I’ve been divorced for six years now. I have a tremendous amount of gratitude that I am no longer married to an abusive man. I am also grateful that I’ve found a close-knit group of single friends who are either widowed or divorced. We get together often. We talk about serious issues, we laugh our sides off, we treat one another with respect and kindness, and there is never a time we’re together that I don’t leave feeling uplifted and happy.
I am also grateful for a fulfilling job, interests that keep me active and busy, and so much more. The one area of my life that does not add to the quality of my life is in regard to my children. I’m not going to get into the specific issues that exist with each of them, but, sadly, they don’t add to my happiness — on the contrary …
Every year I struggle with how to celebrate holidays. Right now, I’m thinking about Thanksgiving. My children (most of whom are married) probably assume that I’ll work very hard to put together a beautiful meal for everyone. That’s what I do. I will spend a fortune and stand on my feet all day only to walk on eggshells once they arrive, knowing that they will find something to criticize. Some of them are particularly disrespectful towards me, and they will also probably be bickering with some other person at the table and generally just behave badly. When it comes time for cleanup, they will either be halfway out the door, or, if I’m lucky, they will actually bring a few plates into the kitchen and then quickly scatter. It would never occur to any of them to offer to bring dessert or some other dish that might alleviate some of my very long to-do list. It’s all about them.
By the time they leave, I will feel relieved. I will quickly call one of my close friends and we’ll review our evening and often share similar stories. Thankfully, together we will find something to laugh about and, more importantly, commiserate with one another’s experience and talk about our next get-together, which is sure to be fun and will definitely lift our spirits.
I’m thinking seriously now of canceling Thanksgiving dinner and all upcoming holidays with my family. I have several friends who will be spending Thanksgiving together, and they have asked me to join them. That could be great. Frankly, the idea of getting comfortable and eating ice cream while watching Netflix also sounds pretty appealing to me right now. The point is that I am suddenly feeling that I don’t want to work so hard just to be made to feel miserable afterwards. It makes no sense.
I’m having a hard time acting on what I want. I’m trying to figure out why I can’t just be true to myself and do what makes me happy. I’m trying to listen to myself and figure out what is holding me back. My first thought is that hosting my children has become the expectation. As a good person, and someone who has always tried to be a good mother, am I allowed to rock the boat? Am I allowed to disappoint them (despite the fact that they disappoint me constantly)? I also think about community expectations — there are neighbors and casual friends who, for some strange reason, like to ask, “So who’s coming to you for Thanksgiving?” When I picture their expression if I were to say, “No one; I’ll be hanging out with my friends,” I shudder at what it would look like.
I’m not sure why these thoughts are so troublesome. I’m wondering if you think I should just grin and bear it, despite how it makes me feel, or whether I should finally do what makes me happy and no longer subject myself to such painful moments — especially when I have alternative places to go where I will feel valued and loved.
Dear Possible Quitter,
If you’re writing to me to ask for permission to change the status quo, which hasn’t been working for you for quite some time, you most certainly have my permission. Many people find that they get caught up in obligations that have stopped being gratifying but just continue along with the program because it’s what they are used to and what they know. Or, as you point out, they want to appear “normal” to their nosy neighbors, whatever “normal” means.
Life is challenging. We all have plenty to deal with. At some point, most of us recognize the fact that every day we have here on Earth is precious. We have to make the most of every one of them. Though there is so much we can’t control, we can control certain things. Who we want surrounding us — family or not family — is something we can definitely orchestrate. Why your children seem to have such issues is not even the question. They haven’t figured out how to behave like appreciative, respectful grown children, nor are they good guests.
You’ve managed to create a life for yourself that is filled with generous women who know how to give of themselves, support their friends, and make the best of their time together. That is a huge blessing that I’m sure you’ve earned and worked very hard to create and sustain. I can’t imagine that you’ve put any more energy into your friendships than you have toward your children over the years, but, somehow, the outcomes could not be any more different.
So my advice to you (though I expect to get some pushback on this) is to follow your heart and surround yourself with people who will appreciate you and make you feel good about yourself. I don’t believe any of us have been placed on this planet to torture one other, nor should we allow ourselves to be tortured. There is nothing noble about subjecting yourself to individuals who will hurt you, despite sharing DNA with them. And who knows — maybe by eliminating the opportunity for your children to continue to behave this way, it could serve as a learning opportunity for them as they try to figure out “What’s up with Thanksgiving?”
The bottom line is that there is nothing more beautiful than connecting with those people who nurture us, love us, and care deeply about our well-being. When we spend time with such individuals, the world is brighter, there is a spring in our step, and we ultimately have so much more joy to pass on to others. So whether you join your friends for a festive Thanksgiving dinner or cuddle up with a blanket and a bowl of ice cream, ready to binge-watch your favorite Netflix show, remember that this time is for you.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.