, and, having politics+religion mostly covered, we just fight about other stuff.

geekspice (#246,715)

@allyzay I think your comment belittles actual emotional abuse. Garden-variety parental holiday-related guilt-tripping once a year doesn't qualify.

av6 (#216,788)

@migraineheadache Yeah. And the drinking thing is just silly. My bf's mom is a recovering alcoholic, so their family never drinks at any event. I don't refuse to go to dinner with them/stay at there house because of that. Drinking should not be so important to you that it ruins a trip.

skyslang (#11,283)

@allyzay Agreed. He shouldn't do it. Don't do it, dude!

ubix (#241,295)

That was an amazing answer.

Olivia2.0 (#1,716)

I mean am I the ONLY person who is happy to go home to my mom's house and eat food and watch expensive cable tv and general just hang around in pjs and go to movies and have a good time? And now my husband goes too? FYI I am 35 almost 36 and childless…I feel like I should send this column to my mom and be like YOU'RE GREAT I LOVE YOU.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

@Olivia2.0 — Yes, you are probably the ONLY. I am pretty weird, too; I used to get along pretty well with most of my in-laws, even on holidays. I couldn't stand the television, though, so it didn't work out in the long run.

triggermarie (#234,742)

@Olivia2.0 Nope, not the only. I love my parents a ton. Sure, they say judgmental things about my life sometimes. Who in this world is never judgmental? I just say, "Thanks for you opinion, Mom." and then change the subject. Works great.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

@triggermarie — It's nice if you can change the subject. FUAX seemed not to be able to. A lot of people seem to have that problem. I don't understand it — I wouldn't think of treating my grown children disrespectfully. But I'm a crank.

stinapag (#10,293)

@Olivia2.0 Nope. I'm looking forward to a week at the ranch with my family. The fights are usually about what sort of food we're making, but otherwise, it's a pretty decent time.

Sooner or later we'll make the trek to spend Christmas with my husband's family, and that will be a little more stressful, because my husband has an awkward relationship with his dad. I think there was a lot of judgment on both sides when my husband was in his 20s and 30s, but I think both of them are pretty ok with what my husband is doing with his life now.

18000449@twitter (#247,007)

Here's my thoughts:
Take a break this year. Do whatever the fuck you want to do for Christmas. If you have to explain that to your mom, do it. She might bitch and whine and guilt-trip you. OK, that's fine, still. And then a year from now make a decision on what you want to do based on two different experiences: spending X-Mas with Mom, and without. Maybe if you don't spend one X-Mas with your Mom, she'll roll back a bit about it next year. Maybe she'll be more condecending, I don't know. Just do it.

coleslaw (#593)

As the 30-something queer female partner of a man with a Christian mother who keeps a no-swearing household, I would not be proud of him if he wanted us to spend Christmas at her house in separate bedrooms. I would be really annoyed.

oldflame (#235,977)

My mother always pulls out the "Well they might not be here next year" gambit and I HATE IT. But I think you should go despite the fact that they're using that shitty tactic against you.

My mother and I have reached a basic level of understanding each other as adults, but that has also required knowing that, as people, we are toxic to each other. We get along way better with short periods of contact and certain boundaries. I don't accept the argument that you owe things to your parents just for raising you. Having kids is inherently a selfish decision. If your motherhood experience was sub-par my childhood was sub-par so we're probably even.

I start getting depressed and anxious about Christmas around November and it doesn't wear off until January. But yes, I still go home to see my frail grandmother and sleep on a crappy futon in the basement and eat amazing food and listen to infuriating conversations. At some point in the future maybe my immediate family will come visit me for Christmas, despite the fact that I'm an atheist and hate having people in my living space.

There is definitely some room for give-and-take in Fed Up's situation. Some protips: Try to get your mother to articulate why she wants you there and how you can fulfill that without making yourself feel too terrible. Resign yourself to it being terrible and try not to build it up into a big Thing before you even get there. You're going to the dentist for the long-term benefits, not the immediate fulfillment. Maybe leave your partner to her own family/friends for the holiday if she'd be happier. Find a member of the extended family who is the closet weirdo and make friends. Kids under a certain age are really impressionable so sit at the kid's table and casually slide some feminism into the conversation when the parents aren't listening. Take the request to sleep in your mother's house as an opportunity to seal off a room to hide in when you need to recharge. I think you can do it, if you haven't gotten too entrenched by now. Good luck to everybody suffering through the holidays for the sake of the greater good!

