Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Soon I’ll be making the annual trek back home to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, and as usual, I’m dreading it. My dad and I get along just fine, but my mother drives me crazy. She gets super stressed about preparing the meal, but won’t let anyone help her. She, of course, wants all the credit. But if the table isn’t set just right, the mashed potatoes aren’t perfectly creamy, or the turkey is a little dry, she freaks out, makes a scene and sulks the rest of the day. She’s often drinks too much and is never shy to share her opinion on what I’m doing wrong with my life. I’m always waiting for someone or something to explode, and I’m already having anxiety about what’s in store this year. How can I handle my mother and still somehow enjoy the day?
Mom is a Turkey Monster
Dear Mom is a Turkey Monster,
There are two things at play here: Your mom needs to do better, and you need to do better.
Our modern, American holidays exist due to hundreds of hours of unpaid female labor. Women do the planning, make the menus, do the shopping, do the cooking, set the table, do the cleaning. Women make holiday cards happen and presents for the family happen and presents for the mail carrier happen and presents for the kids’ teachers happen and the holiday party happen and the cookie exchange happen. This onslaught of additional work starts at Thanksgiving and extends all the way through the end of December, six weeks of needing to do more, more, more so other people can have a nice time.
My mother once told me, “I hate November and December because I suddenly I have a new part-time job called ‘holidays.’”
I grew up loving the holidays and all of the extra fun that suddenly came into my life, mostly as a direct result of my mother giving up sleep. But now, at the age of 38, with a husband and a child, I’m starting to appreciate her point-of-view. Two years ago I was in my living room, watching It’s A Wonderful Life and wrapping Christmas presents. My husband sat on the couch behind me, half-watching the movie while also working on his computer. I had some hot cocoa with bourbon in it next to me, I was wearing fuzzy pajamas, I had a pine tree scented candle burning away on a shelf nearby, and I was in a very cheery holiday mood. For about 45 minutes. Then my back starting aching and I realized I wasn’t even a quarter of the way through the mound of presents I needed to wrap. At the start of hour two I suddenly whirled around and yelled at my husband, “THIS IS THE LAST YEAR I’M WRAPPING THE PRESENTS BY MYSELF.” My husband was taken aback because he had suddenly found himself in the climax of a fight he was not aware we were having. He said, “OK, but I really hate wrapping presents,” and I countered, “EVERYONE HATES IT.” Because wrapping presents is such a great metaphor for what it is to be a female head of household during the holidays—you spend hours creating something pretty and memorable so it can be torn through and discarded in a few moments. For women, creating holiday cheer using our scant free time is taken as a given. Since then, my husband and I wrap presents together and we both hate it but at least no one gets screamed at.
Have you ever hosted a large holiday gathering? Are you aware of the calculus it takes to design the menu, shop, cook, and make sure that everything is done, hot and delicious, at the exact same time? Did you know that preparing a Thanksgiving meal on your own takes a minimum of 10 hours? Did you know that your mom doesn’t get a Thanksgiving, not the way that you do? She doesn’t get to go to someone’s house and sit down and enjoy the meal and then leave. She is the meal, and I mean that as metaphorically as it sounds.
Of course your dad is more fun to be around, because it sounds like he isn’t doing a fucking thing. People who aren’t responsible for everyone else’s good time tend to be pretty chill.
Now, there does appear to be some martyr bullshit going on here on your mother’s end. Your mom wants all of the credit so she hoards the responsibility. But is there another way you could help? And I don’t mean, the day of, sitting on the couch, saying half-heartedly, “Oh, do you need any help?” as you watch the Thanksgiving parade and hope that she says, “No.” I mean, what can you make ahead of time and bring with? What part of the shopping can you do? At least, at the very least, please tell me that you do the dishes afterward because if you don’t do the dishes I swear I’m going to FREAK OUT.
It sounds like there are other things in your relationship that are broken, and there are certainly things that your mother needs to work on. Grown children who aren’t on the payroll who don’t ask for your opinions really shouldn’t receive your negative opinions. But, with all that, I need you to understand that being the matriarch during the holidays sucks. It just does. Maybe there are women out there who live for hosting large holiday gatherings and truly do enjoy every second of it, but I’m not related to any of them.
You can get along better with your mother by practicing radical empathy. Step into her shoes, understand how hard she works, understand that she probably feels trapped inside of this holiday, and do what you can to help her out. Out of the confines of having to put on a perfect holiday for everyone, out of the need to please, out of the cold resentment that follows when her actions have, once again, failed to meet her own perfect standards. You aren’t having fun, but she isn’t having fun either. So, find a way to have fun with her.
You and your mother are stuck in a cycle of resentment and disappointment. Stop it. Step out of the cycle, change your actions. Do what you can do. Suggest that you guys go out for Thanksgiving next year and you split the check. Suggest that you pick some of the sides and make them yourself. Suggest that you host the dinner at your house. And then, when you’re exhausted, standing over a turkey that should have been cooked through two hours ago but is still only registering 120 degrees F, you’ll appreciate that an entire holiday shouldn’t exist on the back of a single person.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.