Just A Reminder: It Is OK To Shut Down, Dismiss And Ignore Your Toxic Family Members For The Holidays
It’s only as I’ve gotten older and become a mother myself that I start to understand the difficult decisions my mom had to make for her own children in relation to me and my sister’s health and happiness and keeping us connected to extended family members. When I had my own daughter three years ago, one of the biggest things I realized changed was my outlook and time and how I disperse my energy. I recognized that not every one of my time and investment. I also recognized that as her mother, for some time I am obligated to make the best decisions I can on who is worthy of my daughter’s time and company. Her life won’t always be happy, easy or convenient, nor should it be. But one thing I won’t do is voluntarily invite trauma, heartache, insult or injury into her life. And the truth is some people are just plain old toxic. It doesn’t mean you can’t sympathize with those people, but I choose to do so from a distance and even then, if your issues are starting to affect my ability to be a complete person for myself and furthermore for my family that depends on me on a daily basis, I have to quarantine myself from you. Some may call that selfish, but I make no apologies.
Last week I woke up on Thanksgiving and was filled with relief. Yes, I was looking forward to filling my plate with baked mac and cheese, sweet potatoes and collard greens at my mama’s house later that evening, but more so it was the first day I didn’t have to rush through the hustle and bustle of my morning commute to get my daughter dropped off and be on the phone as a hotline counselor by 9:00 am, geared up to help the citizens of Philadelphia tackle their family planning problems. The Macy’s Thanksgiving parade was on, my daughter was nestled in my arms and my husband was ignoring his phone and the customers calling it in what seemed like the first time in forever. As a working parent one of the things you realize you take for granted are the days where you don’t have to wake up and immediately be anywhere or do anything. So when and unknown number appeared on my phone a few minutes before 10, I promptly hit ignore figuring if someone really needed to find me they’d text or leave a voicemail. The caller did. In fact, they left two voice mails, a text message, and called five more times in a matter of three hours.
It was one of my uncles on my mom’s side. He started his message with, “Happy Thanksgiving,” before jumping into what he needed. That’s the thing with many of my extended family members. The only time they pick up the phone to dial my number is when their hands are out. It turns out he had a plumbing emergency and wanted to reach out to my husband to see if he’d take the time on the holiday to help. First of all, we’re not that close for you to be getting any special favors. You will not be getting the hook up for the holiday and will be advised to call during normal business hours like every other customer. Because honestly, he was just like any other customer. I could be sitting next to this man on the subway and it would take me a few minutes to register who he is. We have never had that kind of relationship and there are many reasons behind that. Secondly, I couldn’t help but wonder if had a problem or just wanted to be nosy. So often the out-of-blue calls from estranged family members are more about, “Did your husband’s business fail yet? Are you unable to pay your rent this month? Can I relent in your problems to make me feel better about my own poor life decisions?” than they are about, “How are you doing?” Misery loves company, and unfortunately we all have those family members who want to celebrate your hardships rather than help you out of them.
My mom made a decision early in me and my sister’s childhoods that the best thing for her children and their upbringing would be to move far across the city from her siblings and to love them from a distance. In the early eighties and nineties many of her siblings were dealing with substance abuse and addiction. I can vaguely remember cookouts that went from sunny to sour when one of my uncles would have way too much Hennessy and resort to flipping over tables and cussing out my Grandma about incidents in their childhood that they had resulted in residual resentment. When my mom hosted birthday parties for my sister and I, my uncles would slip off into my parents’ bedroom and get sticky fingers with my Dad’s jewelry, pawn it and return it weeks later like nothing happened. At a certain point, I want to say sometime when I was in elementary school, my mom decided she was over it and didn’t need that kind of negativity in any of our lives. She stopped throwing parties, stopped bringing her kids to cookouts and damn near stopped answering the phone for anyone that wasn’t me, my sister or my Grandma.
From what I witnessed, it wasn’t that she ever stopped loving her siblings, she just refused to sacrifice her peace of mind and well-being to try to savor relationships that weren’t based on much more than a common last name. On the other side, as I grew older I witnessed my relatives rotate through unhealthy cycles and faulty decision-making and pass on the same patterns to my cousins. And even as my aunts and uncles grew and overcame some of their struggles, there was also never an attempt on their behalf to build a relationship with us. As a result, I didn’t grow up with an uncle who could come fix my flat tire. I had Dad for that. I never had an aunt who would talk to me about sex and relationships when my mom was being uptight. I had an older sister for that. Even now, when I think about my mom’s choice not to cultivate those relationships to spare us from any trauma that might occur because of them, I’m thankful. Unfortunately, there’s a time limit on those kinds of relationships. And as a 34-year-old adult woman I really don’t have the energy nor enthusiasm to pursue the “uncle I’ve never had”. What people don’t realize is that you can learn to live without them and not just survive, but thrive.
Something else I’ve realized this past year is that myself and the people I care for are all on different paths in life. Just because I don’t agree with someone’s thoughts or actions doesn’t mean they aren’t trying their best and doing what works best for their situation. I am learning to love my family and friends for who they are, strengths and weaknesses. But self-care is important, and when those qualities become regularly detrimental to my well-being and peace of mind, difficult decisions have to be made. There are going to be people who feel guilty this holiday season because they’re avoiding that friend who uses every opportunity to complain about their sorry ass man and never stops to ask how someone besides themselves is doing. There are going to be people who slave over a hot stove for hours to serve the same people who always show up empty handed, but are the first ones grabbing for the foil to pack up plates for the week. And maybe you are working overtime and missing out on time with your own family to make sure your nieces and nephews have a Christmas too because it’s priority for you even if it isn’t for their parents. I’m not saying go crazy with the selfishness and get your Scrooge on this holiday. But I am saying that don’t be so giving that you leave nothing for yourself. Tis’ the season for generosity, but not if you’re losing your sanity in the process.
For me, this time of the year is for creating good memories and taking the time to cherish those who enhance your life all year long. Life is filled with enough negativity without you having to force yourself to tolerate people who make you uncomfortable and who don’t allow you to be your best self. If Friendsgiving or even watching repetitive Hallmark movies with your cat and bottle of rum is what makes you happy, then do you. The best company doesn’t always have to be with those who share your DNA.
How do you deal with toxic family members during the holidays?
Toya Sharee is a Health Resource Specialist who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.