Pandemic Endemic (#3,825)

FUAX's mom says he is being "childish" for wanting to sleep in the same bed with his partner? Then mom orders him to sleep in separate beds, like he is a third grader at a slumber party? That's just the tip of the bullshit iceberg…

All I can say, without spending two hours angrily typing, is good luck to FUAX, and SUBVERT THE CHILDREN.

sharilyn (#4,599)

@Pandemic Endemic Keep in mind that you may be one of only a few adults those kids encounter who isn't a religious zealot, and you can model a different mode of being for them. If you want to!

sharilyn (#4,599)

Dear LW; I HAVE SO BEEN THERE. In my 30s, I mostly didn't go home for the festivities. But now in my 40s I'm sorry that I didn't. Sure I hate the bible-thumping, judgement, schmaltz and forced cheer. It's completely awful! But visiting the family homestead is like going on a hero's journey, and your reward for "going through the motions" is actually knowledge about yourself. There's a level at which shunning your parents is shunning an important part of yourself. SO if you can't go through with it out of love for your mother (which: no judgment – I've been there!), then do it in the interest of self-betterment. Like going to the gym, except an emotional exercise.

FWIW – I found the whole mishegoss a lot easier to deal with sober, but your mileage may vary.

2189378665@twitter (#255,582)

Religious parents can and will gaslight their wayward children into believing on the deepest of levels that we are: demon possessed, crazy, persecutors/abusers whose thoughts, feelings, and lives are an act of willful aggression and abuse. We must be locked in our rooms for years. We must be thrown out with nothing. We must be shamed in front of the only communities we have been authorized to have.

This post hit all my religious guilt buttons. I was raised listening to Focus on the Family. I know about valuing family. And I also know how hard a good, respectable, religious, community-approved family can undermine your entire life, your entire ability to see yourself as a safe and respectable individual deserving of happiness and love.

There are a LOT of religious kids out there committing suicide lately. NO one believes how bad it is when your parent is so righteous and good.

Maybe it's different for someone healthy enough to have a supportive partner, like the OP. And I'm sure it's different for every single person. But I would suggest to anyone this boundary for any family relationship, no matter how superficial:

If that relationship requires you to fill the role of Abuser (who ruined the Christian family with her thoughts and feelings!) or Persecutor or Demon-Possessed (what else could explain it?!) or any other terrible posture that is the subtext to every moment and undermines the legitimacy of every feeling or thought you have, DON'T GO. For their sake as much as yours. You don't want to be The Monster or The Abuser and **!!**you don't want a relationship with someone willing to be abused.**!!** Staying out of that is healthy and loving.

Thanks, Polly, for making a thoughtful response, but I want to affirm this boundary for anyone else as gaslighted and brainwashed and guilt ridden as I am. Maybe this is a good minimum.

@2189378665@twitter Having good boundaries is the key to successful family interactions. I've definitely de-camped to a hotel on past visits with my SUPER XTIAN parents.

Victoria (#101,688)

@2189378665@twitter It doesn't sound like these parents are abusive at all, or gas-lighters, or what have you. It sounds like they have accepted him, his choices, his partner (though they will doubtless be curious about her) and have invited both to partake of their family traditions. If she can graciously do that, why can't he stop rolling his eyeballs at her faith for a day or two? If she is verbally or emotionally abusive, sure, boundaries are vital; but as someone who's lived with abusive parents, I have to say that I don't see that here. Just the opposite; he hates her love of giant, crowded festivities of a religious holiday, and she still desires his presence for it. So it's weird to see a giant rant about abuse here, because that minimizes true abuse. Being exposed to someone else's faith might be uncomfortable and dreary, but it's hardly cruel.

av6 (#216,788)

I agree with Polly. A couple days won't kill you. The last time my grandma ever asked me to go on a trip with her I declined because I thought it'd be too much hassle. Four months later she died of an unexpected illness.
Of course if you can say no to your mom while accepting the fact that she might not be there next year, say no. And that's not meant to be a guilt trip. I know plenty of people with mothers so awful they would still say no. If your mother is not that awful though, I would go.

