To Survive, You Can't Just Wing It

By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007

Every Thanksgiving, Washington businessman Douglas Burton would fly to Texas for turkey, cornbread stuffing, green bean casserole and canned cranberry sauce with his parents and seven siblings. Then, just as surely as dessert would be sweet potato pecan pie, would come the moment everyone expected.

"You all are such a disappointment to me," his mother would say, gazing around the table at her assembled children. "You do not go to church. Now pass the pie."

Tension of another sort took hold inside the Falls Church home where Pentagon auditor Michael Davitt grew up. Each year he and his parents grew increasingly resentful about preparing an elaborate Southern feast not just for his brother and sister-in-law but, over time, the sister-in-law's widowed mother, divorced brother and young nephew.

"In normal circumstances this would be okay, but these people come over, never bring a dish, eat everything in sight, never help clean up or say thank you," Davitt laments. "But we never asked them to do anything, because my mom didn't want to start any fusses."

Somehow this holiday that is all about loved ones and gratitude has become notorious for dysfunction and stress. Children of divorced couples race from turkey with Mom to more turkey with Dad. Young marrieds spar over which family to visit. Warring adult siblings refuse to attend the same meal and force parents to choose sides. Gays and lesbians who are out to friends but not families slip back into the closet.

"Everyone is under a lot of stress, crowded into a too-small space," says Amy Dickinson, who writes the syndicated advice column Ask Amy. "All the usual, ancient problems and rivalries surface and there are usually new people to add to the mix. This can be combustible. Like the deep-fried turkey, it can end in a fireball."

For suggestions about dousing -- or, in a perfect world, averting -- conflagration, we turned to Dickinson and other keen students of human behavior. They acknowledge their own holiday angst, share lessons learned and offer the rest of us a few survival techniques.

For 17 Thanksgivings, Dickinson has been without her daughter because she and her ex "decided we didn't want to split the child in half. It has enabled her to get to know her dad's family in a special way." And it enabled Dickinson to have her daughter, now 19, at Christmas.

In her view, the burden of peacekeeping should be, but often isn't, shared by all: "People who have unfinished or un-dealt-with business, unfortunately, bring it to the family table, where it should not be brought."

It helps if hosts and hostesses "adjust their expectations," she says. "It's never going to be perfect." They should also assert control, whether it's isolating a "jerk guest by asking them to help you bring stuff to the table" or making a seating chart to separate people who don't get along. "Put the intolerant next to the very tolerant."

Deborah Tannen is an author and linguistics professor at Georgetown University who specializes in how language affects relationships. She says different conversational styles among families and friends can create problems.

"In one family you ask a lot of questions to show interest, and in another you don't ask questions because that's nosy," Tannen says. The trick, she adds, is finding a balance between that perceived indifference and prying.

"Just being aware of it and making allowances helps," she says. If an extroverted spouse is with circumspect in-laws, "you might have to bite your tongue. If you're doing all the talking, back off." Conversely, "if you think you are being overlooked, push yourself to start talking."

Another emotional cauldron -- which can boil over amid the stress of cooking and general household chaos -- involves adult children returning home and "always feeling 12 years old," says Tannen, whose most recent book is "You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation."

"Mothers may criticize daughters about 'your hair, your weight, food and eating: Do you really need that second helping?' Sometimes the mother has to bite her tongue. The daughter can retrain her way of reacting: It is criticism, and it is helpful. You can make a joke out of it rather than getting mad, if you can. You can talk about it beforehand."

Jann Blackstone-Ford is a co-founder of Bonus Families, an organization in the San Francisco area that offers counseling and support to stepfamilies. She recalls one particularly "awful" Thanksgiving with her second husband, when dinner ran late and his kids had to exit at mid-meal to head to the home of their mother, Sharyl Jupe.

"We had to finish without them. I worked really hard on the dinner," she says. "My daughter loves her siblings and didn't want them to leave; the little one didn't want them to leave. Dad's all [angry] and felt it was my fault because I was cooking. I'm the bad guy."

Urged by all the frazzled children, Jupe, the other Bonus Families co-founder, and Blackstone-Ford ultimately negotiated a joint celebration at alternate houses each year. Food traditions help hold it all together.

"We have two types of gravy: flour for us, cornstarch for Sharyl. I like canned cranberry sauce; she makes hers from scratch. Last year their side ate their stuff and our side had stuff I made," Blackstone-Ford says. "This is what works for us. Celebrate the differences. I'll make fun of their gravy."

Bernadette Watkins, who runs Broadwell's Elegant Etiquette classes in Naples, Fla., says including "neutral" guests such as neighbors, colleagues, even soldiers from local military bases can induce better behavior among feuding family members.

"Inviting someone people don't know takes a lot of tension away from the stiffness and anger. You don't want to be ugly or put on too much of a show in front of them, so you try to behave and zip it up a bit."

If getting through an entire meal with relatives is out of the question, "just go for cocktails and then leave," Watkins says. "It's better for both sides of the family."

Indeed, she and her husband, Henry Broadwell Watkins III, do that very thing with his kin: "We have a difference of opinions with business, and I feel if they don't respect your business ideas, it's very difficult to see them on a social level." After gathering to toast the day, she and her husband depart for dinner with "our own immediate and loving family."

All that is fine advice from professionals, but how do regular folks cope?

One Chevy Chase woman -- who asked not to be named for fear of upsetting her aged mother -- hosts the big meal Wednesday night.

"I don't get along with my brother, and my mother always felt torn because we'd both invite her and she always wanted to come to us," the woman said. "But it wasn't fair to make her choose. Now she can be with each of her kids, at two separate dinners." She also invites friends who know they'll be facing a rocky gathering on Thursday to "have some fun with us the night before." On Thanksgiving, she and her husband either join friends for dinner or "hang out at home, eat leftovers and watch football."

Burton, whose mother berated her children for insufficient piety, now tries to visit his folks before the holiday. "I decided it was ridiculous to spend $800 to go home so she could make me feel bad. This way, it's just me, my parents, no siblings and no recriminations."

Davitt and his parents grew so tired of the annual ordeal that they moved Thanksgiving to their Ocean City condo. His father recently died, but the seaside basics remain the same: He and his mother "have a really nice dinner on Thursday, and on Friday we hit the outlet malls to go Christmas shopping. Mom is not exhausted making a feast for the ingrates."

And then there's the view of subversive comedian Amy Sedaris, author of "I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence," who absolutely relishes the potential for disaster.

"I love any kind of tension," Sedaris says. "If you know there are these two people who are complete opposites, I would put them side by side or across the table."

She remembers with envy a radio show caller who told her about two mothers-in-law out in the front yard, fistfighting. "And I said, 'You are so lucky. Be thankful.' "

Related: Ways to Carve Out a Little Serenity

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