This year, I'm thankful for conflict avoidance.
October 25, 2012 2:48 PM   Subscribe

My mother and I are not talking. I am thinking about skipping Thanksgiving. How do I do this without causing even more turmoil?

My mother and I are trauma survivors, with the difference between us being that I have been in treatment for many years and she has not. As a result, she spirals more and more out of control with every passing year. She says inappropriate things, flies off the handle, blames the trauma on me when she's upset, and is generally difficult to be around.

I love her very much. She is the only blood kin I have with whom I try to maintain any kind of relationship. But in July she crossed some boundaries in a very serious way, and we have not been able to reestablish a harmonious relationship since.

I've been setting pretty strict boundaries for the last few years, and they have mostly worked. Except at holidays. On Thanksgiving and Christmas my mother usually gets very agitated, and no holiday passes without a fight.

I don't want to have a fight this year. I don't want to have Thanksgiving. It's awkward, and it's never fun, and the only reason I would go is for her benefit.

I promised her I'd make up my mind by tomorrow. She is not happy with even the idea that I would skip Thanksgiving. My partner and I have considered the following options:

1. Go to Thanksgiving, but in a very limited capacity. Instead of going for an overnight stay and dealing with a stressful car trip with my mom, we would take public transit (a longer trip, but more peaceful) and we would only stay for dinner. I feel like the idea is solid, but probably too stressful for me this year.
2. Go out of town, explain that we will be out of town, skip Turkey Day altogether.
3. Go out of town (or not) and invite my mom to my neighborhood for a weekend brunch or similar, so that she gets to see me during Thanksgiving weekend but in an even more limited capacity than in the first option.

None of these plans will please my mother. I want to minimize the explosion -- because there will be one unless I do exactly what I've done every year. But I also want to look out for my own welfare, and I'm just not up to taking any abuse from her this year. None at all.

If you've ever skipped family holidays, how did you do it without causing an uproar? Please note that without me, my mother will have only her boyfriend to cook for on Thanksgiving, which would sour the whole holiday for her. I don't want to make things worse for her, but I don't want to make them worse for me, either.

Any suggestions on how to handle this?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I used to just inform various difficult family members that I'd made other plans and leave it at that. I refused to be drawn into any discussions or arguments in any way.

I personally would choose option #2, as both 1 and 3 would result in having the usual arguments you'd have as well as new arguments about your decision to do things differently in order to avoid the old arguments, etc etc.
posted by elizardbits at 2:55 PM on October 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

Does your partner's family do Thanksgiving? This might be the year you start alternating between families (or local friends) for holidays.
posted by jquinby at 2:55 PM on October 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Your mother is a grown woman, and whether she has enough people to cook turkey for is her burden to bear, not yours.

The thing is, you are going to feel bad in one way or another. Either there will be some guilt, mitigated by relief, if you don't see her, or no guilt but incredible resentment and unease if you do. Which of these is worse to you?

And maybe let her know if you haven't already that seeing her in pain but refusing to get help is incredibly hard on you because you love her and you would be much more willing to spend time with her if she was getting the help she needs. Yes it's blackmail, but its' the good kind.

(and my sympathies. My mom wouldn't get help either and got more and more depressed as her life went on. )
posted by emjaybee at 2:56 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds like there is no winning answer in this scenario. No matter what you do there will be a downside, either for you or your mother. However, it also sounds like there is nothing you can do that will actually make your mother happy.

Not knowing the exact nature of your trauma experience and how the toxic relationship you seem to have at this point plays out, I think the best thing you can do is do what feels the best for you and your partner and set a boundary in the kindest way possible. Go into it with the knowledge that your mother will likely make you feel terrible about what you choose if it doesn't go her way...but you won't win that battle anyway.

