Fractured Families and Holiday Hopefulness: The Snare

Why staying on an even keel is so hard this time of year.

Posted Dec 19, 2018

I thought I was okay. I have been in low contact with my parents for three years. They haven’t bothered to see my kids, their grandchildren, for more than an hour in six. Then my dad calls yesterday—he’s 60—and says, “I miss you. Shall we do a proper holiday?” His idea of this proper holiday is our hosting a luncheon at a restaurant of his choosing. I am utterly confused about how to react. And we have already made our plans.

Six years of no contact and my father, now 80, calls.  He invited me, my husband, and our kids to join in. I ask about my mother and if she is inviting us. He is silent. I am flooded with guilt, the ungrateful child once again.

I think I am fine and dealing and then my mother calls out of the blue. She acts as though we spoke to each other last week when it’s been four years. She sounds friendly but it doesn’t take long for her to start berating me for not being in touch and, instead of listing all the reasons I haven’t been, I start apologizing and feel horribly guilty.

Photograph by Drew Coffman, Copyright free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Drew Coffman, Copyright free. Unsplash

The holiday season is upon us, and for those of us who grew up in difficult or even utterly toxic families of origin, it can be a stressful time. Feelings of intense longing to belong—and wishing that our family was one of those you see in ads or even on someone’s Facebook page—can absolutely co-exist with a realistic vision of what our family is really like. It’s a time of year when what I call “the core conflict” in my work—the tug of war between knowing that you’ve been wounded by someone close to you set against your still wanting and needing that person to love you—may rise like a phoenix despite your best efforts, especially if that person is your mother or father.

As I explain in my book, Daughter Detox, what makes us vulnerable is the strength of hopefulness, the thought that, somehow, the difficulties can be resolved and that your parent will become the loving and supportive mother or father you’ve always longed for instead of the cold and unavailable, hypercritical or manipulative one she or he is.  It goes without saying that this season—one strongly associated with miracles and kindness in the popular imagination—feeds hopefulness and longing in a way that no other time of year does.

Have social media made the holidays harder?

Both anecdote and psychological research underscore that while, on the one hand, technology has given us new ways of being part of a community, it also has the ability to make us feel worse about ourselves and can cement feelings of exclusion. That was certainly the experience for one of my readers who was supposed to fete her ailing mother at a dinner with other family members until her mother called to say that she wasn’t up to doing dinner and all of the “fuss.” You can imagine her pain and surprise when her mother posted a photo of the dinner on Facebook several days later; that’s a modern day assault which, alas, isn’t all that unusual. Sometimes, Instagram is the weapon of choice.

5 ways to avoid the snare

There’s no understating the kind of wishful thinking daughters and sons may indulge in during the holidays; sometimes, they simply long for less stress during holiday gatherings but, for others, what they want is a complete redo and a different outcome in the lottery of life. Sadly, even though they’ve been able to create loving families of their own as adults, the emotional losses connected to that original family may still dog them and rob them of joy. The more healing there’s left to do, the harder the holidays are.

1. Recognize your longing and tend to it

Address the issue of how much or how little you’ve healed from your childhood experiences; are you still carrying the wounds of childhood around in adulthood? Therapy with someone good can be an absolute life-changer and if you’re still reacting and responding like the child you were, the best gift you can give yourself is to deal with it.

2. Trust in your judgment

If you’ve gone low or no contact with your mother or other members of your original family, do remember why you made the decision. It’s very easy to devolve into second-guessing yourself, especially if you’re feeling down or lonely. See the situation as if it had happened to a stranger who sought your advice; what would you say to him to her?

Recognize that this season throws all manner of emotional stuff up into the air and it’s your job to identify your personal triggers.

3. Tackle guilt and shame

Even though familial estrangement isn’t a rarity, it’s still loaded with lots of cultural shame and blame. The unloved daughter especially may experience intense conflict about what constitutes filial duty particularly when complete strangers feel free to remind her that her mother gave her life and that she only has one mother after all. If I’d gotten a twenty-dollar bill for every time I heard those words, I’d be retired and thriving on the Côte D’Azur.

But the cultural pressure to kiss and make-up notwithstanding, people estrange from their families for good reasons and most usually after years of deliberation; the losses are often complex since you’re rarely able to divorce just one person and usually end up self-orphaned in a meaningful sense. Most, if not all, ties to your other relatives, including your siblings, are lost.

Remember that shame is tied to still wondering, in your most fragile moments, whether this is somehow all your fault; it wasn’t.

4. Let go of fantasy

It takes a very long time to let go of wishful thinking because accepting that you will never get the love and support you want from your mother is so very hard; the hope that things will be better or can be fixed is difficult to let go of. (I personally spent two decades hoping even though, intellectually, I knew better.) How to deal with that “If Only” train of thought? By identifying it and stopping it in its tracks. If you find yourself thinking that you’ll send a card to your mother from whom you are estranged, ask yourself why you’re doing it. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with sending her a card as long as you are prepared to finish and deal with what you started. You have to be your own inner cheerleader and if you’re making a gesture in order to please, appease, or try to fix the unfixable, do realize that you’re hopping back on the carousel.

Most important, remember that it takes both parties to change the tenor of a relationship; the only person you’re in charge of is you. Recognizing the limits of your power to change the relationship is a good thing in this context.

5. Be kind to yourself

Recognize that the need to belong is hardwired in our species and not a weakness; with the right tribe, belonging can be sustaining and help you thrive. See the words “right tribe?” Keep in mind that your family of origin wasn’t one of your own choosing, and exercise self-compassion when you think about where you find yourself. And, yes, do what you can to focus on the relationships that do sustain you in your life; there’s joy to be found.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s words may be of help too: “People grow through experiences, if they meet life honestly and courageously.”

Copyright © Peg Streep 2018