When holiday overload sets in, make priorities
Q: Year after year, my mother has been saddled with hosting a large Christmas gathering, and other holiday celebrations as well.
Mom constantly complains to me that she seldom receives thanks for her effort. "Assistance" usually comes in the form of relatives showing up with items that conflict with or duplicate the menu she announced in advance. Also, nobody offers to help clean up.
Her exact words to me have been: "It's somebody else's turn."
As the only daughter, I pitch in as much as I can. I literally spend the entire day doing kitchen duty. I'd host, but I live seven hours away. My brothers' families all have large homes near my parents. None of their children is little anymore.
This year, despite the fact that my mother is 74, taking high blood pressure medication, doesn't drive, and cares for my father, who's still recovering from a stroke, it was taken for granted that she would again host Christmas dinner. I find this appalling.
I believe everyone should take turns hosting, or agree to celebrate holidays with their own families, in their own homes. Broaching the subject is difficult, however, as my relationship with my brothers is distant. What should I do?
Frustrated and Fuming
A: While it's tempting to vilify your brothers, a few other players contribute significantly to this annual drama: you, your mother and the sexist values to which you still apparently hew.
You don't refer to yourself as "the only willing helper." Instead, you self-identify as "the only daughter," and place yourself in the kitchen. Hm. Your mother puts the two of you there, too.
As for your brothers — do they decline to help because they're male? Or do they tend to your parents' needs in your non-holiday absence, and thus feel justified in shifting the burden to you?
Does your mother ever complain to anybody but you? Is martyrdom a factor here?
I can't judge without more information. I also know better than to incite family riots, especially during and over the almighty Holidays. In fact, one alternative you proffer — that her children make splintered merry at home — might upset your mother more than do the thankless toil and the redundant canned pumpkin pies.
When in doubt, find the nucleus. Your mother created this burden, and your mother can ease it. You can help by figuring out what she's after here, and at what price. For example: She wants her family together, and is willing to be exploited in return.
As long as she cares more about the goal than the price, then this Christmas drama repeats. So when she complains, ask what specific holiday outcome she'd prefer: Relocate the gathering? Go potluck? Each to his own home?
Then, ask what she is and isn't willing to give up for it. If passing the torch is her top priority, then assure her that she's entitled to announce that she's through, and make her hope clear that someone takes over. If the gathering is her top priority, then she can (finally) ask the men to volunteer — knowing they could say no, and leave her holding the torch (at which point she may re-evaluate, but, one hypothetical at a time).
Once she chooses her outcome, then you decide yours: What do you want, for what price?