The Thanksgiving fantasy often replicates the Norman Rockwell painting “Freedom From Want” with a smiling family gathered around the pristine table with Grandma and Grandpa serving a perfectly roasted turkey. (Okay, the 2009-era Grandma dresses better and colors her hair.)
The nightmare: Grown siblings scowl at each other across the table; one child is missing, unable to afford the airfare; the year-old grandchild dismantles the place settings, and mom, alone in the kitchen, hacks away at the turkey.
Real life falls in between. We pursue perfection, spending a ridiculous amount of money trying to recreate that Rockwell image, and as superwomen, do it all, often without asking for help.
Reality also means that as children become adults the holidays change. Often the first experience with changed tradition is when the oldest children return home for Thanksgiving as college freshmen. Not only have they adapted infant sleeping patterns with days and nights mixed up, but they are determined to spend the least possible time with the family. Fast forward and now that adult child is a twentysomething single or a thirtysomething with a gaggle of kids or a fortysomething out of work.
What can we do to enjoy the holidays and minimize disappointment? An informal survey of expert advice—including moms—found several strategies.
Realistic Expectations: It’s easier to handle reality if you know what to expect. Send a group email with the holiday details, asking for a headcount. Those who aren’t coming probably will find it easier—and less confrontational—to reply online. Maybe the daughter halfway across the country is upset that she’s not coming because she can’t get vacation days. Easier to tell you, and less emotional, via email, or more likely, a text message.
Ask for help: In your email ask, “What would you like to bring?” The emphasis is on ask not tell. This sends the message to the twentysomething son that “Yes, you too are expected to help.” If he’s clueless suggest flowers or wine. Just because you peeled and mashed five pounds of sweet potatoes every year doesn’t mean someone else can’t make the dish. So what if it’s not as good as your recipe. Asking for help also means cooking and cleaning up too. Sons and daughters can load as dishwasher just as well as moms (some even do it better). Sometimes those among us who strongly identify with the mothering role find it hard to step back and admit we can’t—or don’t want to do—everything, says Dr. Susan Kuczmarski, the author of four books on parenting and leadership. Get over it, she urges.
Embrace Change: Perhaps you daughter-in-law (smart girl) refuses to drive three hours in traffic with a screaming toddler. Maybe it’s time for you to do the drive and go to her house, even if it’s hard to end decades of tradition. Maybe change means takeout instead of making everything from scratch even if that’s what the family has come to expect. Takeout is good. Maybe change means bestowing your blessing, rather than a guilt trip, when a child decides to celebrate with friends and not come home. Last Christmas Dr. Kuczmarski’s 25-year-old son was trying to launch an acting career in Los Angeles and decided not to go home to Chicago. Although Dr. Kuczmarski was initially disappointed, she supported his decision, understanding that her son wanted to follow through on his career decisions and had a close “family” of L.A. friends
“A young adult needs to be freed from very strict parental expectations, and parents need to loosen up to create a new relationship with their adult child,” she says. “It requires a mental shift to enjoy the emerging adult child and to take pleasure in watching the relationship grown and change. Be open to doing things a little differently.”
Try New Traditions: For the first time this Thanksgiving, a friend will celebrate without her two grown sons as one is off to meet a new girlfriend’s family. So she is holding Thanksgiving dinner for both sons and their girlfriends the Sunday before Thanksgiving. The mother-in-law of another friend has hosted the turkey feast on the Saturday after the holiday for the last decade. With five married children all pulled in other directions, that mom makes it easy for them to go elsewhere on Thursday. The family regroups on the weekend and no one ever misses her Saturday feast. Maybe everyone doesn’t have to be at your house at 3 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day for the holiday to be joyous.
Remember the Marine Corps mantra: Improvise, Adapt and Overcome. That should cover just about everything else.