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Heffner column: Not home for the holidays

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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Redwood Falls Gazette

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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Every year at Thanksgiving I have written something called “Home for the Holidays,” about the emotions that are stirred by family reunions at holidays. Undoubtedly, the gathering of an extended family including numerous generations, siblings, their offspring and others, has the potential for conflict as well as joy. But this year, the pandemic has changed the nature of the emotions and of the conflict, to the question of whether such reunions should take place at all.

Numerous stories have been told in newspapers and on TV of parents’ sadness at having to advise their college children not to risk the travel involved in coming home for the holiday. On the other hand, the children themselves have told of the hurdles they have met involving testing and quarantine in order to go home for the holiday. Stories have also cited the cancellation of annual family gatherings due to concern about COVID.

Why are some holidays in particular so fraught with emotion? We all have memories of what these holidays were like when we were children. For our children away at school or elsewhere, a certain homesickness may come to the fore, a wish for remembered pleasures as younger children. A sense of loss may come from the wish, or hope that we will be recreating everything as it was in the best sense, without having to discover that our fantasy is not - and cannot - be realized.

The holidays may at times make us feel as though we are back in our former roles. As children we were the ones being given to and taken care of; now we are expected to be grown-ups while perhaps still wanting the remembered pleasures of childhood.

For some of us, our own parents may now need that care, yet they may still expect to tell us what to do and how to do it. At past gatherings, old rivalries with siblings may have unexpectedly reasserted themselves, perhaps at times played out as competition about our children; the next generation knowingly or unknowingly repeating unresolved tensions between their parents.

In the new season of “The Crown” now streaming, one episode called “Favorites,” has the Queen meeting with each of her children individually in an effort to prove to herself that she does not have a favorite. She is distressed to realize that her children and their lives are not as she had imagined them and she faults herself as a mother.

Mothers tend to blame themselves for problems confronting their children, but here she is reassured by her husband that she is a good mother and that the children are each facing their own realities, which they will have to figure out for themselves.

Family stories and emotions have a way of living on even when disconnected from present reality and often are revived at family gatherings. Holidays tend to pull us back to old stories, which can be pleasurable to revisit if we don’t get lost in the retelling. Safety precautions limiting reunions this year may have prevented the reliving of these stories, while at the same time enhancing our memories of the stories we treasure. This may be the positive side of the loss we all feel.

Past holiday combinations of generations, siblings, our childhood memories with our adult selves, has not happened for many this year. For those fortunate to have the technology, Zoom Thanksgiving or FaceTime reunions may have been the replacement.

Someone said we are fortunate to have these new means of communication unknown not that many years ago.

Perhaps staying connected can give new meaning to the holidays.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.