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The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and gratitude. But for many of us, the expectation of what the holidays should be can fill them with anxiety and dread.
This week, the Sugars revisit an episode in which they took on some of the big questions of the holiday season. How do we balance the competing demands of families? How do we act like adults when we return to our childhood homes? And, what if we aren't sure we should return home at all?
The Sugars are joined by Heather Havrilesky, author of How to Be a Person in the World and of New York Magazine's advice column, Ask Polly.
Let me start by saying I love my in-laws. I have known them since I was 16 — my husband and I were high-school sweethearts. My situation is unique because both sets of our parents live within 20 minutes from each other. You would think this makes life easier when we go home to visit for the holidays, but in fact, it has made visits extremely challenging. Before we realized this was going to be a problem, my husband and I never talked about splitting up the time between our two families. We figured it would happen organically. But what ends up happening is my husband's family jumps at the opportunity to spend as much time with us as possible, and my family ends up getting cheated out of time. One trip home, my husband and I slept separately for a week. I was at my house, he was at his, because I hadn't seen my family but he felt an intense obligation to spend evenings with his parents.
Although my mother-in-law is in driver's seat when it comes to a lot of these issues, my father-in-law doesn't stop her, and he has an especially bad habit of making my husband feel incredibly guilty for not eating dinner with them every night when we are at home. I thought we had a good solution to figure this out by giving both sets of in-laws a schedule of when and where we would be staying, but when we’re at my house, my husband's mother will start calling his cell phone around 7am, and every half hour until he answers the phone. Or if he doesn’t, she will then call my parent's home number or my cell phone and ask for my husband to call her when he wakes up so they can talk about our plans for the day, when we are not scheduled to see them that day. This was annoying when we were in college, but now, it’s verging on crazy.
My husband did speak with his mother, but she began crying and she didn't understand why her behavior made us feel disrespected and like children. When we told them we were joining the Peace Corps, for example, it took almost 2 years before we left to change the reaction from, "No! Please don't go!" to " You will have an amazing experience!"
I am especially worried because now, we are in the Peace Corps, and when we go home for Christmas, it will be our first trip home in almost a year and a half. His mother called "dibs" on picking us up from the airport. I couldn't help but laugh at this request — we hadn't even bought our flights home yet!
I welcome any advice you have for me on this. My husband is reluctant to address these issues head-on. He feels that since we don't see them that often, why bring up the negative when we do see them. I can understand this, but I also know that if we continue to ignore it, it will only get worse. Especially after we return to live in the U.S.
Steve Almond: Frustrated Daughter-in-Law, you’re right. If you ignore it, it’s going to get worse, and it’s already pretty silly. It’s lovely that you both have loving families; that’s a beautiful, wonderful blessing. And it’s great that they want to spend a lot of time with you. But the guilt-tripping and the calling-at-7-in-the-morning, that is childish behavior and you’re right to say to your husband, “This is not OK.” I think probably the husband feels guilty because he’s very loyal to his family, and he has decided for reasons that are good and important to live far away from them. This is what the holidays can become. They invoke this sense of “who is important,” and that’s signified by how much time the out-of-town relatives get with particular families.
Cheryl Strayed: It seems like a very clear-cut situation to me. This couple, Frustrated Daughter-in-Law and her husband, need to establish those boundaries with his parents. Obviously, the in-laws are doing this because they madly love their son and they want every minute of his time when he’s in town. But the fact of the matter is that he’s married now, and this is about the husband growing up and setting that boundary with his parents. I think that FDIL is really a frustrated wife. This sounds like a very loving young woman who wants to have meaningful relationships with his parents, so before we get any in-laws involved in any conversations about who’s going to visit who, I would counsel the two of them to really talk about it. He can’t go to his parents and say, “Listen, we really are going to spend half the time with my wife’s parents and half the time with you.” He can’t say that with clarity unless he feels that kind of clarity in his own heart.
