Dear Carolyn: I come from a large family, and my mother cares very much about having us all together for the holidays. My siblings and I and our partners and children usually make it happen, and we have fun together.
The problem is that my mom is a constant negative force during and/or after nearly every interaction. She has driven relatives to tears with personal attacks, and she constantly criticizes our parenting decisions and warns our children about possible dangers.
I don't feel comfortable leaving her out of gatherings, but our children are starting to think of her as a negative person. I also worry her ways are rubbing off on the grandchildren, when they seek to place blame on others.
Attempts to broach the topic make things worse because she turns the tables on the speaker publicly and finds flaws with that person. Any ideas? She is this way in smaller gatherings, too, but less so.
— Fighting the Negativity
Fighting the Negativity: It sounds as if your mother enjoys the idea of large-family-togetherness but is overwhelmed by the practice of it.
It's not unusual. Some people are not wired for big noise and activity. Some are, but that wiring frays as they age. And many are not able to admit to themselves that what they think they should want and what they actually want are different.
Imagine how hard it is to say to yourself, "I can't bear to have my whole family together at once" — especially for anyone who has internalized the archetype of the matriarch or patriarch of a sprawling brood. Or who just loves and misses family.
The criticism of your parenting and the fixation on kids in danger both suggest your mother's "negative force" has an anxiety component. And instead of managing this anxiety from within, she tries to calm herself through control of the environment — or attempts to, at least. It's an ugly and wrongheaded way for her to manage it, yes, but it also means you can't "broach" the problem away.
What you can do is calm things down. Not by tiptoeing around her, which is miserable, but by channeling energy away from your mom.
Kids need to wiggle and shout, so steer them to the basement or nearby park, or arrange outings throughout the day. What your mother doesn't see or hear can't stress her out — plus, the kids will be calmer at a holiday table after running hard for the hour before.
Also, conjure a few jobs or outings for each of you (or older grandkids) to do with your mother one-on-one, and sprinkle them throughout the day. "Mom, I'm picking up the pies — why don't you ride along?" "Hey, Mom, come talk to me while I do dishes." This way you insulate her without isolating her.
Coordinate with your sibs beforehand, too; ideally all of you can wrangle one-face-only time with your mother. Plus, forethought is key to chaos reduction — not just in numbers of people per room, but also in food prep and cleanup, use of linens, clutter on tables.
Last but most: Since this keeps the grandkids deliberately at arm's length, make sure they see Grandma, a few at a time, between holidays. To the extent you can, set her up to succeed.