Dear Pepper is a monthly advice-column comic by Liana Finck. If you have questions for Pepper about how to act in difficult situations, please direct them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions may be edited for brevity and clarity.
My aunt Kiki and uncle Herb are very into hosting. This isn’t to say that their parties are particularly fun. (Nor are they awful.) It is only to say that they are obligatory.
Kiki and Herb throw several unnecessary parties each year, on top of all the other events—Rosh Hashanah, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Passover, Mother’s Day, and an annual family reunion—for which my family gathers. They host surprise parties, sweet sixteens, graduation parties, and white-elephant gift exchanges—everything catered and decorated to the nines. (There are themes.) It’s . . . a lot.
I like my large family, and it’s important to me to see and speak to everyone regularly. But the power balance seems off when Uncle Herb calls me to sniff out whether I’ll be in Cherry Hill (which is more than two hours from where I live, in Brooklyn) for the Memorial Day barbecue (which also happens to be Cousin Steven’s thirtieth!), and nearly spits at me when I ️say, “I want to, but I’m not sure that I can make it this time.”
The rest of the family bows to Kiki and Herb’s insistence. “Why rock the boat?” could be my family motto. If anyone sympathizes with my indignation, they still think that I️ should suck it up and go.
How important is it not to hurt Kiki and Herb’s feelings? Do I️ really need to go to everything?
P.S. All names in this letter have been changed.
Here are the important things: that you make an effort—in whatever way feels natural—to keep your family in your life. And that you act graciously. And that you are true to yourself.
Here are the things that are not important: that you go to Cherry Hill on Memorial Day. And that no one’s feelings are ever even the slightest bit hurt.
Kiki and Herb clearly aren’t familiar with the phrase “you can’t dance at every wedding,” but it’s true. You can’t.
Things might be very uncomfortable in the moment, but ultimately it will be good for your relationships with your family members if you do lovingly set some boundaries. It will teach you that they will still love you even if you don’t follow all their rules. And they will have the opportunity to see you for who you are. It’s up to them to take that opportunity to understand you better, but at least you’ll have offered it.
At the same time, “Doug,” it sounds like throwing parties is something of a—I️ can’t believe I’m about to use this term—“love language” for your aunt and uncle. Understanding that might help you receive their invitations with sweetness and gratitude, whether or not you decide to go.