Don't get me wrong: I love my family. I just hate spending Thanksgiving with them.
I'm relieved to learn I'm not alone. A recent survey conducted by the travel Web site Expedia.com found that 60 percent of Americans believe they need a vacation after a holiday family visit. Ten percent said they'd rather eat a fruitcake than spend a week with their in-laws.
So why are we getting on a crowded plane two days before Thanksgiving, bringing along the makings for New England clam chowder in a Styrofoam cooler? My husband Andy has asked me that question at least six times. He'd prefer to stay home, run in the local Turkey Trot race and, not incidentally, save the money.
Of course, it's not his family. We're going for the same reason so many of you -- about 37 million, according to AAA -- will be bucking traffic and negotiating airport security, traveling 50 miles or more from home. We're going to reconnect with the relatives, sharing the same Thanksgiving dishes we prepare every year. (Doesn't anyone ever get tired of creamed onions?) We want the kids to spend time with their cousins and aunts and uncles -- whether they want to or not.
Some of us will bring new babies, new fiances or spouses, wearing happiness like a badge. Others grappling with a recent death, divorce or lost job will struggle to put up a brave front. We'll laugh and we'll fight. We'll eat and drink too much.
At least 80 percent of us will drive, renting a car if necessary. "It will be easier with the baby than dealing with the airport," says my cousin, Jayme Sitzman, who plans to drive from Denver to Las Vegas to join the family. Maybe it's a sign of how much times have changed that new parents would rather drive with an infant for 10-plus hours than navigate a busy airport.
It's also probably a sign of these troubled times that so many of us believe it's important to make the time-consuming and often emotionally taxing trek to see family rather than take off to Disney World, get in some early-season skiing or grab some of those incredibly cheap fares to London. Thanksgiving week remains a popular time for busy families to grab some R&R together, but this year a lot of us want to spend less money. I think there's a deeper need that's pulling us homeward: We all long for those simpler times when family gatherings reassured us that our world was an OK place.
Too bad the holiday doesn't always play out like a Jimmy Stewart movie or a Norman Rockwell painting.
"You may be a successful adult, and all of a sudden you're a middle child again, or the child who never lived up to a parent's hopes and expectations," says David Fassler, a Vermont child and adolescent psychiatrist who teaches at the University of Vermont Medical School.
Just the anticipation of a family visit can be stressful. That's why so many of us get grouchy in the weeks beforehand, Fassler says.
Then there's the trip itself: the kids wild from too much sugar and too little sleep, the well-meaning aunt offering misguided child-rearing advice, the teens sulking because they miss their friends, and the sisters in law, fueled by too much wine, saying things they invariably will regret.
We've all been there. I've walked through the airport the Sunday after Thanksgiving muttering, "Never again." My kids usually laugh. They know I don't mean it.
Luckily I've discovered that it is possible to stay calm -- and to maybe even have a good time -- without staying home and risking a family brouhaha. It always helps if you can get away from the gang for a while, despite the possibility that your family, like mine, may complain you're not helping enough. Too bad. Make plans to visit the old friend who lives nearby, take a walk, go shopping or go to a local health club.
"Avoid situations where you will feel trapped, like being in the suburbs without a car," recommends Fassler.
Get the kids out of the fray, too. Go to a playground, a movie, or a nearby children's museum or science center. (For directories, visit the Web site of the Association for Children's Museums at www.childrensmuseums.org, or the Association of Science-Technology Centers at www.astc.org.)
If you can afford it, spring for a hotel rather than bunk at your brother-in-law's house. There are lots of deals to choose from. Homewood Suites by Hilton, for example, offers rates starting as low as $69 that include breakfast for the gang and coupons good for free movie videos. (Call 800-225-5466 or visit www.homewoodsuites.com.) If you spend two nights at a Hyatt Resort, you get a third night free, as well as $100 to spend on resort activities. Rates start at $149. (Call 800-233-1234 or visit www.hyatt.com.) The cousins will work off some energy in the hotel pool Even better, you won't have to share a bathroom with five relatives.
Pass the cranberry sauce.
Contact Eileen Ogintz at email@example.com.