This Year We Learned to Re-Evaluate the Meaning of Family

I knew I would miss going home for the holiday. What I didn’t expect was the relief.

Photo: Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/Getty Images

This year, for the first time ever, I didn’t go home for Thanksgiving. I didn’t brave the overnight Amtrak and subject myself to the germs of hundreds of travelers; didn’t wake up in the Cleveland suburbs to watch the parade and drink vanilla-flavored coffee from my mom’s Keurig. I didn’t get to spend two hours with her and my sister, squealing over the cute pups in the National Dog Show. I didn’t spend Black Friday pushing through a thick crowd of people in the electronics section of Walmart or the following Saturday decorating my mom’s Christmas tree with ornaments dating back to my infancy in the late ’80s.

This Thanksgiving, I also didn’t get misgendered. I didn’t have to complain when someone called me the wrong pronouns, and I didn’t have to listen to my mom explain that really, people are trying hard. I didn’t have to sit still on the couch wincing, wondering if my mom put as much energy into defending me to the extended family as she did defending the family to me. I didn’t have to hear anyone talking about the election. I didn’t have to look in the face of anyone who has voted to harm me and people like me over and over and over again.

I knew I would miss going home for the holiday. I anticipated waves of grief and guilt, which certainly came over me in the dark of Thanksgiving night. What I didn’t expect was the relief.

Lately, I’ve been talking to a lot of people who have complicated family relationships. Many have told me about the fraught mixture of relief and guilt that canceling holiday plans has awakened in them. The events of this year have forced us to make hard choices about who is safe to be around, which beliefs are now far too dangerous to “agree to disagree” about, and how we wish to define “family” for ourselves moving forward.

One person I spoke to is Lia, a health care worker in the Midwest. Recently she decided to cut ties with her conspiracy theory-loving family. After years of trying to educate them, their delusions have become too numerous — and too dangerous — for her to bear.

“My dad and sisters have toyed with ridiculous beliefs in the past for sure,” she told me. “Like wondering aloud about Obama’s birth certificate, but I could talk sense into them sometimes. But it kept getting worse over the years, and now it’s all this QAnon stuff about cartoons having secret pedophilic messages and masks being used for child abduction.”

This summer, during a visit to her dad’s backyard, Lia’s family berated her for wearing a mask and trying to socially distance. For hours they tried to pressure Lia and her daughter to go indoors without a mask on. Eventually, she caved.

“We didn’t get sick and nobody else got sick, thank fucking god,” she said. “But it felt like such a betrayal. After that day, my husband and I had to finally ask ourselves, can our daughter be around this? And we decided no.”

I get to decide which traditions to keep and which to leave behind.

Lia says it’s been painful rebuffing invitations to Thanksgiving and Christmas and leaving the family’s group texts unread. But she says it’s undeniable at this point that her family doesn’t respect her values or boundaries and aren’t ever going to change. Instead, she plans to spend Christmas virtually visiting her friends, many of whom are skipping family visits this year, too.

Another person for whom lockdown has meant big family changes is Haven, a 29-year-old administrative assistant who had been living in the Northeast. When shutdowns began in March, Haven went to stay at his mom’s house in central Florida. He thought it would be better to not be alone. “It was this instinctual thing: Danger is coming, return to the family,” he said to me. “I even thought it would be good for our relationship. Bonding time.”

Haven’s mother has always been demanding — she expects a lot of reassurance and attention from her son. But under shutdown, it became truly oppressive. “Policing my eating, insulting me for gaining weight during a global pandemic, saying I was a hypocrite for wanting to socially distance but also going to protests, it was driving me insane,” he said.

Haven started to notice he only felt normal and okay after his mom went to bed when he had a few hours to play video games and voice chat with friends. In late summer, he made the decision to drive to California where one of his Discord buddies let him sublease a spare bedroom. Haven’s mother was furious, which he says confirmed he was making the right decision.

“I don’t know what I’ll do when the vaccine is out and I don’t have Covid as an excuse to not visit,” he says. “But for now, this sounds so corny but I feel... held?… by my friends in a way she never held me.”

Haven works from home by day and spends his evening making meals and playing tabletop games with his roommate. They’re doing a small gift exchange with one another for Christmas, and one outdoor, distanced hangout with another small group of friends. When Haven describes his plans to me, they sound peaceful and lovely — nothing like the time he spent during the shutdown with his biological family. Like Lia and myself, the pandemic has forced Haven to make big sacrifices and change everything about how his life looks. And with those losses, a powerful sense of clarity has also emerged. It’s allowed him to redefine for himself who his family truly is and where he feels most at home.

This has been a painfully clarifying year. The presidential election and the public response to Black Lives Matter protests revealed just how many Americans are still willing to actively promote white supremacy. The proliferation of QAnon and Covid-denying conspiracy theories have illustrated that many people prefer alluring, absurd fiction to reality, even when it costs them their closest relationships or their own health. Many of us have come to recognize that the political differences that fractured our families years ago are never going to heal, and in fact are only getting more massive.

For the first time, many of us have been required to cancel plans with our families, to break out of old loops and traditions we’d been caught in our entire lives. That’s prompted us to rethink what family even means, and what our obligations to our loved ones are. Do we want to continue rehashing old battles? How many times can we stand to have our needs ignored? Who makes us feel loved and held, and who leaves us feeling invisible and small? Who is your family?

So many things I tell myself I “have” to do are optional — open to revision and rethinking at any time.

My sister is one of my favorite people on this earth, and the Thanksgiving weekend traditions we have established together are sacred to me. Unlike Lia and Haven, I do plan to visit home again when it’s safe to. But the shutdown has also given me a taste of peace and self-possession I don’t usually experience at larger family gatherings.

Spending Thanksgiving at home with my partner was absolutely lovely; the memories of us cooking together and watching bad TV for hours are ones I’ll cherish for a very long time. It reminded me that so many things I tell myself I “have” to do are optional — open to revision and rethinking at any time. I don’t have to always be the one who travels home; I can ask family members to come visit me. I don’t have to spend time with people who make me feel broken; I can prioritize relationships with the people who respect me. I get to decide which traditions to keep and which to leave behind.

This has been a year filled with sacrifices, abandoned plans, and broken routines. These profound changes have given us the opportunity to take a step back and reevaluate all the expectations that ruled our old lives. In this new world, we get to define family however we want. We can build traditions that honor our needs. We can let go of the guilt and focus on cultivating the relationships that nourish us the most. I just hope this mindset lasts long after the pandemic ends.

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