Also, I'd like to add that if you're secure in your life choices, letting judgemental comments roll of your back is easier than you think, and an invaluable skill!

Anarcissie (#3,748)

I think the stuff about how you may never see the person alive again is invalid. That is true of everyone and everything: 'Look thy last on all things lovely' and unlovely as well. That is how we live.

As for the rest, I believe the correct performance of familial obligations requires mutual respect. In this instance, religion apparently licenses the parent to disrespect the child, especially the separate bedrooms bit. The only justification for attending the event as described I can see is as an act of war: drag me into your camp and I'll subvert your followers. It might be worthwhile attending on that basis, although I think FUAX and company will soon be disinvited.

cicatrix (#255,597)

One additional piece of advice: get yourself some nicotine gum or lozenges or a patch or whatever. Nicotine withdrawal does not mix well with shiny happy judgmental X-tian relatives.

szarah (#255,596)

I agree with Polly on this one. It's not like his mom is asking him to stay for a week, it's two days (one if you get there Christmas Eve afternoon and leave Christmas day at lunch) and one night. And although her family is religious and conservative, it doesn't sound like they are abusive or combative, just annoying. I have the same situation in my family, my parents are uncomfortable with my bf and I sharing a bed and my extended family is all Mississippi redneck. But I'm okay with giving up some comfort in order to spend time with the people who raised and loved me, even if their love is obnoxious and awkwardly racist. And as soon as I get home I make myself a big drink and fall into bed with my boyfriend.

geekspice (#246,715)

"My dad died three months later. I don't even know those other people anymore."

This. My husband died very suddenly this past spring, 10 weeks after a cancer diagnosis that carried a 90+% survival rate. (Those numbers are never 100% for a reason.) Every single moment that I didn't spend with him in those last two months is an almost unbearable loss. Someday, these people you love will be gone, and it won't matter even one bit how "right" you were.

churlishgreen (#49,256)

@geekspice I'm so sorry.

I completely agree with this comment and Polly's advice. I had a strained relationship with my mother, whom I considered to be a frivolous person who was overly concerned with appearances and having things, especially holidays and celebrations, go exactly according to her plan. I hated the large, chaotic family Christmas get-together she insisted on having every year (featuring, among other things, a lot of unenlightened political commentary from tipsy relatives). I rarely went as an adult living in another part of the country, and when I did, I was sullen and resentful.

She was diagnosed with lung cancer a couple of years ago, not long after we had a huge, stupid fight over how I was going to celebrate my parents' then-upcoming milestone anniversary. I was able to spend a good amount of time with her before she died, including, just before she went into a hospice, Christmas. I am so grateful to have been able to have that time, and to be able to finally appreciate her and show her I loved her. Had she died suddenly, it would have been better for her (lung cancer is a bad way to go). But I'm not sure how I would have been able to live with my snotty, stubborn, ungenerous self.

Be But Little (#228,384)

@geekspice One of my parents recently passed away. We didn't always get a long. Still, she loved me, and I loved her, and I miss her very, very much. As an adult, I think it's important to be an "adult," to take responsibility and to show my parents that I respect them regardless of our differences. Sometimes, you have to take the high road and do things you don't want to do.

H.E. Ladypants (#173,749)

@geekspice Yeah, it seem so cliche to yell "remember, this person won't be here forever!" but that's because it's true.

My dad died in a car accident a couple of years ago and I learned there will never have been enough phone calls, there will never have been enough hugs, but one more is always better than one less.

Victoria (#101,688)

This might be the most goddamned beautiful response to a letter ever. Wow. That said, OP's letter dripped in derision and scorn for his family of origin, and his mom *still* loves him and wants him to be there with his partner. That's kind of nice. Even if he finds her hateful, I really hope they go and it turns out nicer than expected. And maybe he can work out an 'every other year' plan with his mom, which many people do. Maybe one holiday every two years will be more palatable.

Myrtle (#9,838)

One element that gave me a grin: LW has inherited his mother's tenacity.

Revel in having a room and bed to yourself, for one night. Pretend you and your partner are dating. Buy her some flowers to wake up to on her bedside table. Send her smoky lusty looks from across the room. It sounds like she's going along with this whole scene, despite the tensions. Revel in the gift of love, at that level of acceptance.

