By Esther Mann, LCSW
Before the holidays start, I have to get your advice regarding how to get through them. I’ve been reading your column for years and remember that there are always a variety of stressful letters being printed before the High Holy Days and Pesach. It seems like so many of us are having similar stress, just a different set of circumstances.
So here is my situation. I have three married children and one single daughter still at home. Just to give you some background, I believe that our four children grew up in a stable home. They saw a lot of love and emphasis on family. Most Sundays, my husband Moishe and I went somewhere as a family with our children. Whether it was to an amusement park, a show, or a park, we tried to do nice family outings. Moishe and I are not fighters and they rarely saw us fighting with one another.
But my background doesn’t reflect our present situation. Our four children could not be more different from one another. Our three daughters and one son are all on different paths in every which way. We have one son who wears a black hat and is extremely yeshivish. That’s fine, but he is always judgmental of the rest of us who are not. One of our daughters is extremely modern and married someone with so little background that their lifestyle doesn’t even resemble ours. Our other married daughter is driven professionally, and that seems to be the focus of her life. Our single daughter seems to be in her own world right now and I’m not sure where she’ll land.
All that would be okay. “Live and let live” has always been my motto. I know that families can be made up of different types and still be close. The problem in our family is that everyone is so busy judging one another and acting as though their way is the only right way. There is just such a lack of respect for each other. And rarely can we all get through a meal together without some major conflict. It’s not enjoyable for anyone. Everyone always seems to be on high alert, ready to defend or attack.
So, thankfully, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my married children all choose to stay home in their own communities. That works well for Moishe and me, since we know that it will be a calm time for us and we can focus on the yomim tovim and one another.
This year we have so far hesitated to put out any invitations for Sukkos or the last days. Oh, and by the way, each set of married children thinks they are the “good ones” and often tell us that we should invite only them. Each of them likes to defend their case why we’ll have the best yom tov if we have only them. It is a calmer yom tov for us when we have only one family with us. But how do parents select one out of three married couples?
Thank G‑d, Moishe and I have a large house and always imagined filling it with all our children and grandchildren together for the yomim tovim. It’s sad to think that that’s never going to happen in a peaceful way. Yes, we could invite everyone, as we have in the past, work like dogs preparing, and then wait for the fireworks to start. Looking back on all of the times when everyone left in a huff, we’re thinking that this year we have to do something different.
We just don’t know what to do. We are considering inviting no one and just being alone with our daughter or maybe inviting friends. It’s not what we always believed our holidays would look like when our children would be grown up and married. It makes us sad to recognize that this is how things turned out. But Moishe feels that it’s time to cut our losses and stop trying so hard. We enjoy each other’s company, we have some good friends, and we need to tell our children that they have to get along or forget about it.
Do you think that’s how to handle our mess?
I’m sorry that your vision for what your family would grow into has not become a reality for you. We all have our assumptions about how life will just naturally play out, and then reality hits. Some people are blessed with close, cohesive families and some are not. It’s always sad to acknowledge that certain dreams have not come true and maybe never will. Some people have wonderfully tight children but lack a terrific marriage as the one you describe as existing between you and Moishe. Some people have close, loving families but no close friends to turn to. Because life is so multi-layered and complicated, there are a myriad of opportunities from which we are all subject to experience great highs and great lows. Ultimately, few people get it all. We get what we get and then set out to do the best that we can possibly do with what life has dealt us.
This leads us to the challenge of figuring out what to do with our disappointments and how to make the most of what we have. Specifically, Moishe’s instinct to cut his losses isn’t all that crazy. Though I might consider reading to your children the riot act one last time and giving them this last chance to make it work, it sounds as though you may already be way past that possibility. But if you feel that one last-ditch effort is in order, you should explain to them that if they all come for Sukkos and any one of them creates a negative energy that ruins the yom tov for all of you, this will be the last yom tov that you will all be together at your home. If you’ve said this in the past, it will sound like an empty threat, and only your follow-up behavior will set them straight. Follow through, and consistency will prove to be the key here.
However, maybe this will be the year that you get lucky and they will all show up with a better attitude and a desire to make it work. Once you and Moishe have been duly revived from your state of shock, it should be a delightful yom tov, knowing that you’ve all turned the corner. If not—which wouldn’t surprise me, considering their disparate lifestyles and dysfunctional history that they have created together—then you have two choices. You can either spend your yomim tovim from here on in with friends or siblings, or with whoever gives you and Moishe what you feel you need in order to have a meaningful and peaceful yom tov.
Or, you can start the process of inviting one family per yom tov, starting with your oldest child and working your way down. True, grandchildren will miss out on being together with their cousins, which is a shame. And you and Moishe will miss out on living your dream of sitting at the head of your table as matriarch and patriarch of your large family. It’s a wonderful visual, but your real life, thus far, has played out as only a facade of what you really want and need.
Maybe somewhere down the road your well-deserved dream will come true. Maybe there is an issue of maturity that has yet to take hold in your children. When they are finally able to get outside of themselves enough to appreciate the greater family good, they will be able to contribute to one and all in a beautiful way. But for now, I hear that your main goal is to have “menuchah.” That’s an important goal, and you have every right to desire it. It’s always helpful to find a way of putting one’s dashed dreams within the context of an entire life. In other words, if you make it the focus of your life, you will be sad all the time, and especially so during the holiday seasons. If you can continue to appreciate everything that is working for you with gratitude and joy, while still conceding that this particular piece of your life, though important, is far from where it should be, you will be able to get through the holidays with a healthier frame of mind, with only a respectful nod to what could have and should have been—and hopefully one day will be.
In the spirit of all of us doing everything within our power to be our best and most authentic selves, I wish you and all my readers a healthy, happy, peaceful, and meaningful New Year.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.