Holiday hurdles: Families navigate COVID fears, tense political times

Metro families trying to figure out Thanksgiving plans with ongoing pandemic
Metro families trying to figure out Thanksgiving plans with ongoing pandemic

Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want” painting — venerated as an iconic representation of family love and unity at the Thanksgiving/Christmas table — represents the dominant cultural sensibilities of its time. The family patriarch smiles beatifically as his wife places a steaming ready-to-be-carved turkey in front of him. Other family members cheerfully banter around a table covered in white linen and formal place settings.

The painting first appeared in a 1943 edition of The Saturday Evening Post.

Fast-forward to 2020 and that idealized picture has shattered — with many families fracturing under the stress of pandemic, politics and protests. Add widespread unemployment and the pressure of supervising virtual learning and today’s holiday scene is more likely to feature raised voices, sniping, slammed doors and squealing tires.

'Freedom from Want' - Oil on canvas from the book The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge. Saturday Evening Post 1943.
'Freedom from Want' - Oil on canvas from the book The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge. Saturday Evening Post 1943.

Credit: SEE CAPTION

Credit: SEE CAPTION

Therapists and experts in family dynamics are quick to point out the holidays can be a rough go under normal circumstances with dashed expectations surrounding gatherings and seasonal affective disorder playing roles.

“My dad and stepmom won’t be coming to Thanksgiving dinner,” says Angelika Taylor, a real estate agent in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood. With COVID-19, “His concerns are that he doesn’t know where people have been. It’s hard to swallow but I get it.”

But it’s the other side of the coin — her relationship with her mom and stepdad — that is fraught with discord. Taylor says her and her elders' political views are widely divergent and that “honestly, I’ve not been talking to them.” She said the divide first surfaced at a Thanksgiving dinner shortly after President Donald Trump’s 2016 election. She said that she couldn’t believe Trump had been elected. They responded with criticism of Hilary Clinton. The dinner went downhill.

Voters lined up to vote at Park Tavern in Atlanta on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Voters lined up to vote at Park Tavern in Atlanta on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

She recalls that “they (mom and stepdad) just shut down the rest of the time. They were whispering. The hugs were not as tight as they might have been.”

Taylor laments the fault lines that have developed and says she’s battled depression as a result, but seems somehow resigned.

“If my family is so divided, what the hell do we have in common anymore? We’re so different,” she said, her voice rising.

Then there’s handling virtual learning with her 8-year-old son, who tearfully wants nothing more but to return to a live classroom.

Her brood is far from the only one grappling with a wide chasm.

“My wife Leah is involved with Black Lives Matter and has become a member of the NAACP,” says Jordan Roberts, a metro Atlanta engineer. “That started very soon after the trio of events with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the woman in Central Park.” In that May incident, a white woman was found to have called the police and falsely accused a Black birdwatcher of threatening her and her dog after he asked her to leash her dog, as required by park rules.

Jordan Roberts of metro Atlanta says he and his wife, who has become involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, did not extend a Thanksgiving invitation this year to his wife's conservative parents.
Jordan Roberts of metro Atlanta says he and his wife, who has become involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, did not extend a Thanksgiving invitation this year to his wife's conservative parents.

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Roberts says that with him and his wife progressive, and her parents staking out conservative territory, the younger couple decided not to extend a Thanksgiving invite to them or anyone else.

“There is a lot of discomfort with my wife in that she might not be able to tolerate much around her parents,” is how Roberts put it. “There are just too many raw feelings,” he says.

Pundits decry a nation that’s divided and bitter about social and political factors plus a tendency to hunker down with those of similar ethnicity, party affiliation and socioeconomic status. Anger bubbles just below the surface, and they point out that the least disagreement can spark an eruption.

That’s cast against a background of families grappling with how to stay safe and still connect for the holidays, and how and whether to talk about issues. Zoom or in-person? If it’s a live get-together, is quarantine or advance COVID testing called for? Can we agree on social distancing and general safety measures? And how to handle that anti-masker who wants to stand on what he or she believes to be constitutional rights?