Your time with your Mother, this person you are very like, is very short now.

bureaucrab (#247,615)

Last year was the first time my brother wasn't with us for Christmas (he was with his fiancee and her family), and it was fucking hard for me to be without him. All day his absence was more potent than the presence of all the other people who were there – and that was being among my OWN family. The LW's mom is spending all Christmas day with people who, though they may be like-minded, and hopefully have mutually-loving relationships with her, are NOT her own family. And not a damn one of her own children can see fit to come spend the day with her? LW and his siblings are ALL ridiculous and selfish. How many mothers in this world are happier spending family-oriented holidays with someone else's kids instead of their own? Yeah.

It is NOT too much to ask that an adult child and his partner – and his sisters and their families – suck it up and make their "very sweet" mother's fucking year. Stay in a hotel, fine, and ABSOLUTELY get outta dodge and do what you want for your own birthday, and maybe find a way to rotate years with the sibs or something, but give her Christmas Fucking Day – the morning and dinner and whole nine yards. When something is important to your mother and it is NOT important to you, you make your fucking mother fucking happy. That is being an adult, and a loving child who appreciates that your mother sacrificed her own independent adulthood to raise your whining selfish ass. For a lot of people, that means putting up with a bunch of peckerhead in-laws making peckerhead comments for a couple days a year while we all eat pie. Join the club.

shampeon (#255,625)

I'm a parent of two young boys, who spend their time making me and my wife accommodate their needs and wishes in one way or another, to the exclusion of our own needs and wishes. As far as I can tell, some variation of this is on the menu for the next two decades. Ask me if I'd like to spend just a couple obligation-free days drinking, fucking, and going out to eat with my wife, where we can forget all the stresses and bullshit that goes into parenting our kids, whom we also love to pieces.

I understand that my role is to prepare our boys for their adulthood and independence, which will also mean they will make decisions I don't necessarily approve of, etc.

But if the end game of all this is that my sons will be into their FUCKING LATE THIRTIES and still be pulling the same "me-first" asshole behavior as our lives wind down, you bet I'm going to make them feel like selfish dicks. And I'm not going to be receptive to them whining that they don't get to spend ALL 365 days of the year pursuing their own happiness. Jesus.

anotherkate (#233,200)

I'm more in the don't go camp, but I also think FUAX needs to talk honestly with his mom about how horrible her attitude, when he is there, makes him feel. If she desperately wants him there, her behavior should show that. If I was FUAX I would wait until after the holidays, then call up mom and tell her that if she wants him to come next year, she needs to lay off questioning his life choices and just enjoy his company. If she can't do that, then he shouldn't agree to be part of the holidays, and stick to visiting on a different date. Just because they're family doesn't give the mom to treat him with less respect than she would a stranger.

skyslang (#11,283)

@anotherkate Exactly! If she wants him to visit, she should try and make him feel welcome and comfortable.

One of my best memories of my unfettered youth is the night I brought a beau to my parent's house. They insisted on us having separate rooms to sleep in. He said immediately, "So I'd get the couch in your gorgeous family room? The room that is so cozy and inviting?" He said this in an enthused voice, like he had just won a big lottery. Boy, was it fun when he turned up inside my bedroom, where we did as we wanted (quietly of course,) for a few hours till he snuck back downstairs before dawn. I can think of nothing kinkier than the set- up this couple is being offered!

alicesherman (#237,158)

I just logged in to say this is wonderful, and JOHNSTOWN, PA!!! I KNEW I loved you! My entire mother's side of the family is from that weird, weird place!!!!! I desperately would like to chat to someone that never lived there but has ties!

skyslang (#11,283)

I stopped visiting my family during Christmas for similar reasons. I'm gay, and although my mom is cool the extended family sucks. I would leave feeling disparaged, bitter, and angry.
I've never ever regretted it. My mom used to argue with me about it, or try to cajole me, but she's since accepted it and stopped. Now we get together once a year someplace neutral–only requirement is a hotel with a pool, and some cocktails. We relax, we laugh. We have a good time. Our relationship is a lot better. We're accepting one another for who we are, not pretending.
Relationships with family aren't about goddamn CHRISTMAS. They're about connecting, whenever you can, however you want. Find something that works for you and your family. Forcing yourself to endure that awful celebration will not bring you closer to your mom. Find something else to do with or for her that will make her, AND YOU, happy.

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