Steve: I agree, she should talk to her husband, but if he’s not going to bring himself to this unilaterally, she shouldn’t put him in the position of being the go-between, because then his loyalties are divided. I feel that he should go with her because otherwise, they’re going to say, “Oh, I get it. It’s that daughter-in-law of ours.” He needs to, in her presence, say, “Hey, we’re united on this.” This is always the battleground. And believe me, it’s going to get worse because when kids enter the picture, there is a whole additional potential battleground if you don’t make it clear.
Cheryl: One piece of advice I would give to this couple when they’re preparing for this conversation is to write a script. That sounds ridiculous and over-determined, but whenever I’ve had to say something hard to somebody, what I found is that I’ll get nervous in the moment or overly emotional or defensive. Beforehand, I write down everything I have to say. I would recommend that they first acknowledge how much they love these parents, and then they lay out in very clear, concrete, concise terms what the dilemma is and how they have decided to solve it. I think when you go in prepared, you’re less likely to respond to some of the heightened emotion or drama of the moment.
I have a problem that may seem small to many people, but it feels big to me. I have a wonderful boyfriend and we are so in love. We've been together for more than two years, and we recently moved in together. I have never felt so close to anyone as I do to him. The problem is he rarely gives me gifts or cards. For every birthday, anniversary or Christmas, I have spent weeks finding the perfect gift. I often spend hours making him a card. I do not expect this level of gift-giving from him, as I deeply enjoy doing this for people that I love. But what I would like is some sort of card, even if it is store bought, and a small gift that shows he cares would be nice as well, but I would be pleased with just the card.
My reasoning is that these occasions present the perfect opportunity to show someone that you care about deeply, but see every day, how much they mean to you. I've explained that I don't care how much money he spends and that something homemade means more to me than anything.
Sugars, he loves to do art and draws or doodles all the time, which makes me saddened further when I don't get a card from him. He says he understands, and although it's not something that is important to him in general, that it is important to him because it is important to me. But I haven't seen much change in his behavior. He often offers me money or to buy me something that I want for a specific day, but I have told him that I really just want him to pick something out for me himself. It seems to me like gift-giving is an afterthought for him. It’s hard for me to imagine spending my life with someone who does not exchange a little something to mark our years together with me, and I so deeply treasure the cards and gifts he has given me. Does this make me a selfish or materialistic person? Is this something that I just need to accept about him? Please help, I really want to spend my life happily with this man, and I'm sure if I can figure out how to proceed with this issue we can sort it out. I am willing to compromise but not sure what that looks like or how to move forward in that direction. I don't want to sell myself short like I have done in so many of my past relationships.
Cheryl: I’ve felt this letter in my own heart. I remember saving money to buy my high-school boyfriend this incredibly cool and pricey — at least for me back in those days — boombox. And I gave it to him, and he said thank you, and I got that kind of lump in my throat because it became clear to me that he didn’t have anything for me. He drove on and he stopped at a gas station and said, “Hold on, I’ll be right back.” So then, I’m waiting in the car, trying not to cry, and I’m thinking, “Surely, he’s hidden the nice beautiful box of whatever he’s wrapped up for me in the gas station.” But no, he comes walking out of the gas station carrying a 12-pack of Diet Coke. And he hands it to me and he says, “Merry Christmas,” and I look at him and I’m really really trying not to burst into tears. And he says, “What? You love Diet Coke.” So anyway, it was a horrible gift, and it was a gift that announces the fact that he didn’t do what Materialistic’s partner has also not done, which is to really consider the occasion. But you know, I have to say I have evolved on my thinking about this. I understand why I was disappointed. But I also understand that this guy loved me, but that gift-giving wasn’t something that was important to him as a sign of our bond.
Steve: Materialistic writes, “A small gift that shows he cares.” So this is the idea — that there’s really an emotional transaction that’s wrapped within that material transaction. That’s the way she sees it, and they’ve talked about it, and he’s agreed that it’s important to him because it’s important to her, and then he hasn't followed through on it. That makes him, to me, a bad actor in this scenario. More alarming to me is the idea that this little microcosm is the reflection of a larger pattern in her relationships that she says at the end of this letter, “I don’t want to sell myself short like I have in so many past relationships.” That’s where I would turn your attention, Materialistic — Is this symptomatic of your boyfriend not really hearing your emotional and psychological concerns (which would be bad news, Christmas or otherwise)?
