Parents and Conflict

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m seeing a lot of people who are uncertain about going home to their parents’ house this year, who are very upset at the thought, but also very afraid of losing people they love. It occurs to me that I have some relevant experience here. I love my parents; they’re great people, and great parents. I’ll always be grateful for everything they’ve done for me.

But they also are traditional and conservative in their values, and you can imagine how unhappy it made them to have a daughter who was dating white boys, having sex before marriage, writing explicitly about sex on the internet, and who eventually came out as bisexual. It must have been incredibly hard for them.

I can see that now, and from my safe position at age forty-five, I have a lot of sympathy. But I have to tell you, as a young queer person, I was really scared of going home for the holidays. We were fighting a lot. I am conflict-averse, not conflict-seeking by nature, so all the arguing meant that I had rolling stomachaches for days, panicked crying jags. I had a hard time making myself get on the plane to go back home; once I was there, I would get through the stressful, fighting days, and then call Kevin in the middle of the night, crying on the phone to him for hours after my parents went to sleep.

I’m not saying this to make them feel bad. My mom was crying herself to sleep too, on too many nights. Now that I’m a parent, I understand just how terrifying it is to worry about your child, and how everything I was doing then must have felt so frightening to them. I understand that what they said to me, they said out of love and fear.

But still — in retrospect, I wish I’d not put myself through quite so much anguish. Eventually, I stopped visiting as much. I didn’t cut the cord — but I let it thin a little, attenuate. We still talked on the phone, mostly about safe topics, like food. It helped. And eventually, I had graduate school, a solid job, a book contract, a boyfriend I had lived with for years and who seemed to be sticking around. All of that helped reassure them, and made our conversations easier. And after that, I had children, and that made it easier still. The things they were afraid of for me hadn’t materialized, that I would end up broke and alone and miserable, possibly pregnant and abandoned.

They still don’t approve of some of my life choices. But we get along pretty much fine now. We’ve re-woven that cord, in different ways than I could have possibly anticipated in my 20s. So I guess that what I’m trying to say is that if you need to take a little break from your family this year, it doesn’t make you a bad daughter, or a bad son. You can love them and still disagree with them.

And all of this is particularly challenging with parents, who will always see you as the child they raised, that they worry about. I like this bit from Bujold’s novel, A Civil Campaign:

***

““There’s something to that in both directions,” said Ekaterin mildly. “Nothing is more guaranteed to make one start acting like a child than to be treated like one. It’s so infuriating. It took me the longest time to figure out how to stop falling into that trap.”

“Yes, exactly,” said Kareen eagerly. “You understand! So—how did you make them stop?”

“You can’t make them—whoever your particular them is—do anything, really,” said Ekaterin slowly. “Adulthood isn’t an award they’ll give you for being a good child. You can waste . . . years, trying to get someone to give that respect to you, as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough, if only you are good enough. No. You have to just . . . take it. Give it to yourself, I suppose. Say, I’m sorry you feel like that, and walk away. But that’s hard.”

***

For some of you, this election has made clear that you and your families have very different values, very different understandings of the world. Maybe they don’t have any problem with the way you personally live, maybe they do. Maybe you don’t know how you’ll face them across a dinner table, when you know they voted for someone whose campaign and election have already created so much pain and damage, with likely much worse to come.

Hopefully, if you feel the need to pause, to walk away for a while, you can find a way back, eventually.

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