Metro Atlanta families weighing holiday plans in early November seemed, not surprisingly, divided, but with a tendency to limit travel. Both avoidance and engagement were cited along with a third option of tiptoeing around subjects.

ExploreDivided Georgians resort to tiptoeing, avoidance, unfriending

Dr. Adam Albrite, an Atlanta family therapist and relationship coach, says one concern coming up frequently with his clients is how to talk about such boundaries.

He recommends avoiding that term, calling it a loaded word that can create a barrier but says “it’s healthy to practice engaging in tough conversations. They foster resilience. And if they occur with loved ones with a secure connection, they can co-regulate our emotions.”

He’s quick to caution against expectations that lines of reasoning, facts and statistics will change minds. Conversely, Albrite says it’s smart to prepare for surprise, anger and sadness before a dinner or opening the presents commences.

Adam Albrite, an Atlanta family therapist and relationship coach, recommends families have tough conversations, which he says can foster resilience.
Adam Albrite, an Atlanta family therapist and relationship coach, recommends families have tough conversations, which he says can foster resilience.

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

If masking or safety measures are an issue, he says “much of the time I will ask who is the center in a family and many times it can be a grandparent because of our culture and a lot of affection and reverence being given to an elder. That’s the person to speak to first.”

The safety debate is poised to radically alter her holiday season as well, said Patricia McCarthy, a Fulton County businesswoman, “because my husband lives in complete fear. He’s only been out a handful of times due to the pandemic. In other words, he drank way too much Kool-Aid. I am the opposite.”

Like Roberts and Taylor, she’s felt the sting when discussions have turned political. Unlike the other two, she’s a staunch conservative. And she thinks her viewpoints have been marginalized.

Nurse Kellie Kinard of the Jackson Nurse Professionals performs a COVID-19 test on a patient at a DeKalb County Board of Health drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in the parking lot of a closed K-Mart in Doraville, Thursday, August 27, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic is one of the key topics family disagree over, counselors say. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Nurse Kellie Kinard of the Jackson Nurse Professionals performs a COVID-19 test on a patient at a DeKalb County Board of Health drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in the parking lot of a closed K-Mart in Doraville, Thursday, August 27, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic is one of the key topics family disagree over, counselors say. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

McCarthy was at a summer family gathering at a lake home, and half the family dined outside, the other half in. She said her attempt to present her take on appropriate approaches to COVID was silenced.

In her view, “half the family is like me and half are more liberal. The people who are more progressive are more vocal. If you’re conservative, you don’t have a voice in this family.”

She says the upshot has been a sense of paralysis and the lack of a get-together plan for the holidays.

Deirdre Greenfield, an Atlanta real estate agent and downtown resident, says her family has settled on a more firmed-up approach in planning a Zoom gathering that could draw as many as 100 people.

“With a family of seven siblings and all the nieces and nephews, we have set ground rules because there are so many of us. We’ll start off with the firstborn and then progress to the lastborn. If you don’t have some structure, it can get messy.”

Greenfield says that her family is all over the political/social spectrum, and following heated email exchanges earlier this year, they’ve focusing on disagreement without rancor.

ExploreHow to host a virtual Thanksgiving dinner

Keeping a sense of humor helps, Greenfield says.

“Sometimes we joke a lot as to what’s going on, so that can ease the tension a little bit. We try to be cognizant of what we’re saying and how we’re saying it.”

While some families embrace freewheeling dialogue, others avoid it like the proverbial plague.

Raeda Anderson is a research scientist who studies family dynamics as they relate to disabilities at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center rehabilitation hospital. Put her down in the freewheeling column.

Research scientist Raeda Anderson says her family has open conversations despite their different political views.
Research scientist Raeda Anderson says her family has open conversations despite their different political views.

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

“My family and I have drastically different political views ... and we have a deep respect for open conversation. It’s actually encouraged to talk about it. But you have to separate the person from the idea,” she says.

