Is it possible to really look forward to something, while dreading it too? Thanksgiving may be about family, but that comes with an intimidating collection of double-edged swords. You may well be about to embark on four days of cosseting, eating, drinking, and sleeping. The parental fold may be about to envelope you—and yet also drive you mad. It doesn’t need to. You can do this.
“Isn’t it lovely being home?”/“Get me the hell out of here”
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, most of us are eager to return home for the holiday. We think longingly of familiar smells (mothball-filled closets, dad’s artery-clogging gravy) and familiar sounds (brother listening to favorite old record, Soundgarden’s cheerful “Black Hole Sun,” in attempt to drown out mom singing favorite old record, “Puff the Magic Dragon”).
It’s all lovely nostalgia. Even the other familiar smells you hadn’t longed for, like your octogenarian dog’s rancid breath (she’s apparently rotting from the inside) and the refrigerator (half the contents of which are actually rotting), are tolerable because you’re home.
Sure, they’re significantly less tolerable 24 hours later, when certain comforts of your other home become increasingly more appealing: cupboards that aren’t booby-trapped with clutter, for example, and a fridge stocked with food that expires next week rather than in the early aughts.
You’re becoming your mother
It’s easy to forget this inevitability when you haven’t seen her in months. By now, you’re defending your affinity for archaic expressions (your friend “has a sneaker for her co-worker”) decipherable only to family members, along with your inability to operate in the same time zone as everyone else. These are a few of the lovable eccentricities and totally forgivable peccadilloes that make you unique—and, in some cases, uniquely unbearable.
It is only while waiting for your mother to pick you up at the airport, more than an hour after your plane landed, that you are reminded how maddening these peccadilloes can be. Frustration is compounded by the dreaded realization or—let’s be honest—re-realization that you have become her.
It doesn’t help matters when she qualifies her delayed arrival with a rant about your father “really getting her goat,” moments after you grumbled to yourself, somewhat petulantly, about her perennial tardiness really getting your goat.
“It’s important to be aware of these behaviors and look at the patterns,” says Dr. Jenn Berman, a marriage and family therapist and host of VH1’s Couples Therapy.
Oh God, Dad’s on Tinder
You’re perusing Tinder in a post-dinner tryptophan coma when you see a man who looks remarkably like your father, shares his first name, but claims to be 10 years younger than your father. You cling to that last detail in a rather pathetic attempt to ignore the fact that this man, who writes in his profile that he is a “fiery Sagitarrius” and “is passionate about The Sex Pistols, pilates, and Proust,” is of course your father.
You were displeased when he started liking all of your friends’ photos on Instagram, and still grimace every time his Facebook status pops up in your news feed. Now he’s scrolling for babes in the neighborhood on Tinder.
But perhaps you should be more accepting—grateful even—of your dad’s social-media savvy. Unless of course he is still married to your mother.
What Mom really means when she asks you about your “friends”
Greeted by your mother’s affectionate screeching and embraces, you revert momentarily to childhood, crossing your fingers that you’ll be cosseted all weekend. Alas, she opts to criticize instead of cosset you (you’re an adult now, after all). And the criticism is always poorly packaged as concern or some sad excuse for a compliment. Scrutinizing the lines on your face, she strokes your cheek and asks if your boss is working you too hard. She is genuinely concerned, of course, that you look so exhausted and old.
Your sister-in-law is kinder and truly taken aback that you look “so healthy!”, though her wide eyes and invitation to accompany her on a long power-walk suggests that by “healthy” she means “obese.”
Just when you think you’ve escaped, slipping away to the kitchen to fill your plate again, your mother comes in, delighted that she isn’t the only one who will surely unbutton her pants before the meal is over. “I’m so glad you’re eating!” she screeches, before expressing more concern—this time grave—about your social life. She wants to hear more about your friends, because you haven’t talked much about them in the two hours since you came home, which is a clear indication that you have none.
“Mom, Dad, Grandma, I’m gay”
With its emphasis on gratitude, love, acceptance, and emotional eating, Thanksgiving seems like the ideal occasion to come out to family and friends. According to a 2012 survey on GayDating.com, in which 55 percent of those polled said they planned to open up about their sexuality for the first time over Thanksgiving dinner, the holiday is indeed conducive to delivering the news.
And there’s more than one way to do so. You can clink your wine glass and deliver an impassioned speech about conquering the demons that kept you confined in the closet. Or, if you’re convinced the announcement will be anticlimactic anyways (for you, at least), you can just as easily slip it into casual dinner-table banter, after discussing race relations in America and the Serial podcast: “Oh, and I’m a lesbian! Please pass the yams, Grandma.” What better way to bring up a serious issue without commandeering the meal?
Stop feeding me!
