We go through this every year as soon as the detritus of Halloween is swept away, this eight-week holiday season marathon where everyone else has grandparents flying in, aunts and uncles an hour’s drive away, cousins to play and fight with, houses filling up with love and chaos, or at least chaos. At least that’s how it is in our leafy, affluent suburb where many nuclear families are not only still intact but thriving, with functional extended family relationships. One neighbor’s 70-something father paints her house; another grandpa shows up for his grandson’s science fair and geography bee. Cousins visit for sleepovers. Relatives are visible, present in the rhythms of everyday life. My daughter quickly realized our situation was quite different, our holidays much quieter.
My husband is an only child, and both his parents are deceased. His cousins are scattered across the country, and sometimes we visit them, but they have their own families. My side is more complicated. My parents and brother, my only sibling, are alive and living in different states. I’m not close to any of them, but this is my choice. There’s a long history of mental illness, trauma, abuse and anger. I grew up in a house where everyone yelled and bedroom doors were often closed. My parents divorced when I was 14. When I was 19, my father, who has bipolar disorder, took me to court because he didn’t want to continue paying child support for me, a fact that has stumped every therapist I have ever talked to. I missed college classes to give depositions. I stopped speaking to him in 1992, when I was first served papers. My mother and I have always had a cold, distant relationship that, at its best, could be occasionally perfunctory. She made harsh remarks about me and to me that I try to forget. My brother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder more than a decade ago and has his own anger and challenges to manage.
When our daughter was born, we tried family get-togethers with my mother and my brother’s family so she could get to know her cousins. These visits usually ended with me and my husband feeling utterly drained. When our daughter was in elementary school, she started asking uncomfortable questions about the family dynamics she witnessed. My husband and I decided enough was enough. If I wanted a life free of bitterness, if I wanted to protect my daughter from generations of dysfunction, teach her healthier behaviors and surround her with more positive role models, then we’d have to go it alone. There was no argument over the phone, no terse emails, no nothing. Just a quiet parting of ways, an unspoken decision to focus on a future free of vitriol and resentment.
It’s a choice I’m proud of every single day. Every therapist I’ve ever met has advised — sometimes even exuberantly encouraged — distance. One even told me, “You escaped a burning house,” and I long thought this succinctly captured my experience. We’ve achieved stability, success; our house is filled with humor, and our daughter easily jokes with my husband and me all the time, a sign that she feels safe. We hug daily. No one shouts. No one emotionally manipulates one another. Bedroom doors remain open. I built the calm, loving household I never had.
But then I look at her, our only child, knowing she feels lonely at holidays, that she believes she’s missing out on something that comes so readily to everyone else she knows at school. Norman Rockwell images of large, smiling families gathered around a Christmas tree are deeply ingrained into our holiday mythology, which holds that every Dec. 25, parents and grandparents and siblings put differences aside and band together like the closing scene of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We have a large circle of friends, and each year, we attend a neighborhood Festivus party so that our daughter experiences a bustling house rocking with holiday cheer. Then Christmas arrives, and, understandably, people turn to their blood relatives to celebrate.
Over the years, I’ve tried to create different Christmas memories. In 2008, we spent Christmas in Bruges, Belgium, a medieval city of gingerbread houses that looks like a greeting card. The following year, we went to London and cocooned in pubs with glowing fires. In 2013, we spent an extraordinary Christmas in Taos, N.M. We attended Christmas Eve Mass at the San Geronimo Chapel, built in the missionary style and completed in 1850, and then joined hundreds of strangers in a procession involving a priest and parishioners carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary out toward bonfires three stories high. This year, we’re snowbirding on Florida’s Gulf Coast for some sand and surf and, yes, some Disney World.
Our Christmases may appear nomadic and lacking in tradition, but my hope is to teach our daughter that Christmas or any holiday doesn’t need to fit a conventional mold — that it is more than blood relations bearing gifts and decorated evergreen boughs and hot cocoa with marshmallows. Those things are wonderful, but not everyone has them. Not all families work out. Sometimes you have to forge your own circle or find other circles with which to share the joy and compliments of the holiday season, and that’s okay.
Parents often try to picture their children’s futures. I look at my daughter and wonder if she’ll marry into the large, noisy family she never had — that, like me, she’ll create what she felt was missing. Or maybe she’ll decide that Christmases on beaches, in the mountains or in charming European villages were fun and full of freedom, discovery and hope, and she’ll continue on the path we found together. Whatever she chooses, she is growing up happy, healthy, and willing to trust — neither angry nor afraid.