Anderson said a generalized approach comes down to deciding what you’re comfortable with and being prepared to skip an event or walk away from a fractious moment in the interest of harmony. Each of us, she says, has to decide whether a dialogue is worthwhile.

Northside corporate troubleshooter Sara Butler said that matches her plans — a smaller-than-usual gathering for Thanksgiving at a friend’s place, then camping out at home at Christmastime. She says instead of tackling tough issues and personal struggles, her family prefers to talk about matters such as the weather and plans for the upcoming year.

"If I start to introduce a topic into the conversation, I get diverted to something else, or ignored or an argument has happened. I feel like I’m sacrificing a deep conversation with my family in order to have peaceful relationships. I’ll have to get those needs met elsewhere, " she says.

Jeanette Nolan-D’Amico of Woodstock wasn’t about to be diverted from an uncomfortable moment. The retiree recounts how not walking away from a tense holiday moment produced a needed result.

She recalls a long-ago holiday gathering — the first she spent with her husband and his family.

A protester holds two signs during a protest on the square over the recent Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, held Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. Social justice debates could be part of many holiday discussions this year, family therapists say. JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
A protester holds two signs during a protest on the square over the recent Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, held Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. Social justice debates could be part of many holiday discussions this year, family therapists say. JOHN AMIS FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

“We lined up all of his people and were taking a picture when a grandson used (a racial slur) in a joking matter. I stopped everything and pulled him aside and told them that I was in this family too and would not tolerate this kind of talk.”

She says other relatives approached the two looking to intervene, but she shooed them away and kept the conversation one-on-one.

The result?

“I have never been in his presence where he used that word again,” she says emphatically.

Even families who profess uniformity on an issue — police shootings, for example — can agree on the what, while diverging on the how and why.

In Marietta, accountant Lisa Walker says that her two children in college favor making signs and marching on campus in a vocal display of support for Black Lives Matter.

Lisa Walker, bottom row middle, says her four children support police reform and racial justice in different ways.
Lisa Walker, bottom row middle, says her four children support police reform and racial justice in different ways.

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

“The (other) older two are like ‘I’m going to vote and then I’m going to work (being less activist and more service-minded).’ We’re all on the same side, it’s just how to accomplish that.”

While such holiday plans as a joint trip to cut down the Christmas tree — followed by games and mimosas — have gone by the wayside, Walker says she’s been convinced to continue the family’s traditional Christmas breakfast.

Mental health practitioners say taking a measured approach to awkward moments that develop can be helpful. Don’t be afraid to have a backup plan for the evening. Taking one’s own car and having the freedom to leave could be valuable.

If conversations drift to flashpoint topics, said Georgia State sociology professor Katie Acosta, a potential mitigator can be as simple as shaping conversation to personalize perspective “so rather than saying ‘I think Trump is an idiot’ or ‘Biden isn’t going to do anything,’ you can say ‘this person’s language is hurtful to me’ in some way.”

Sharing personal experiences is another tactic to consider, she says. Climate change is an example. Starting out a conversation on that topic by relating how a friend was impacted by Western wildfires might provide a suitable entry.

Georgia State sociology professor Katie Acosta recommends shifting difficult conversations to personalize perspective. She attributes many of our societal conflicts to a failure to listen.
Georgia State sociology professor Katie Acosta recommends shifting difficult conversations to personalize perspective. She attributes many of our societal conflicts to a failure to listen.

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Acosta ascribes a great deal of the tension — family or no — to the failure to listen, particularly from a position of trust. As a result, she says, people are scared and behaving in destructive ways.

She says that makes the family uniquely important in breaking down barriers and achieving understanding.

As she puts it, “even if that uncle knows he won’t agree with your positions on anything, somehow he knows that you’re not out to get him. You as someone who has grown up around him are uniquely positioned because some of those walls are not present.”

Anderson agrees. “The truth is almost everybody is struggling right now. The holidays are hard anyway. People really need to be supportive of each other.”

In Other News