Most people gather with their family for Christmas, and most people seem to view this as a chore. In the days leading up to Christmas my Facebook feed is filled with articles about how to survive your drunk, racist uncle, or complaints from my friends about the impending horror of Christmas dinner. In November in the run-up to Thanksgiving Day my feed is also filled with articles from Vox and other US aggregators about how to survive the drunk racist uncle (plus, interestingly, how to rebut questions about when you are going to get married or have kids).
I escaped most of these responsibilities years ago, because I have no family. For me Christmas is a time of mixed emotions, when on the one hand my friends all abandon me to go hang out with their family, reminding me of everything that I have missed for a long time; but on the other hand their time with their family is a chore, and is primarily made that way by the poor behavior of older relatives who cannot accept basic norms of social interaction.
By way of explanation, my family abandoned me when I was 17 and although we made a few efforts at reconciliation subsequently, those efforts never stuck and ultimately I gave up on them. For most of our lives we have been separated (even when I was a child) by an ocean and two continents. Once I married I did occasionally have to endure Christmas with my in-laws, but I could also choose not to and often did, preferring not to spend the money or, once I was in Japan, unable to due to work.
At some point in the process of being abandoned by, trying to reconnect with, and then giving up on my family, I discovered that actually family are not as important as the world tells you it is, and most of what the world tells you about family is misleading and/or actually destructive. In fact – contrary to popular wisdom – your family are just people, like you, and they have a responsibility to treat other family members with respect that all too often they fail to live up to. Other family members, especially junior members, are expected to tolerate the poor behavior of other members, and make special allowances for them that ultimately degrade everyone’s relationships and put a deep poison into a central factor in many people’s lives.
We are of course used to the idea by now that adult family members have to try hard to provide a good environment for their children, to be responsible in their relationships and not to be abusive. But once we become adults everything changes. Suddenly the onus is on the children and younger family members to be an empty vessel for their parents’ idiosyncracies, anger and gradual loss of touch with reality. We all know the drill, because we’ve all done it: sitting through the lectures by the angry uncle who thinks climate change is a myth made up by lesbian Aborigines, or enduring the vicious angry barbs of the perenially-aggrieved aunt, or sitting through destructive patterns of parent-child interaction that have existed since we were little, are plain as day to us but apparently completely unnoticed by the parent in the interaction. In our twenties, especially, before we’re independent in our careers and have our own families, we have to endure the sneers of older family members who view our ideals as shallow and foolish thoughts we will grow out of when we become just like them. If we’re women, we have to endure being seen as soft and emotional if we disagree with our parents on a range of things (not just political, but about how people should behave at Christmas parties, how labour should be divided, what we should eat or how the young and elderly should be treated). We struggle to introduce new ideas to the Christmas event or to find new ways of doing things, because the older family members control everything, and attempts to deflect or defuse long-standing and destructive social dynamics are ignored, or even openly opposed. In my family, worst of all, was the assumption that my older family members could say horrible things that would see anyone in my peer group cast out instantly, and I should never, ever speak up against those horrible things or present a different opinion, but must sit quietly while a gaggle of aging, out of touch idiots rained hatred and bile down upon me.
For the life of me I cannot fathom where that hatred came from, and I cannot understand why my parents never understood that I don’t want to hear it. I mean sure, if you want to argue … but it’s exhausting, can’t we just put it aside and talk about something else? I guess my family was incapable of any form of interaction that wasn’t conflict, and by the time you’re an adult it’s not possible to break that dynamic from within. My family was also incapable of understanding and respecting my work, which is a thing I notice often in my friends’ families too – especially working class families, whose children have moved from building things to programming things, living in two-income families with no children at a time when their parents were in single-income, breeding families fixed on a certain trajectory. The problem here is not that the children are doing different things to the parents, but that the parents don’t understand the value of those things.
I know not everyone experiences these things at Christmas, and that for many people (I guess) Christmas is a generally pleasant, slightly boring experience with a few eye-rolls mixed in. But for a lot of us one or more of these phenomena are a common, frustrating and often quite upsetting part of any major family gathering, that leaves us exhausted, stressed and in many cases distressed. Why is this and what should we do?