Heather Havrilesky: I think that’s really what the letter is about, because personally, my husband and I are both pretty terrible about getting gifts for each other. But because I feel so secure in the relationship and we talk about everything all the time, it’s hard to imagine changing my attitude based on a lack of a gift. My husband shows care towards me all the time. And so with this letter, I feel like the big question is, why do these gifts matter so much? Maybe she needs to sit down with him one more time and say, “I need this. I don’t care if you think it’s stupid. I’m telling you right now that I really need this.” It’s hard when you’re in a relationship, especially if the commitment is uncertain, to sit down and say, “This is what I need from you. Let me be explicit. This is what I want you to do.” I’ve been in relationships where I’ve said to my boyfriends, ‘You know, I’m going to spell it out for you because you don’t seem to be getting it.” And it works. If the person cares, it works. There’s a worry in the back of my mind with this whole letter. I wonder if she is open to information that she’s taking in that says he is not caring for her. I wonder if she can only see it with the gifts, that she can’t see other ways in which he neglects what she specifically asks for.
Cheryl: I have a little bit of practical advice for Materialistic, and that is to say, “Let’s just get rid of all these feelings of expectation and doubt and all that stuff around gift-giving. A long time ago, I realized every Christmas and anniversary and birthday I was feeling like, “Am I going to feel loved by what my husband decides to get for me?” So my husband and I just decided that we would get rid of that kind of exchange and buy things that we chose together for us. Then it’s not about what he gave you and what you gave him, but what you gave each other and what you get to enjoy together.
My grandfather is a child molester. After I came out about the molestations 20 years ago, my family fell apart. My dad went insane with rage and caused an enormous amount of emotional damage for me and everyone else. The rest of my family protected my grandfather, so the result was that I felt like a black sheep growing up. My relationship with my grandmother is complicated. We’ve kept in touch, but I rarely see her since I refuse to be around her husband and she has refused to leave him. No one else bothered to reach out to me over the years. At 18 I moved as far away as I could possibly get.
A few years ago, my cousin found me and we’ve since become very close. She divulged to me that she had a similar experience with our grandfather that she keeps secret, or in her words, “doesn’t bother with.”
Two years ago, my dad died suddenly of a heart attack. I was 9 months pregnant, couldn’t fly, and therefore missed his funeral, along with the opportunity to see my family again. At the time, I was honestly relieved to not have to go. Once I was able to visit his grave with my new baby, I called my grandmother to see if she’d want to visit — maybe go out for lunch. She said I’d have to come to her house, but since I didn’t want to see her husband, I didn’t go. I was, however, able to reunite with my other cousins, their kids and my brother, which felt good, like maybe forgiveness was possible.
Now my entire family is inviting me to come home for Christmas. I still feel the rage, though I can’t tell if it’s mine or my father's, and also the enormous guilt that if I allowed myself to be a part of the family again, I’d be somehow disrespecting my dad, who was the only one to take my “side, " for better or worse. I’m also still hurt that no one except my cousin ever tried to know me in 20 years. If not for her eagerness to bring me back into the family, none of this would be happening. Part of me wants to finally introduce my son to my grandmother and spend Christmas with my brother, and part of me wants to hold out, wishing that son-of-a-bitch would just die already.
I want to be a forgiving person. I want to be at peace and put the anger away. But I also want to honor and protect myself and the memory of my father.
Should I accept the invitation?
