Too many turkeys ILLUSTRATION: Tim Furey

Too many turkeys

Time to change some family dynamics to be truly happy at Thanksgiving

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 11/17/2011

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­­Dear Patti,
In my opinion, Thanksgiving is much scarier than Halloween. I’d much rather open my front door to sweet cherubic faces asking for candy than open the door to my family’s grumpy faces asking for Thanksgiving dinner. I’m partly kidding, but I really do have an issue that upsets me. 
 
While my husband always helps me with the turkey, everyone else pulls a disappearing act during the meal preparation and cleanup and prefers to sit in the living room. Since I’m the eldest and my mother died several years ago, Thanksgiving dinner has become my entire problem. I love to cook and entertain, but I’m starting to resent having to do most of the work by myself. My husband is beginning to resent it, too.
 
I certainly want to enjoy close, loving ties with my family, and I know l have reason to be thankful for them, but if you have any ideas on how to better cope with this problem without upsetting everybody I’d  really appreciate it. ~Eva

Dear Eva,
Thanksgiving is a time when family and friends get together to celebrate how much they appreciate having each other in their lives. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon that family dynamics can create such a stressful day of cooking, cleaning, entertaining and refereeing disputes that it may force you to wonder just how long you can tolerate being around the very people you love so much. 
 
As the hostess welcoming everyone to your home for Thanksgiving, you want to be free of resentment and frustrations in order to truly enjoy their company. At the end of the day, what really matters — and what everyone will remember — isn’t the food but the close moments among all of you, even if few and far between. Being happy and relaxed may be difficult, however, since you believe the whole set-up is so unfair. How do think your mother would feel about you in the role of Cinderella doing all the work by yourself?  Is part of the problem that she’s not here to protect and nurture you and that you’re having trouble doing so for yourself? Or did she play a similar role in the family and you’re merely modeling the same behaviors you observed? Even so, it doesn’t mean she’d want to see history repeating itself with you playing out a self-defeating role that leaves you bitter and exhausted.  
 
How about immersing your entire dinner party into the Thanksgiving feast and sharing all aspects of its preparation? Many holiday dinners are centered on just one or two members of the family doing everything themselves. What about insisting that all of you participate in the process? A great way to get everyone excited to be involved is by getting their input on what dishes they would like to have. Ask a few others to arrive early that morning to help with preparations. Ask the young members of the family to help decorate the table.  And just imagine how quickly dinner could be cleaned up if everyone did just a small amount of work!
 
I realize that this won’t be an easy process for you or an easy change for your family, especially if being passive guests is a firmly entrenched habit they’ve gotten used to. It’s critical to start changing the dynamics along with your own role in it, however, if you want occasions like these to be less stressful and more satisfying. Otherwise, the passage of years will cause you to become more annoyed and/or slowly pull away from your family so as to have less contact. That’s probably not how your mother would have wanted things to turn out. However, you need to be careful to do what’s best for you and your husband and not just what you think she’d expect. Honoring your family commitments also means honoring your responsibilities to yourself. Be reasonable with your schedule and make sure you don’t exhaust yourself before the day even arrives. This includes incorporating ready-made foods alongside homemade specialties, accepting assistance from others and planning periodic breaks that will allow you to do all of the creative things you love as a hostess.  
 
You and your husband being happy and genuinely glad to see the family will also set a much more meaningful tone at your gathering. 

 
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site: patticarmalt-vener.com.

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