5 Ways to Shut Down Critical Family Members at Thanksgiving
by Danielle Dorsey
When you lead an unconventional lifestyle, there are going to be people close to you who are critical of your choices. As much as I love holiday dinners, they also seem to be an opportunity for family members to question my sexuality, relationship goals, and even my eating habits.
Most of it is not meant to be malicious, but that doesn’t make it any easier to digest. As many of us find empowerment in our relationships, sexuality and bodies, this kind of criticism can cause our thinking to regress and we find ourselves questioning our own judgment. Here are some questions I’ve come to expect at the dinner table, as well as the snappy comebacks I’ve honed over the years:
1. When are you going to get a real job?”
Earlier this year, I confessed to my mother that I was ditching my predictable 9-to-5 job with benefits for a more flexible lifestyle that would allow me the freedom to travel and pursue more of my varied interests. It’s been six months, and she’s still struggling to understand why anyone would abandon security and a steady paycheck for less-traveled roads that include playing Russian Roulette with contract jobs that seem to think “pay within 30 days of receipt” is merely a suggestion.
With the holidays approaching, I’m already bracing myself for family members’ criticism masked as concern. It usually begins with seemingly innocent questions about my educational background.
“So you graduated from college … when was that, again?”
They were present at the ceremony.
“Wow. And you haven’t been able to hold down a steady job in all that time?” They’ll feign disbelief before reverting back to faux sympathy. “I suppose the economy is rough,” they will concede, as though The Great Recession was little more than a stubborn rumor.
If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of such a conversation, you probably recognize this as the point where steam will start to escape from your warming ears. You arrived on time to dinner an hour ago, yet the food still isn’t ready and the wafting scents of baking desserts coupled with savory entrees have teased you out of your right mind. Don’t let anyone tell you that hanger (hunger + anger) isn’t real.
You have a couple of options: You could go into wig-snatching mode and mention how this same family member’s son has been pursuing a hip-hop career in his parents’ basement for the better part of this century, but the evening is young and you might very well be sitting across from each other after dinner’s served. That kind of tension is guaranteed to give you indigestion.
Like my play-Auntie Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.”
High as in: sarcasm that goes over their heads.
“I don’t know,” I’ll reply innocently. “It must be those drug tests I keep failing!”
2. “Are you sure you need another helping?”
I learned a couple of years ago that it’s not a good idea to refrain from eating ahead of a big meal. Apparently, doing so only causes your stomach to shrink and makes you feel full faster. Despite this knowledge, I rarely have more than a snack on the day of a holiday gathering. Instead, I stubbornly shove my distended stomach through crowds to get those coveted second and third plates — and, eventually, dessert.
Usually, my well-meaning Southern Grandma has perched herself in a corner where she has a full view of the room, making it easy for her to weigh in on everyone’s activities.
As I sneak by on my way to the kitchen, she will clear her throat pointedly. “Honey, you know you’re supposed to wait 20 minutes after your first helping? You have to give your stomach time to tell your brain that it’s full.”
Thanks to retirement, my grandmother is now caught up on all 5,618 health documentaries currently streaming on Netflix.
Over the years I’ve learned that older relatives don’t actually need you to be in front of them to lecture you. If you just agree and back away slowly, they are perfectly happy to lecture your retreating form. Speak in terms they understand and reassure them that you’re just popping into the kitchen for a ginger ale to settle your stomach. Throw in an insincere, “Thanks for the tip, Grandma!” for good measure as you duck from their view and slyly spoon another helping of collard greens onto your plate.
3. “When are you going to settle down?”
This will be my partner’s second time attending Christmas dinner with me. Last year, they were polite. This year, amid rumors that we plan to co-habitate soon, I expect the gloves to be off.
No one outside of a lawyer would dream of asking an engaged couple whether they have prepared for divorce, but every religious family member turns into a fatalist when you mention moving in with your partner. Never mind the fact that plenty of people co-habitate indefinitely without marriage as a goal.
Suddenly my reproductive organs are reduced to dairy, my boyfriend a poor migrant farmer. “Well, why would he ever want to marry you if he’s getting the milk for free?”
To which I’ll reply, “We’re lactose intolerant.”
4. “How come you don’t have any games on your phone?”
For some reason, kids like me. I think it’s because I treat them like real people and don’t talk to them in annoying high-pitched tones.
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that the age of children who ask to play with my phone has declined in direct correlation to an increase in these demands. What is it with kids asking the same question over and over despite getting the same response? Did I just define insanity?
I used to just hand my phone over, confident that they wouldn’t know how to navigate it and would quickly find themselves bored. I stopped that immediately when I saw my cousin Kingston effortlessly unlock his parent’s iPad at just 2 years old.
My new life hack is to lie and say that I don’t have any games on my phone. Then I tell them to do what I did before there were smartphones: use their imaginations.
5. “How come we don’t see you more often?”
Despite my complaints, I actually do get along with my family fairly well. We have differing opinions and beliefs, but for the most part we respect each other’s viewpoints. I have a large family — usually an average of 30 to 40 people show up for our holiday gatherings, and throughout the evenings we play different games to encourage mingling. On Christmas we all give money to a needy family rather than exchanging gifts. These activities, and even the long-winded prayer before our meals, usually leave me feeling pretty warm and fuzzy by the end of the evening.
I can also count on someone pointing out the fact that despite my close proximity (I live in Los Angeles and my family resides in Riverside, which is about an hour’s drive east), I rarely come and visit. I usually tell them that “I’m just so busy these days!” but the truth is that L.A. is just a lot more fun.
And if I’m honest, the reason I’m on such good terms with my family is precisely because I don’t visit often. I can grin my way through well-meaning yet intrusive advice a couple times a year, but I’m pretty sure I’d stab myself in the ear if I had to sit through my grandma’s “Have you found a good church up there yet?” speech more often.
For now, my excuse works, and since my weekends are typically booked solid with brunches, hikes and lazy Netflix evenings with my partner, it’s not necessarily untrue!
Maybe you’re wondering where the question about the 2016 election is, or how to deal with racist/xenophobic/ableist/sexist/misogynist relatives who were hoping for a Trump presidency. Thankfully, this isn’t a problem in my predominantly African American family that hails from the deep South. I can only offer you the advice I’ve applied to casual acquaintances who’ve shown public support for that crumpled, discolored plastic bag who’s now our President-elect: skip dinner and never speak to them again.
Okay, maybe that’s dramatic. Make sure you wrap up a to-go plate on your way out.
Danielle Dorsey is a pansexual, kink-positive Black womyn who is native to Southern California and currently resides in Los Angeles. She is passionate about lending her voice to support worthwhile causes, and is the founder/organizer of Free the Nipple Yoga, a monthly womyn’s workshop that promotes body positivity and empowerment. Danielle is a regular contributor to The Africa Channel and Matador Network, and you can find her personal blog at DanielleDorky.com.