In this post: How to have an open heart, let your family into your struggle, and use humor to navigate those awkward questions that seem to be at every family gathering.
Ever since I entered my early to mid-twenties, my marital and reproductive status is always commented on at family gatherings. Sometimes the questions and comments are subtle (“We really like this boyfriend”, “You have been dating for a while…”, “I’d really like to have great-grandchildren while I’m still alive”) and some are just straight up overt (“Leah, when are you getting married?”, “Leah, when are you having babies?”). My career, schooling, dating life, you name it. It’s all on the table at family gatherings. And it makes me really stressed and anxious.
Don’t get me wrong, I am OBSESSED with my family. They are the greatest, kindest, weirdest, best people. That makes me really lucky. They ask questions because they care. But even in the best of circumstances, the questions can be really annoying.
Here’s what I’ve found helpful in dealing with these tricky conversations:
Have an Open Heart
Instead of being so quick to get offended, try having an open heart. Give your family the benefit of the doubt by believing that they are not trying to be rude. What if you reframe your thinking? Maybe they are asking questions because they genuinely care about your life but don’t know how to ask the right thing. Maybe they are asking about marriage because they hope that you find a partner that loves you well. Maybe they are asking about babies because they are excited to see the family grow by one more awesome person.
Try believing the best in your family and those hard questions become a little easier to manage.
For example: When grandma asks about when you’re going to find the love of your life or when you’re going to have a baby, respond “grandma, I’m so thankful that you are invested in my future happiness” or “I’m so glad you’re curious about my life”.
I find this is the best route to go after I accept that my family is not trying to be unkind. Responding honestly lets my family into my life, into the hard places and the fears, so that I can be more authentically myself with them.
Lately, a hot topic for my family has been my recent decision to go back to school full-time. I resigned from my first job as a college admissions counselor (I loved this job and this place, it was just time to make a change), resigned from another full-time job quickly after (because I realized that I needed to invest in graduate school full-time), and then assumed the role of poor college student again. So much change, so little time. My family keeps asking me “what the heck are you doing?” and honestly, it’s a fair question.
So I tell them about my decision-making process. I explain the need to go to school full-time in order to become a counselor faster, how my mental health has gotten better by not trying to do so much. Basically, I let them in.
For Example (marriage): To keep with the marriage example (because that seems to be the most asked question at family gatherings), you can respond with an open heart and honesty like this, “grandma, thank you for being curious about my life. Honestly, I’m also wondering when I might find the right partner for me, too. I actually am sad that it hasn’t happened yet”. Or, if you’re already dating someone, “____ and I are excited about the potential of taking the next step, too! We’re just not trying to rush anything. You’ll be one of the first to know if it does happen!” Or, if you don’t want to get married, “I’m enjoying my life just as it is right now. I’m not sure that marriage is right for me at this point”.
For example (babies): Another hot topic question is when you’re going to have a baby/more babies. Try responding with “I know you are anxious to see our family grow. However, having a baby is a topic that _____ and I are keeping private for right now. It’s a big, personal decision. When we’re ready to discuss it with the family, we’ll bring it up”. If this particular topic is painful for you, say that out loud to your family. If it makes you uncomfortable, say that too in a kind way. How will your family know your feelings if you don’t tell them?
Gems, what would it look like for you to let your family in, even if it’s just a little, to those hard places? I find that when I do, my family members have been in similar spots before. They have often responded with compassion instead of judgment.
When all else fails, I make a joke. Keeping the mood light will subtly let your family know that you don’t want to discuss that particular issue without being unkind about it. My family is a rowdy bunch and we love to laugh, so jokes are usually welcome. You all have your own sense of humor and know what works in your family. Make a joke that is warm, maybe a little sassy, and you’ll find that the questions aren’t so bothersome.
For example (marriage): When grandma asks when you’re getting married, try responding with “whenever I find a man as great as grandpa” or “I’m patiently waiting for Channing Tatum to become available”. After you get your family laughing, it’s a great time to change the subject. For example, you can ask grandma how she knew that she wanted to marry grandpa, or what it was like to pick out her wedding dress. Steering the conversation away from you has a double benefit— you don’t have to talk about an uncomfortable subject and you get to learn more about the people in your family.
For example (babies): Try making a joke about how all your family members have just all silently agreed to babysit for free or laugh about how all their stories about raising you (I have been told I was quite the challenging child) have made you afraid that you’ll have a mini-me.
Gems, what technique shared here do you think would work best with your family? What questions are the trickiest for you to navigate?