You've worked hard to improve yourself - don't be afraid to stand up for what feels right for you.
posted by amycup at 2:57 PM on October 25, 2012

If none of those options end up working for you, you can try my standard excuse. Before I had kids I would always volunteer on big holidays, usually serving meals somewhere. It's the perfect avoidance tactic - I do something good and my mom had a great explanation for the rest of the family.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 2:57 PM on October 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think if I was in your shoes, I would go to dinner, but let my mom know ahead of time that if things get out of hand, you'll have to leave. Then, if an argument starts, you just do what you said you would do and leave. Maybe make a back up plan with your partner to do something else local instead. And definitely don't stay overnight there, either way.
posted by smirkyfodder at 2:58 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Either spend it with your Partner's family, or use this as an opportunity to go on a relaxing mini-vacation with just the two of you. Spending time with your mother during the holidays when you're already this stressed out will only introduce MORE stress and resentment into the situation. Forcing yourself to spend the holiday with her will not help you feel less angry or frustrated.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 2:58 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

the only reason I would go is for her benefit.

None of these plans will please my mother.

Sounds like you can't please her, and you can please yourself.

Thanksgiving is exactly the same as any other day. Nobody needs a minimum number of people to cook turkey for on Thanksgiving or any other day. You don't have to make excuses for yourself; you're allowed to do what you prefer.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 3:03 PM on October 25, 2012 [6 favorites]

Please note that without me, my mother will have only her boyfriend to cook for on Thanksgiving, which would sour the whole holiday for her.

This isn't your concern. It sounds like her TG is going to be sour regardless of whether you go or not. Take care of yourself, do something special with your partner, do something alone. Do whatever you want. You are an adult and you are free to create your own traditions. Last year, my kids and I participated in a food-bank-packaging event the weekend prior, which gave us the feel-good Thanksgiving feeling, but on the actual day we went to see a movie and then to a Thai place for dinner. Why not, right? Take care of yourself.

Congratulations on standing up for yourself here and thinking about ways to protect yourself, I'm sure that's been a long time coming and it's not easy.
posted by headnsouth at 3:05 PM on October 25, 2012

Go ahead and cause the uproar. The sooner you set this precedent, the easier it will be in future when she violates your boundaries. I know this from experience with a boundary-violating mother.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 3:14 PM on October 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

How about coming up with 2 or 3 options that would be acceptable to you, and then letting her choose.
posted by Miko at 3:15 PM on October 25, 2012

If holidays, more than other occasions, trigger inappropriate behavior/fights--consistently--I think you should strongly consider having other holiday plans and then visiting at a later time. It's not going to do her any favors to set up a situation that's likely to escalate to a fight.

My immediate family's solution to skipping family events that were likely to be contentious was to be very matter of fact: we're not coming to [event]; we know you're unhappy about this, but our plans are set and we'll see you another time--love you! Bye!
posted by Meg_Murry at 3:40 PM on October 25, 2012

Send flowers on Thanksgiving.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:44 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hey there, similar background and trauma survivor over here. It took me YEARS to stop showing up for family holidays, even after physical violence (like being choked on Christmas Eve) was inflicted on me as an adult. I finally stopped a couple years ago and honestly? I lie.

I know it's not the best option, but as a good friend of my put it, "Your responsibility in this situation is to do whatever allows you to take care of yourself and protect yourself." If you need to say you're sick or have accepted an invitation to go to your partner's house, then say that and then don't give it another thought.

In my case, telling family members that I didn't want to spend another Thanksgiving being screamed at, hit, and told how worthless I was only meant... well, getting screamed at and told how worthless I was over the phone. (By the way, I also didn't tell anyone when I blocked my abusive family members' phone numbers and filtered their emails. I just did it because I knew it would create more drama if I told them.)

Good luck and remember that you DO have the freedom to create new, healthy traditions for yourself. Please don't trap yourself with the traditions shaped by your trauma experiences.
posted by pinetree at 3:49 PM on October 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

I did it by texting my parents I would be skipping the holiday because I wasn't feeling up to an argument that year, then when they called to yell at me I told them that phone yelling wasn't acceptable either and I was going to hang up immediately each time they started doing that. (Then I hung up.) Eventually, they learned to treat me with respect and I actually have a really good relationship with them now.