In my opinion much of this Christmas-time anguish comes from two related problems. First, parents cannot accept that their children have grown up and do not want to deal with the possibility that they could learn or grow from their children’s experience. It is the ideal of every society that every generation is better educated, wealthier and has a wider range of positive experiences than their parents, and I think it is still the case that this is true, but imparting this education and experience backward to the previous generation doesn’t seem to be part of this goal. This means that even in adulthood we are infantilized by our parents, who always weigh their limited and often negative experiences – of war, poverty and life before the internet – against our positive and empowering experiences. Even when we reach our 40s and 50s there still seems to be this ideal that we will sit down and shut up while our elders tell us stuff we have heard a million times before – and no sharing back.
Second, and worse, society sells us an image of family relationships that is completely destructive, and that I think is built on experiences of times long past. This image simultaneously holds that our family are essential – that we can’t rely on anyone as much as family – and that our relationships with them should be unconditional in a way that our relationships with almost everyone else in life are not. I don’t think either of these things are correct. Family are often the first to let you down in a time of crisis, and in any case modern society has many systems in place to protect those who cannot rely on their family – systems like guardianship boards, pensions, elderly care, which while not perfect liberate us from dependence on our families at times of emergency – and there’s no reason to think that they should necessarily be the first or best people to turn to in times of crisis. Those of us who live far from our family understand this, even if we can trust our family, because distance renders their willingness to help immaterial. But the second part of this image, of the unconditional nature of our family relationships, is a terribly destructive force in our personal lives. What is it about family that means we have to endure each others’ foibles and cruelties without complaint or surcease, year in and year out, where we would abandon even partners who treated us with the same disregard? What possible benefit is this for anyone involved in the often-destructive relationships that hang over us from our childhoods?
I have a feeling that at least some part of the persistence of these negative dynamics in adulthood arises from the simple expectation everyone has that family will continue to stick together even if they abuse each other. For example, I know of a family where one member sold a struggling business to another, naive family member, and used the money to move into a new, booming business, leaving that family member to sink under the pressure; they were all still expected, somehow, to get along. In my own family my Father was viewed with shock and amazement when he declared he would no longer speak to or have any dealings with an uncle who sold him a dud car that was actually a deathtrap. Family are expected to stick together even if they do things that are cruel, destructive or alienating – even if they do them over and over again. I think people all know this about family life, and it makes them reckless in their dealings in a way that they are not with strangers.
If everyone in a family relationship knew that they would be tossed away as easily as strangers if they behaved cruelly or immorally, everyone would behave better. We all know that if we treat our partner a certain way they will abandon us, and that our friends only stick with us so long as our good points outweigh our bad points. In this regard our friends and partners keep us honest, and maintain some certain baseline of behavior. Obviously at times this changes, for example when a child is born or a shared business demands some special commitment, but in general our friends and partners respect that they have to listen to our needs, act on our complaints and at least try to show some degree of care for our needs. But family members – especially the older ones – work on the general assumption that no matter what they do, they won’t be dumped. They won’t be uninvited from family affairs even if they spout casual, disgusting racism or treat other family members with contempt. Many families harbour long grudges and wounds from past misdeeds that would have seen a member cast out from any other group. Those misdeeds would be much less likely to happen if people held family members to similar standards of responsibility that they hold the rest of the world to.
Many people think that the family is a central unit of society, that it holds society together and is the fundamental building block of social order. Yet it is within this fundamental building block that people are held least responsible for their own actions towards others. Perhaps the family would be a stronger building block of society if people understood that they were at more risk of being held accountable within it. Perhaps people’s behavior across society would be better if within their families they were held to similar standards of behavior that they expect of strangers. Perhaps then the family would be a real building block of social cohesion, rather than – as I suspect it has been for much of human history – a stumbling block to self-improvement, in which everyone’s welfare is held back by a fear that conflict within the family will have real physical and economic consequences for everyone in the unit.
We have updated relations in friendship groups and in couplings to reflect the realities of the modern world, but in many ways our families still rest on a fundamentally feudal (or Victorian?) assumption about their importance to the welfare of all their members. Let’s update our family relations to match the world we live in, not the world our parents inherited. Hold your family accountable for their bad behavior, and let them know they won’t always hold your patience and tolerance. We can build a better world not just by the way we treat strangers, but also by the way we treat those closest to us – and the way we force them to treat us.