Holidays are the worst and they’ve only just started. I’m a grown woman—in my 30s with a great job and my own apartment—but my parents refuse to treat me like an adult. They make plans and then expect me to fit myself into them. They don’t ask what would be good for me or make accommodations. When I set boundaries and say, for example, that if the aunt who makes me uncomfortable is going to be there, I’m not interested in coming for dinner, they get offended and upset. It’s a ginormous headache. My little sister, by the way, gets off a lot easier: they expect less of her and are consistently less disappointed, no matter what. That may be in part because she’s married and in part because she lives far away, but I feel like the dynamic has been like this forever. Basically I’m fighting them all time. It’s exhausting. Family is important to me and I don’t want to cut them off. How do I take care of my needs and also not go crazy before this season is over?
Blood is Thicker Than …
There is nothing you can do about your crazy family. There is nothing any of us can do about our crazy families. Isn’t that the worst?
Let’s keep getting the bad news out of the way. There is nothing you can do about your crazy family dynamics, either. If your parents are accustomed to seeing you and your sister as children, no amount of growing up, living alone, working responsibly, accumulating degrees, or paying taxes will make a difference. In treating you and your little sister as extensions of themselves, and particularly in expecting more from you while letting your sister off easy, they are acting out of a mix of emotion and habit. Together those form a surface as impermeable as cement. You may as well go pound at the wall, or scream at the sidewalk.
In fact, maybe try doing that for a while. It might be cathartic.
It sounds like you are pursuing the only course of action open to you: figuring out what boundaries you need to set and setting them in whatever materials are available. (Sounds like stone.) Sure, it upsets your parents. Boundaries upset people by definition: how do you think all this madness started in the Middle East? If you didn’t want them to be upset, you would accede to their demands and show up when they expect you to, Mean Aunt or no.
Instead you are saying “here is where you end and I begin,” and no parent actually wants to hear that, unless that parent has the grace of ten Buddhist monks blended with the insight and patience of Anna Deavere Smith. The point of the whole parenting endeavor is to raise children into self-aware, independent adults who don’t need us anymore but who hopefully still want to have brunch and ask us our opinions once in a while. Fuck if we ever really want to hit that finish line, though. I just met a mother whose four-month-old has already gotten so self-sustaining that she, the mom, is daydreaming about starting from scratch with #2. Granted, that’s an extreme case, but one hundred million years of evolution have acted as one hell of a meth lab, and the motherhood chemicals they have produced are intended to make us do crazy things.
So yeah, your parents cannot and will not change. They can, however, if offered the right incentive, adapt.
Here is the secret: Banish the word No from your vocabulary. Am I telling you to be a pushover? Heaven forbid. I am suggesting that you channel, instead, the sage advice of improv comedians everywhere and Say Yes. “Yes and!” “Yes but!” “Yes if!” All of those options are acceptable. Anything but No. People hate hearing the word No. It makes them growl and pout and vote Republican. No is how every fight begins. Short-circuit the fight; make the fight unnecessary.
THEM: “Child, we are planning a celebration of holiday at this time and this place. We would like you to attend.”
YOU: “Thank you! I would like to see you over the holidays. Since you know Uncle X and I have a hard time when we get together, when else could we make that happen? Could we try [this other thing that is more pleasant to me]?”
In your case, the more global problem is, perhaps, that your parents don’t know you very well as an adult. Maybe they don’t know how to get to know you as an adult. It might help to break this loop of squabbling and resentment and No if you offered them a way in.
On a less fraught occasion than the holidays, when the stakes are nice and low, extend them an invitation to do something with you on your terms. Ask if they want to go pumpkin picking, or volunteering at a dog shelter, or to see one of those Oscar-bait movies that are appropriate for Millennials and Boomers alike. Give them a chance to say yes to you. Give all of you the chance to say Yes. It’s been a long time that you’ve been trapped in this loop of No, and it’s a hard loop to break out of, but the pleasure of getting to say and hear Yes is worth the effort.
STRIVE TO forgive your parents for being flawed. I know, impossible, blah, I may as well advise you to take up alchemy. But life deals everyone some cardinal unfairnesses and maybe this is yours, that your parents are not the intuitive, empathetic, Carolyn Hax readers you would like them to be. Lots of people who feel disappointed in the parents meted out to them seek surrogates: mentors, other relatives, older friends. That can help to take the pressure off of these two imperfect individuals.
SETTLE FOR accepting that they are not going to change. Purely because of personality, you and they might always be more like Lorelei and Emily than like Lorelei and Rory. Still, you can figure out how to help all of you meet in the middle of the glorious field of Yes — even if temporarily and over something as seemingly insignificant as appreciation for Denzel Washington. Help your parents see that you are trying, that you are being positive and proactive and kind. Odds are it will make them more likely to try too.
Illustrator: Liana Finck’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Lilith, Tablet, and The Forward. Her first graphic novel is called A Bintel Brief. Her webcomic, Diary of a Shadow, can be read on her website. She apologizes to Norman Rockwell for her fair-use parody of his charming family tableau.
The role of Aunt Acid is played by Brooklyn-based know-it-all Ester Bloom.