Let me ask you, if you were to walk away from your mom right now and never talk to her again, how much would you lose from your quality of life? And how much would you gain? It sounds like you would stand to gain more than you lost, and that means that your mom needs to play by your rules - as long as you have the willpower to enforce them.

My best friend had physically abusive parents also and he trained them in exactly the same way. It's not some statistical anomaly: just set boundaries and impose penalties for violating them.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 4:21 PM on October 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

Like Dan Savage used to tell people whose parents won't accept their homosexuality, the only (or at least the largest) tool adult children have to use in dealing with their parents is cutting off contact. I'm sorry that your mom had to deal with trauma too, but at a certain point, you've got to put yourself first. If she continues to disrespect your boundaries AND continues to get what she wants, then why will she ever change? Hopefully, one day you'll be able to talk the issue through, but until then, limiting contact is your best bet.

For this specific situation, I'd offer up your choice #3 -- because it seems you do want to see her and do something with her on the holiday despite your current issues -- and if she gives you any guff about it, then rescind that offer too.

But I realize that's all easier said by a stranger than done to your mother. So good luck.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 4:30 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you've ever skipped family holidays, how did you do it without causing an uproar?

I skipped almost all family holidays by deflection and lies until they finally got used to the fact that I just do not 'do' traditional family holidays. It was difficult to start but it was never an 'uproar' - just disappointment in me that dulled with time. If I had told the truth then it would have been an uproar and I probably still would not be forgiven.

To give you ideas, I say/do things like:
-Moving away and claiming I'm too broke to travel home
-Too many deadlines, have to work, or can't take vacation time
-Visiting extended family members for the holidays (aunts/uncles/cousins) instead of my immediate family
-Visiting really good friends I haven't seen in a while
-Leaving the country on a big vacation
-Hosting an orphan thanksgiving/christmas in my city for friends/coworkers
-Flat out lying about my plans

It's always been important to them that I am celebrating the holidays, even if it's not with them. If I didn't, then it would be too apparent that I am avoiding them instead of just having other plans. So, even if I spend a couple Christmas or Thanksgiving holidays alone, I will still lie about what I did to keep them satisfied.

The first time you break tradition will be difficult. While I am a huge supporter of open communication and honesty, confrontation just does not work with my family. Avoiding the topic and lying ("I wish I could! next year!") keeps the peace, which is more important to me than airing grievances and being subjected to abuse.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 4:30 PM on October 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

How about this? Instead of assuming that you will ruin her Thanksgiving and all will be ashes if you don't go, imagine that she'll actually have a less stressful holiday herself without you to fight with. She might be telling you all will be ashes... but it won't. She might not realize that she could have a lovely holiday relaxing with her boyfriend... but she could. Do not take her life onto your shoulders. You can't do that anyway.

Make alternate plans for the entire weekend. Volunteer or do something with your friends or go away somewhere. Make plans to visit the weekend after if you'd like. Call her on the day and make nice but then just do what you have to do. Any guff from her: "I love you but it just won't be possible."
posted by amanda at 5:09 PM on October 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Nothing you do is going to prevent an uproar. Just skip thanksgiving, don't let your mom yell at you or guilt you over the phone. She only has power over your life if you let her.
posted by empath at 5:28 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Write her a little note that says you won't be attending because you have other plans and that you hope they have a wonderful holiday.

It will be hard this year but it will be easier next year.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:31 PM on October 25, 2012

What's worked for me was claiming, truthfully or not, that I had to work.

I'm fortunate that my main job has extremely variable shifts, so it was entirely plausible; if your own job is 9-5 in an office, maybe you can make up some sort of, oh, IT emergency? A leaking ceiling in the bathroom, and your boss needs you to help salvage the place? The general idea is not "I refuse to attend because there'll be a fight", rather it's a case of "I'd love to be there, but darn: I have to work".
posted by easily confused at 5:35 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

The best advice I can offer comes from my maternal grandmother: Never complain, never explain, and comparisons are odious.

If what you tell your mother stands that test, you're good to go.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:39 PM on October 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

As someone from a dysfunctional family, I'd go out of town.
posted by 3491again at 6:04 PM on October 25, 2012

I am facing something a bit similar and what we are doing is having Thanksgiving at home. I haven't told my parents yet. What I imagine I will do is invite them here; I feel in my case I can handle things better on my own turf if they do come, and if they don't come, well, that's on them and not me.