You appreciate that your relatives encourage you to gorge yourself during Thanksgiving, but you would like to still fit into your clothes after the long weekend. Your parents, who are in their seventies and contentedly plump, can’t imagine why you care about such things. Your aunt is insulted when you politely decline to have a third piece of pie and, pretending she didn’t hear you, serves you one anyway. Your father sees this interaction and, leaping on to his fifth helping of pie, announces to the table that you skipped breakfast that morning and evidently have an eating disorder.
I’ll just have another glass of wine
You could have done without that third helping of pie, but you were relieved to wash it down with your third glass (bottle?) of wine. Rarely do you indulge your appetite for excess so freely. But you’ll excuse yourself on this special occasion, surrounded by loved ones who are over-serving food, drink, and unsolicited advice in equal measure.
Your brother smoked a joint before dinner to calm his fraying nerves. You should use whatever substance necessary to do the same. But getting completely inebriated is probably not in your best interest, if only because you’ll be accused of being an alcoholic on top of everything else.
“Why aren’t you married yet?”
Much like the realization that you’re becoming your mother, being confronted with parental pressure points during Thanksgiving is unavoidable.
The holiday gives them ample time to catch up with you, which means discussing every traditionally major milestone in your life—particularly those that you have not yet reached.
Why haven’t they promoted you at work yet? Why don’t you call home more often? Why are you still dating people we don’t like? Why aren’t you married to someone we would like? Why aren’t you married?
To that last question, which many adult single children returning home may face, you are allowed to respond, thus: “I am not married because I haven’t met anyone I like. I work 18 hours a day so I can afford to live in a matchbox. I would rather go home and watch Antiques Roadshow than go to bars to meet men, who I generally feel an urge to castrate if one of their ghastly paws even so much as brushes my arm. Then I see all those couples quarreling in Bed, Bath, and Beyond. And so, really, what I’m dying to know is, why are you all married?”
Watch creamed spinach fall from a collection of lips.
Then prepare yourself for your little brother to pipe up: “You don’t want to end up on Antiques Roadshow though, right?”
Bringing your partner home for the first time
It’s tricky business to introduce a significant other to the family during the holidays. You are converging two events that are freighted with expectations, essentially doubling your risk of disaster.
Your father suggested the meeting is inappropriate, not because your new boyfriend is 10 years your senior, self-employed, divorced, and has a child, but because he would be intruding on family time.
Your mother concluded he is a bad parent for wanting to spend part of the holiday away from his child, with some young twit (you) whom he can’t be serious about (clearly he has commitment problems, as evidenced by the divorce and child neglect).
“You are bringing someone into an atmosphere of intensity, and adding a lot of pressure to a first-time meeting,” says Berman. But if you are determined to bring your partner home to the family, “you should prep that person about who the creepy family members are and the ones who will be allies.
Make sure that you go into this connected and periodically excuse yourselves to take each other’s emotional temperature.”
Everybody hates your partner
You are in a steady, long-term relationship with someone whom you adore despite her fringe politics (you are even starting to come around on her anti-vax opinions).
Alas your family cannot stand her, not just because they disagree with her political views, but because they find her to be preachy and self-righteous, and because she refuses to put on “nice” clothes when they see her. (Your mother telephoned to ask if she would be wearing yoga pants to Thanksgiving dinner again this year.)
But for some unfathomable reason, you really love this woman who lives in her Lululemon everything and who is forcing you to do a five-day juice cleanse with her after the holiday.
Can’t everyone open their narrow minds and try to get along? Berman suggests “setting up boundaries” and warning family members who are prone to starting fights that you’ll “give them one warning if they do so and then leave if things escalate.”
Home for the holidays—and horny
More tricky business: unfamiliar, potentially creaky beds; thinner walls than you’re used to; faulty door latches. Your new partner or longtime wife may be relegated to another bedroom, forcing you to sneak around in the middle of the night—and likely wake the entire household when you bump into your mother who, having woken up to let the dog out, lets out one of her infamous, blood-curdling screams.
Berman thinks it’s “important to obey house rules,” however strict they may be. And if you can’t resist, “make sure you lock the door while having sex, especially if there are kids in the house.”
Avoiding the über-meltdown
After three days of gently eroding criticism and enforced carbs, you have now properly reverted to childlike behavior (screaming, tears, etc.), and no one wants to cosset you.
Now is as good a time as any to put down whatever utensil you’re aiming across an increasingly fraught dinner table and excuse yourself from the room.
You’re in truth-telling mode, telling mom exactly what you think about the time she locked all your dolls away as a punishment, telling your sweet, kind brother what a waste he made of his life. And, of course, Grandma has something to say about Ferguson. And now she’s said it, Krakatoa has nothing on you.
Fits of rage may be more common during the holidays, but they are no less unbecoming. And they should certainly be nipped in the bud on Thanksgiving, when family members and friends are meant to honor their ancestors and put their differences aside as they did. So pull your head out of your backside for a moment to think about the Pilgrims and Wampanoags, and make peace with that person across the dinner table.