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Heavy Meddle: What To Do When Your Mother Is The Grinch Who Hosts Christmas?

A loyal daughter wants to be able to throw her own holiday bash, but fears reprisals from her kin. (Markus Spiske/Unsplash)
A loyal daughter wants to be able to throw her own holiday bash, but fears reprisals from her kin. (Markus Spiske/Unsplash)
This article is more than 2 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the advice column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

...

Dear Steve,

I've waited a lot of years to host Christmas. Since my childhood, my parents have always hosted that holiday — so, 40 years and counting. My mom is one of those hosts who hates her guests by the time they arrive, for all the cooking and cleaning their coming over forced her to do. My father, bless his long-suffering heart, is not so much a host as a silent enabler, ducking my mother's foul mood by refilling everyone's drinks, especially his own. I grew up thinking it must really be a terrible burden to put on a meal for extended family and friends because my mother always made it look so hard, like the domestic equivalent of a death march. (Come to think of it, this is how she made all of the business of motherhood look, too.)

Turns out, I love hosting (and being a mother). And this year, I had really hoped to host Christmas for the first time for our family. We'd love to establish a new holiday tradition, one that feels genuinely joyful and less obligation-bound. Our kids are still small, and I'd like for them to grow up with an altogether different notion about holiday fun and hospitality. I naively assumed that my mother would be delighted to hand over the reins that bound her, and that my sisters, neither of whom cooks or enjoys hosting, would be glad to be our guests, too. A new holiday tradition would be born!

Should we stay home and jingle our bells in our own fashion, or suck it up and drive the hour or so north, even if it's anything but jolly?

In September, I let my parents and sisters know that my husband and I would love to host Christmas. We received tepid responses. At Thanksgiving, also hosted with great effort and little joy by my mother, I reiterated our desire to have everyone over for the holiday. Just a few days ago, I received a voicemail from my mother — "I'm hosting Christmas." That was it. My sisters plan to go with their families to my parents' house.

I'm tempted to dig in and have a small family holiday, hillocks of wrapping paper and pine needles to vacuum be damned. But I don't want our kids to miss their cousins, and I worry that our staying put will ignite a Cold War with my mother and, possibly, my sisters. Ours is a family with a long history of such grudge-holding, and my sisters usually rally to my mother's side even while complaining bitterly about her. My husband suspects jealousy on the part of my mother and sisters at the root of all of this, but I'd rather think it's just about sticking with what you know, even if what you know is misery. Or maybe my mom really doesn't want to give up Christmas her way.

Should we stay home and jingle our bells in our own fashion, or suck it up and drive the hour or so north, even if it's anything but jolly?

Thanks, Steve.

Jangled Bells

...

Dear Jangled,

Oh my. Let me say right out of the gate that I’m not going to be able to solve the essential problem here. You have a mother who sounds controlling, aggrieved, masochistic and determined to share her misery. At the bottom of it, she sounds deeply committed to her role as the family’s martyr queen, and clearly offended that you would try to usurp her role as the Grinch Who Hosts Christmas.

What can you do with that? There are no good options. What you want is completely healthy: a holiday with more joy and less oy. But you’re in a family system ruled by a matriarch dead-set against that agenda. If you fight to host Christmas, she’s going to launch a war, and it sounds like your sisters will acquiesce. If you stay home, your children will miss out on the cousins scene, which it sounds like they enjoy. If you go, I suspect you’ll struggle to enjoy yourself, thinking about what could have been. Again.

I’m not trying to bum you out, Jangled. I’m trying to articulate how tough your situation is.

I suspect your husband is right, by the way. I do think your mother is jealous of you, probably of your happiness, ultimately. I’m less sure about your sisters. They sound like they’ve developed the Stockholm Syndrome that often prevails in families with a parent who is both profoundly unhappy and psychologically powerful.

I realize you didn’t intend this offer to host Christmas as a power play, or an indictment of your mother’s hosting. But that’s how it’s been received. Which makes sense. You do find her hosting style profoundly unpleasant. She and your sisters have no doubt picked up on this.

The question for you then becomes: do I have a right to fulfill my own desires?

One question to ask yourself is this: is anyone in your family, aside from your husband, willing to confront this unpleasant set of truths? Your sisters? Your parents? Or is everyone too committed to the omerta of unhappy families?

Can you enlist a sister or two or are they too loyal to your mom? Can you say to your parents, in essence: you’ve had to host holidays for four decades. Can I help ease that burden?

My hunch is that, at the moment, your mother needs to play host, however grumpily. It’s a core part of her identity, her source of selfhood. And, as an aging parent, it’s one way for her to feel powerful and in control as these feelings wane in other areas. And your sisters sound like they need to enable this arrangement.

The question for you then becomes: do I have a right to fulfill my own desires? To return to the first line of your letter: I’ve waited a lot of years to host Christmas. This could happen in two ways. The first would be to have a shorter visit with the family, and to plan your own Christmas (or Christmas Eve) feast with friends. The second would be to host your own Christmas, period. This would mean bidding farewell to the sort of all-the-family-or-nothing arrangement that your mother enforces. You’d have to create a new tradition, one in which the guiding principle (and the guest list) would be geared toward fostering an open-hearted spirit, not fulfilling a duty.

Would you get some guff from your mothers and sisters? Probably. But guff is sometimes the cost of fulfilling your desires. Just because your family is committed to a version of Christmas that involves resentful hosting doesn’t mean you should be.

As for your kids, it’s great for them to spend time with cousins, and grandparents, but it’s even more important that they see you, as a parent, embrace the spirit of the holiday. Tis the season to be jolly, not guilt-ridden and jangled.

Onward, together,
Steve

Author's note: Is anyone else in this particular boat? Or a related boat? If so, please offer Jangled your best advice. She’s in a terrible spot. How do you negotiate familial obligation with self-preservation? Please use the comments section to send along your counsel. And when you’re done with that, send along letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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