Of course my situation is less intense than yours so ymmv.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:03 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

You say that not going to Thanksgiving would be the worst thing for your mom; but it might only seem like the worst thing. If you two have conflict it is just as difficult for her.

Mothers aren't supposed to be relieved when their children are not around for the holidays, so she might not be able to feel or admit to welcoming your absence every now and then but if she gets used to it from time to time she might find that it's not so bad.

You can speak on the phone to wish each other a happy holiday and then get on with enjoying yourselves separately. You both could take the opportunity to find new ways to celebrate with other people, or just take a break entirely from the same old holiday routines.

When you do get together in future, you might appreciate each other more.
posted by ofelia at 8:46 PM on October 25, 2012

What's worked for me was claiming, truthfully or not, that I had to work.

Seriously, best Thanksgiving ever. One year, I actually expected to work and found out at the last minute I didn't need to go in. My wife and I got drunk on wine, watched the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy by the fire and cooked. The next year, we straight up lied: "Oh yeah, sorry mom, I gotta work again this year. Yeah, it stinks, I'd really like to spend a grand flying my wife and I out to see you on the busiest travel day of the year so we can eat a Costco turkey and Stove Top stuffing and drink white wine from a box, but they're making me work again, sorry."

Life is way too short to do things you don't want to do. Do whatever you want and either make up an excuse that doesn't upset your mother, or drive the dagger in her heart. I can think of lots of family holidays and events I showed up to and wasted my time and I can't think of any I blew off and regretted. You're an adult.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:18 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of people are telling you to just blow her off, and maybe that's fine, but it sounds like the guilt would be hard for you to bear, "rightfully" or not.

Would it be possible to invite her to your place? Maybe the power dynamic would be different? Maybe she'd appreciate not cooking? If it didn't work out, you could always blow her off next year, having given it a shot.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:46 AM on October 26, 2012

Don't go. Write her a very short letter or email including this paragraph from your question:

I love [you] very much. [You are] the only blood kin I have with whom I try to maintain any kind of relationship. But in July [you] crossed some boundaries in a very serious way, and we have not been able to reestablish a harmonious relationship since.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:49 AM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

OP, I've written and abandoned a few answers to you since I first saw this question.

I think you should be upfront with your mother from now on in all respects and stop tip-toeing around her reactions. Honesty is best. You are not helping her by shielding her from the consequences of her (re)actions.

There are plenty of great scripts for you above. Just stop equivocating. It's getting you no where. You are at the end o your rope here for a very very good reason: this is not your problem, it's your mom's problem.

Allow your mother the dignity and respect of owning her own issues. Stop carrying her burdens for her.

That is all you need to do here to make things right.
posted by jbenben at 2:16 AM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

An alternative is going out to Thanksgiving dinner in a nice restaurant: it limits the time you'd spend together (meet there, everybody goes to their own home afterwards), plus because it's in public most people would be on their best behavior. You could even frame it as wanting to treat her to something special, and not make her wear herself out with all that cooking and cleaning.....

(If you do this, make your reservations EARLY.)
posted by easily confused at 4:37 AM on October 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Without going into the emotional uproar issue, one thing we've done when we've had to split holidays between families is to do the meal with one family (whichever one is less angsty, usually) and just come for dessert and after meal coffee with the other. Perhaps coffee and pumpkin pie is a little more managable with a badly behaving relative than an entire dinner.
posted by ninjakins at 5:56 AM on October 26, 2012

nthing this is the year to spend T'giving with your partner's family.

If that won't work, just flat out say, "I'm exhausted and I'm not up to the travel and stress of a family dinner. Partner and I are going to be low key and stay home quietly this year."

If you're not speaking anyway, this should go over just fine in an email, or a quick phone call.

So your mother is put out? So what? She'll forgive you before Christmas, which will be a whole other mine field.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:00 AM on October 26, 2012

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