Cheryl: This is so much more complicated than a yes or no answer. One of the first things I want to say to you, Distant Sheep, is that this experience that you’re having — where you have been sexually abused by a family member and then other members of the family either don’t believe you or ostracize the survivor — is very common. I’m so sorry that’s what happened to you. One of the first questions I have, Steve, is why does Distant Sheep want to go back to this family who didn’t reach out to her or love her or in any way be present for her? I think that’s really important for Distant Sheep to ask herself. She says it’s important to her that she introduces her son to her grandmother and that she spend Christmas with her brother, and my heart understands that. I think that feeling rises out of that hurt child within — that experience she had long ago that she hasn’t yet healed. But my head says, “These are people who have rejected her in every way.”
Steve: There are two things that she’s had to suffer. The first was what her grandfather did, and then the second and more complicated and disabling part of it is that her family didn’t stand up for her. Instead of there being a reckoning, there was Dad going over the top and everybody else turning away and saying, “Let’s not deal with this.” Obviously, the question of making amends with this grandfather is not on the table. The question is, what about the rest of the family? And I can understand why Distant Sheep — especially around the holidays — you feel like, “Oh, I have this opportunity.” The problem is that it sounds like it wouldn’t be on your terms. Even when she came home with her baby, the grandmother’s response is, “Sure, if you want to come to my house.” What? That’s crazy. Even if you live in a world in which your husband didn’t do these things and they’re just accusations, it’s still crazy to say, “Yes, you have to come to my house in order to interact with me.” And ultimately, it’s this kind of battle of who’s going to be in control.
Cheryl: I do think there’s a world of difference between time passing and those family members coming to Distant Sheep and saying, “We were wrong, and we didn’t know how to react, so we did the wrong thing. We did the safe thing, which is to try to make this fact go away. And please, forgive us and we welcome you back into the fold, and we will do everything we can do to protect you.” They’re not doing that. Everything in Distant Sheep’s letter tells me they’re saying, “Come on back, but remember that you’re going to follow our rules.” Even the cousin who says, “I was also abused by the same man.” Distant Sheep, I feel like you’re in some ways looking to your family to heal this wound that only you, yourself, can heal. And part of what I’m really afraid of for you is that the situation you've described here doesn’t look like it’s going to be a healing experience. It looks like you’re going to go home for Christmas and be profoundly disappointed and maybe re-traumatized.
Steve: One of the things that’s so baffling is the implication that the grandfather would still be there. Part of the family’s agenda is to get her in the same room with the grandfather and by some strange calculus in their hearts that would make her accusations — and the reality that stands behind those accusations — go away, and that’s completely nutso. Just so you are clear on that, Distant Sheep, that’s nuts.
Cheryl: I also want to say that this idea of honoring your father’s memory by staying angry and by not reconnecting, that’s a useless notion. Your father is dead; there is no honor to protect. The greatest thing you can do to honor your father is to thrive and to be that person who he loved so dearly. Holding on to his rage will be nothing but destructive to your own life.
Steve: What’s wonderful to hear in the face of this is that this woman has not given up on the possibility of forgiveness. It’s not just with her cousins and their kids, but also her brother. But if you’re going to seek contact with those people on your own terms, Distant Sheep, you need to figure out how important some recognition of what came between you — the feelings of abandonment and sense of betrayal — is to you. As beautiful as it might be for your grandmother to meet your child, her unwillingness to accept your truth and what happened to you might make that impossible. That’s a terrible thing, but it would be even worse to consent to her delusion.
Cheryl: So should you accept this invitation? I think we both say no. And I think that speaks volumes, because you’ll notice that very seldom are we so clear on this show. This feels like no to me, which is different from us saying, “Don’t try to reconnect.” There are all kinds of people that we can reconnect with across many, many mistakes and divides and flaws and even abuses. This doesn’t sound like a family that’s ready to do that yet. And this goes out to all of the people who are having this question, “Should I go home for the holidays or not?” We think of the holidays as this time to set aside differences and to come together to metaphorically and literally break bread, but I do think that there are times that you have to set that boundary and say no because that family is destructive to you. So it’s OK to stay home with yourself, gather around you the family that you’ve made in your new life, and feel the love of that warm fire.
New episodes of Dear Sugar Radio are released weekly. Do you a question for the Sugars? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.