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
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.
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.