When we were in our early 20s, a friend of mine called it “the turkey trail:” Thanksgiving dinner at 2:00 at her mother’s house, another full holiday meal at his mother’s at 6:00. Each mother was widowed and couldn’t bear the idea of celebrating any holiday without one of her kids. And each kid, now young adult, couldn’t bear being the one that would disappoint mother. So, at each house, the young couple felt obliged to eat enthusiastically and almost to pretend that the other family didn’t exist. In December, they went through it again, this time in the form of painful negotiations about whose house got them first for Christmas.
Every year, I watch the issues around the turkey trail come up for friends and clients alike as the holiday season approaches. Some families manage to find creative solutions that really work. Other families are so painfully fair about who goes where, that everyone ends up feeling vaguely guilty and unhappy no matter what they do. Still others greet every November with new dread as they try to figure out what to do this year. What’s really going on?
Often enough, the problem is a developmental issue that people don’t have a name for or a friendly way to understand. Marriage, then the arrival of grandchildren, marks an important shift in primary loyalty from the family in which we grew up to the new family unit.
The negotiations about where and how we spend which holidays is an important exercise in establishing who we are in relation to each other as a couple and what roles we take in relation to our extended families. Done well, these negotiations lead to comfortable, healthy relationships among all family members. Done badly, there’s a price: The new family may not develop a strong enough identity to sustain it through hard times. Tension stays between the generations, coloring every family event. Where people spend each holiday can become a point scored in a painful contest of loyalties.
The issue often comes to a head when the new family has children in the preschool years. There comes a time when it becomes very clear that it is just too difficult to pack up the kids, the kid paraphernalia, the gifts, and the contribution to the holiday dinner — all to make the sojourn “home” for the holidays. It becomes important for the new family to stop rushing to get somewhere else and to let themselves enjoy a leisurely Christmas morning or first Hanukkah night, to let the children enjoy the gifts they have just received, and to let the adults relax. In the natural evolution of a family, “home” is no longer where the parents lived as children. “Home” is right here.
Some families make this natural process so unnecessarily painful. The older generation feels rejected, unappreciated, and angry. The younger generation feels pressured, guilty, and resentful. Because they don’t recognize that what is going on is a healthy shift in family loyalties, people start pushing at each other in hurtful ways. Sometimes awful things get said as the young family begins to try to establish their own traditions and the older generation tries to hold on to what is familiar. The family eventually does reconfigure, but the sting of how it was done shadows the holiday season for years.
Reducing Family Tensions
It doesn’t have to be this way. When the source of family tension is such a developmental shift, my job as a therapist and educator is to help the various family members understand that lying beneath all their emotions of anxiety, anger, fear, and general upset is a perfectly normal and useful stage. We can then work together to figure out how to renegotiate what has always been to what is needed now.
The older generation can be enormously helpful in this process by sharing memories of how hard the same shift was when they were young and by giving a kind of permission for the new family to begin to make their own traditions. When the older folks take the pressure off in a loving, non-manipulative way, adult children are more likely, not less, to include their parents’ needs in the equation. The younger generation can help by appreciating how difficult the change can be for the older folks who are dealing with their own issues of loss. Further, adult children need to be mindful that the same issue will confront them someday from the other side. How they manage it now is a model for their own children as they grow. When the generations try out new solutions together, the issue becomes a problem that everyone is working on instead of a painful process of push-and-pull.
It almost doesn’t matter what a family comes up with as a solution to the turkey trail. What matters is that people feel loved, included in the process, and involved in making the whole thing work for everyone at least some of the time. Many families do this without benefit of professional help. But sometimes calling in a family therapist, a trusted family friend, a clergyperson, or some other “consultant” can help people manage their feelings and find new ways to cooperate. Whatever route people choose, working through the holiday dilemma in a way that leaves everyone feeling loved and secure in their family relationships is a lasting and wonderful gift for all involved.