Those In Poverty: You Aren’t Responsible For Making Your Family Comfortable
Right now, millions of people are dreading their extended family holiday get-togethers.
These people don’t hate their families, they aren’t anxious, crappy gift-givers, and they aren’t planning to reveal something their conservative relatives will flip over. They’re poor and their families don’t know.
I lived this impossible, frustrating scenario for a decade. I wasn’t hiding because I was embarrassed or afraid; I hid the full reality of my financial situation because I didn’t want my family to be uncomfortable around me. And people are really, REALLY uncomfortable around poor people. Like, “Where do I put my hands?” level uncomfortable. Since I began writing and talking about my poverty situation and how long it’s been going on, I’ve had family and friends from home delete me from their Facebook lists and stop calling. The intense discomfort is real — and can disastrously affect family dynamics.
Poor people are acutely aware of how others feel around them. The glances, the stopped conversations, the avoidance, the lack of invitations to basically everything. No one wants to feel that around their family — whether they’re particularly close to aunts, uncles and cousins or not — or be the focal point of a political discussion turned shouting match between the left and right sides of the dinner table. And most of us don’t want our loved ones to feel uncomfortable. So we do the additional emotional labor of hiding to maintain illusions.
By the time we’ve survived the holidays, many of us are exhausted.
So what can those of us who are #HolidayBroke do to navigate this seemingly impossible situation?
First, let yourself off the hook.
If it helps to know you’re not alone, then get this: there are 46.7 million Americans living in poverty. And that’s according to the federal formula where your income has to be below $11,770 as a single person, $15,930 as a pair, and $24,250 as a family of four under one roof. We all know that even doubling those numbers doesn’t exactly bring you above the “broke as hell” threshold. With almost half the country making less than $15/hour, #HolidayBroke is a massive phenomenon.
Those numbers are enraging — and they should also be a path to reducing self-blame. It very likely isn’t you; it’s our crap system that’s designed to make a small group very rich, an increasingly smaller group comfortable enough to get by, and a far-too-large group of us barely surviving. You should definitely be mad as hell about this — with the anger directed outwards. Self-blame is unproductive at best and paralyzing at worst. From a purely practical perspective, most of us poor folks simply don’t have time to be unproductive, so consider refocusing the fury.
Second, let your family off the hook.
Being mad that no one has figured out you’re in a tough spot (at the very least) and no one cares enough to really ask how you’re really doing is exhausting all by itself. I’m not going to tell anyone that something shouldn’t bother them, but that’s different than stoking a grudge that makes you feel worse and your holidays even harder. This is also different than demanding someone forgive a relative for past treatment — you don’t owe anyone forgiveness. This change in approach is about shrinking the knot in your stomach so you can make it through the next two weeks.
You definitely have every reason to find your family’s refusal to see what’s right in front of them grating. The signs are all there: you frequently have to miss family events because of work; you always pivot when asked about your job or pretend you only have one of them; you’ve worn the same shoes the past six years; and you look exhausted on a level that concealer under your eyes can’t cover. But your family never notices.
Here’s the thing: despite the constant griping about the economy and “I’m so broke” complaining competitions at everyone’s water cooler and after-work cocktail hours, most people don’t think they know anyone who’s poor. Seriously.
Polling done to determine how voters felt about President Clinton’s disastrous “welfare reform” legislation found that 50% of Americans are sure that none of their close friends are poor and 63% of Americans think there are no poor people in their immediate or near extended family (aunts, uncles, first cousins, grandparents). Despite the percentage of Americans who are food insecure at any given time never dropping below 11% (35 million people), a mind-blowing 76% of Americans are sure they don’t know anyone who might go hungry next week.
That’s more than just privilege; that’s some serious commitment to our culture of denial.
