I Hate Thanksgiving

Gendered expectations at home and in higher education. 

October 29, 2014

Canadian Thanksgiving, which takes place around the same time as Columbus Day here in the United States, has come and gone. I had many friends on social media ask me if I felt particularly nostalgia or had pangs of homesickness during that particular time, and it dawned on me: I really, really, really hate Thanksgiving.


The same could be said, potentially, for any holiday that involved the family getting together for a more formal dinner, but other holidays always seemed to have something else going for it: Christmas meant presents, Easter meant chocolate (as you can tell, we weren’t a particularly religious family), but Thanksgiving…there was none of the upside and all of the downside that came with a formal family dining event.


It wasn’t always like that. When I was younger, myself, my brother, and our cousins (four cousins in four years) were sent to the basement, out of the way, to play, hang out, or watch cartoons. We eventually ate downstairs at the kids’ table. I was the oldest cousin and couldn’t wait to graduate to the adult table upstairs.


Of course, when I was old enough, it was decided that everyone was old enough, but that really wasn’t the worst of it. I should have clung to that kids’ table for dear life.


It started with the gendered expectations. The women were expected to do the preparation and the cooking and the table setting and the drink serving. The men got to watch sports. I am hopeless in the kitchen. I don’t like cooking, and I was awkward so I would get in the way, get yelled at, shamed, and then sent away, which is really what I wanted anyway, because I loved sports and didn’t understand why I couldn’t watch sports with the guys. I couldn’t really enjoy the sports because I would get snarky comments from my mother about not being helpful enough and how great my cousin was and constantly called back upstairs only for the cycle to repeat itself.


Then came dinner. I love turkey. Turkey dinners were my favorite. I loved all of it: the turkey, the stuffing, the squash my mother made with a ton of butter and brown sugar, all of it. Except I wasn’t allowed to enjoy it without passive-aggressive comments about my weight. Are you sure you need another serving? Haven’t you had enough? Maybe you shouldn’t eat so fast. After all that you still want dessert? I would defiantly stuff myself even more, knowing I would regret it later, but it didn’t matter. If I kept stuffing food in my mouth, I wouldn’t cry.


Who was at the dinner table was also an issue that was full of loaded, awkward silences and passive-aggressive digs. Outsiders, particularly male, were not welcome at the table, and when our families broke up and then were remade, the new people involved were never really made to feel welcome, and then as a result, they made sure that they, in turn, threw that slight right back by being…well, let’s just say difficult.


And there was no way to get out of it, either. No invite from a boyfriend’s or friend’s family, no assignment deadline, no inclement weather, nothing could excuse your absence from the dinner. I wasn’t until I moved far, far away where plane tickets were too expensive that I finally escaped it. We couldn’t invite friends or significant others (and if and when we did…).


Mercifully, the dinner always ended (although the gendered expectations were ramped up again with clean-up and dishes). The car ride home, while not far, was always tense, and either that night or the next morning, I would always get a put-upon lecture asking me to try harder and stop being so difficult with reminders such as we’re family and we love you and you know we’re going to be doing this a lot over the next few months. Thanksgiving kicked off a season of family dinners taking place every two weeks because of birthdays and other holidays. Thanksgiving, then, was the beginning of the cycle; Christmas was when it was all finally over.


Higher education, at times, has felt to me too much like Thanksgiving dinner at my house.  I write about this experience because I think that our expectations around the behavior of the genders starts at these formative events, that women are expected to serve, to behave, to regulate, to restrict, and to monitor. It has made me sensitive to eyes being on me when volunteers are asked to serve. But it has also made me personally vow to not be that way in my own personal and professional life. I want to create spaces where people are included, not excluded, and where individual interests and talents are honored.


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