Overcoming Dysfunctional Family Dynamics for the Holidays

This year, for the first time in over a decade, my husband and I traveled with our kids back to the city where I was born to spend the holiday with my extended family.

To say that our kids were excited would be an understatement: They were both ecstatic, chattering in the backseat about what they were going to do first when they arrived, which cousins they would see, and how their grandmother would probably have a few presents waiting for them.

To be honest, my husband and I were a bit anxious about the visit. We kept looking at each other during the long drive, silently wondering what kind of family drama might await us when we arrived.

Since our children were born, we’ve returned home less often during the holidays—if at all. Both of us come from broken families, where the legacy of divorce and complex family relationships continue in a vicious cycle within our families, especially in mine. The holidays, perhaps because they involve more celebratory drinking and thoughts of loved ones who are gone, tend to bring out the worst in many dysfunctional families.

The last holiday we spent with my side of the family, when my daughter was just a baby, involved a violent dispute between a drunken family member and my mother. I had to lock the intoxicated person out of the house to protect the rest of us. For my family, this kind of late-night drama, laced with long-standing family wounds and fueled by addiction, is normal.

When I was growing up, I witnessed my fair share of similar incidents, or at least heard them from my room as I hid under the bed covers. But that night, with my own child sleeping in the house, I vowed to never expose my kids to the worst parts of the world I knew as a child. And so, my husband and I made the decision to spend most holidays in our own home, while leaving the door open for family members to travel to see us.

This difficult decision has worked to protect our children from a lot, but it has also resulted in them missing precious time with extended family. Over the years, my daughter has often asked me, “when will I get to see my cousins or spend the night at grandma’s house?” and I always shrug and say, “Maybe next year.”

Then, last year, we lost a beloved family member to an illness, someone who was always there for me when I was a little girl, and yet my own children barely knew him. My grandmother is also getting older, so it’s harder for her to travel. Growing up, she was a constant, stable, and healing presence in my unstable world—a light of faith and love to our entire family. I want my children to spend as much time with her as possible.

And so, my husband and I decided to go home again this year. During our visit, my kids got the chance to do things I did countless times growing up: run free and wild with their many cousins in my aunt’s backyard, ask for more and receive seconds (and thirds) on dessert following the holiday meal, eat my mom’s delicious spaghetti while squeezed together at her tiny kitchen table, and laugh with us at old family photos.

My daughter also did something else that was so precious to me when I was a little girl: spend the night with her great-grandmother at her little apartment—just the two of them. That night, my grandmother read to her, let her eat cookies and drink hot chocolate in her big bed, prayed with her, and kept her awake with her steady-snoring when they finally turned out the lights.

Overall, I don’t regret going home for the holiday this year. Sure, there were moments where I felt anxious—when my kids heard some words and saw some things I would prefer they not be exposed to. But we took precautions to ensure that they did not witness any big family dramas. For example, we did not stay with family but at a hotel. We left family gatherings earlier than others, as soon as we felt uncomfortable about anything. We also talked to our kids about what they might witness before we arrived, so they would be prepared.

Our visit was a huge success, in no small part because we worked to control the circumstances as much as possible to help make it successful. While our extended families are imperfect, they are still family, and I am thankful for the relationship I do have with them and that we can make happy holiday memories together.

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