The stat that gets me was reading that 65% of Americans don’t even think they know someone who’s been late on a bill. I know we live in the era of auto-pay, but come on — REALLY? As much as I want to shake people and demand they both be honest and look around FFS, appreciating the depth of the denial and understanding that it’s not specifically about me or some unique flaw in my family made it easier not to be actively angry.
Your family failing to notice your situation is part of the larger societal effort to keep the poor invisible. It’s not fine that they’re in the majority participating in maintaining the stigma and silence, but they aren’t doing it because they don’t love you. We have a lot of work to do and if you’re comfortable being honest with your family (a decision that also has a lot of emotional labor attached to it) that is absolutely a contribution you can make to the effort. But shit is hard enough for poor folks, so I’m not going to demand you stand up and storm out in protest during the holiday gift exchange as you scream about the evils of capitalism. (If you do that, however, PLEASE VIDEO TAPE IT and share at #HolidayBroke.)
Third, suggest group gift exchanges.
If you’re in a family that gives individual gifts to everyone from everyone every year, you have a special kind of holiday stress. Luckily, nearly everyone hates having to do this much shopping, especially for the people they don’t know very well or who are awkward gift-givers in return. Every family has someone famously bad at gift-giving; my Grandma K took the cake in my family — the fruitcake, to be exact.
Use the common disdain for dealing with crowds, spending so much money (even those who have it hate that), hauling around a pile of wrapped presents, and shopping for impossible-to-buy-for relatives to suggest an alternative: the group gift exchange.
There are a number of ways to set this up, but the easiest is just to set a dollar value and have everybody buy and bring one wrapped gift. Then, everybody draws a number to make it fair and you start picking packages in order. Extra bonus: if you have a family that welcomes significant others, they can easily participate without knowing anyone and can jump in last minute because the number of gifts will always work out evenly.
Making this suggestion can make you everyone’s favorite, and for at least a year or two they’ll be talking to you about innovative gift exchanges instead of the topics that cause you indigestion for the week before you all congregate.
Fourth, remember you’re allowed to be a private person, even with family.
As kids, we all heard things like:
“Don’t ask Uncle Albert about why he limps; he doesn’t like to talk about the war.”
“Asking about her first marriage really upsets Aunt Mary.”
“Try to be patient while grandma tells that story about how she was going to be a famous ballet dancer. I know you’ve heard it before, but it makes her happy.”
Make this the year you enter into the time-honored tradition of being the family member with “a thing.” Every family has colorful characters and those folks get to avoid all the hard conversations. This will not be easy for everyone; remember, these are just suggestions and there are others on the #HolidayBroke thread.
Until you’re not part of the “cousin generation” — AKA the youngsters — it can be hard to think of yourself as a grown-up in the confines of the family dynamic. Well, guess what: you’re an adult now! This means you’re allowed to have things you don’t want to talk about just like every other person on the planet. You don’t owe anyone — not even family — explanations you don’t want to give or time discussing topics that you find frustrating or tedious.
The pivot is a time-honored tradition in politics and it has particular value here. Say it with me: “Sigh. Work is really frustrating right now; is it cool if we talk about something else? Tell me about x/y/z.” And then pivot to something about that relative (or an adjacent relative or their kid). Most people don’t want to hear people complain and everyone likes to talk about themselves, so the exasperated sigh/pivot move works almost every time. If all else fails, say you’re dying for another piece of pie, stand up, and ask the persistent relative if you can get them anything from the kitchen.
I recommend scanning family Facebook pages to find something each one of them is clearly desperate to be asked about. These things don’t have to be meaningful and in this era of phone-hand attachment, you can totally get away with having a list in your pocket to glance at subtly when you need a pivot topic.
I know it’s weird to see someone who talks endlessly about how story sharing breaks stigma down advocate for avoidance. But it’s the holidays. You and everyone else deserve a damn break. And some pie. Maybe lots of pie.
You can go back to being a culture change warrior after New Year’s. For the next two weeks, give yourself the gift of stress and anxiety-relief — you’ve earned it.