There’s a quote that is attributed to the American spiritual teacher Ram Dass that goes, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” Even the most self-sufficient, self-actualized adults have a habit of slipping back into their childhood selves when faced with an onslaught of relatives and their expectations—somehow your family expects you to still be that rebellious 12-year-old who didn’t do her chores—and somehow you feel exactly like that again.
If you are a new or expectant parent, expectations and attitudes increase tenfold—everyone wants to know your most intimate business and tell you what to do. Family traditions and superstitions collide with unsolicited medical advice to raise any anxiety you may have to a whole new level. There’s no doubt about it; as much as we love our families, going home for the holidays can be an emotional minefield. To help pregnant women, their partners and new parents (biological or adoptive) face the tinsel-infused madness, we’ll look at the conversations that cause so much trouble when we go home for the holidays.
Family conversation: Your birth order determines who you are.
This can be a tough one. If you’re the oldest child or the oldest child of your gender, your family’s expectations might be very different from your younger siblings. Oldest children are expected to be responsible and high achievers, middle children are often the peacemakers and youngest children may be looked upon as the irresponsible rebel. But now that you’re adults, those identities might chafe because you’ve worked so hard to grow beyond that.
Solution: Get to know your siblings.
Rather than slipping into the same worn-out roles, take the time to really check in with your siblings and then talk up their accomplishments to other family members. Reminding Aunt Doris that your little brother no longer cuts school to go skateboarding, but now is studying for his MBA, starts an entirely new way of looking at all of you.
Family conversation: The women in our family have difficult deliveries.
From time immemorial women have shared their childbirth experiences, the more difficult the experience, the more some women seem to relish the retelling. If you’re a first-time mother, the story of what might have been a normal birth can sound like a horror tale, especially if the storyteller has a hidden agenda.
Solution: Play detective and consider the source.
Unless your relatives are medical professionals, giving birth doesn’t make them childbirth experts. There are so many variables during delivery and the perspective and attitude of the mother has to be taken into account. Even families where certain physical traits are inherited—morning sickness, small body size, irregular cycles, etc. — improvements in delivery methods are happening all the time. Biology isn’t necessarily destiny.
Family conversation: You’re going to get back all the trouble you gave us when you were younger.
Wow. This is a stinging conversation-starter—and ender. Often these unhelpful comments come from a place of inadequacy – or even pain – where a family member felt slighted, offended, or even hurt by something you did when you were younger.
Solution: Realize you don’t have to repeat old patterns.
While it is true that some behaviours can be passed down through the generations, it is equally true that they can be stopped in their tracks. In fact, during pregnancy, our thoughts often turn to how we might create a different family life for our children. Old family patterns don’t have to carry on. With some reflection about what you want to change and discussion with your partner about strategies to accomplish that change, you are well on your way to breaking unhealthy generational patterns.
Find out how you can take control of your thoughts during gatherings at holidays here.
Bottom line: When thinking about family conversations in general, sometimes the most helpful strategy is to think about what’s “under” the comment. These comments are frequently unplanned and off-the-cuff, but there is often an undercurrent of meaning that is hidden. Most often, it’s something that’s been internalized by the person and represents an area that is still inflamed. Seeing behind the hurtful or distressing comment to see that it often comes from a place of pain or rawness for the other person can take the immediate sting out of the comment.