Peter McGraw welcomes Kris Marsh, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, to discuss being single during the holidays – specifically Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Listen to Episode #146 here
Single During The Holidays
Welcome back, Dr. Kris Marsh.
It’s such a pleasure to be with you. I haven’t been here in a while, and I can truly say I have missed being here.
That’s very kind. We are here to talk about being single during the holidays, with the goal of having people feel heard. A lot of times when you are single during the holidays, you feel like the one person in the room who’s living a different life and more ambitiously to license people to do more of what they want to do, especially if what they want to do is different from the norm.
A member of the Slack channel, which you can sign up for at PeterMcgraw.org/solo, who’s from the UK, asked what I mean when I refer to the holidays because if you are in Europe, you go on holiday, which is going on vacation. There was some confusion. Another member of the community chimed in, and she said, “He’s referring to Thanksgiving, the last Thursday in November and Christmas.” Historically, these are the most family-oriented holidays of the year in the US. New Year’s Eve seems to be more about spending time with significant others and friends rather than family.
We are going to focus mostly on Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is a challenging time of year for people, and it’s especially challenging because of how close they are together. They are basically five weeks apart. The Canadians have it figured out because they do their Thanksgiving called Boxing Day in October so that they have more time. You are good with us focusing mostly on Thanksgiving and Christmas?
Yes. It’s funny because growing up, it felt like those holidays were so far apart as children but when you are an adult, they come so quickly, one behind the other.
They are similar. It’s about spending time at home, having big meals, sitting around, watching sports, and all these American traditions. I will start with a question for you, when did you realize that you didn’t have to do the traditional holiday thing?
I’m not so sure if I realized it or if it was superimposed on me. I was a graduate student and was like, “I can’t come home for Thanksgiving. I can’t come home for Christmas. I’ve got papers to write. I’ve got papers to do. I’m having tacos for Thanksgiving. I may be home for Christmas.” In graduate school is when I decided that I didn’t have to have the traditional idea of what Thanksgiving and Christmas mean, spending it with your family, having these big dinners, as you said, doing these very American things. In graduate school is when I started to see that I don’t have to do it the way people think that I should do a holiday.
Where were you in graduate school, and where was home at this time?
The unfortunate part is that I was at the University of Southern California, and my home was about 25 minutes away. There was a startup cost to getting up, putting clothes on, putting some hair gel on, finding some cheap gifts, and finding something to take to the family potluck. Even though it was in close proximity, there was a huge startup cost.
I was in the throes of writing my dissertation or working on a paper but I didn’t have that many hours in the day to carve out for this holiday that people seem to think is so important. My family and friends are constantly important to me. It doesn’t have to be on this day that they say I’m supposed to celebrate them or spend time with food. Every day I spend time with food and people that are important to me.
One of the things about being 25 minutes away is that you could come some other weekend when things are less burdensome.
My family didn’t always see it that way, though.
How was that received?
I get a lot of pushback. I become the artsy-fartsy daughter or cousin. “She’s doing her sociology stuff.” There is pushback from the family. When I talk about all the societal pressures, they don’t necessarily want to have that conversation like, “You are a killjoy. We have these standard ideas of what Thanksgiving and Christmas should be, and you are not going to challenge those. If you come, you have a gag order and none of that sociology stuff.”
A lot of singles do feel a little like the black sheep. As an academic, especially when I was a graduate student, people didn’t quite understand. They are like, “Don’t you go to classes and do your homework?” They didn’t understand how all-encompassing these five years of your life can be and how high the stakes are. It feels weekend is not something that you are able to sacrifice.
That’s on the graduate student side but also on the faculty side. Untenured professors have to spend a lot of time, even tenured professors have a different level of responsibility, and now you are trying to get your graduate students through the program. On a Thursday, hanging out with family and eating food is something that you may not have time to do because there are other things that you need and want to do, and family doesn’t always understand that.
It’s coincidental that my recognition also came while living in Southern California. I was 24 or might have been 25. I’m not sure. I had moved across the country from New Jersey to Santa Barbara. I was working at the university there in student affairs. I hadn’t started my true academic training. I talked about my struggles being the good little boy, the one who does all the right things. I had booked a flight back for the holidays. I had two trips back for the holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, which is a lot. This is a cross-country trip. I’m digging myself out of student loan debt. I wasn’t making a lot of money. I just had a job.
I’m almost certain it was Christmas because I went to Santa Barbara Airport. It was a small airport. There are very few flights. If I were going to get back to New Jersey, Philadelphia or Newark, I would either fly down to LAX and then cross the country or ideally, I would fly to Denver and then Denver to the Northeast. I get to the airport. I have my bag in hand. I’m checking in, and the gate agent says to me, “Dear, you are never going to make it to New Jersey. You should not get on this flight.” She’s like, “You are going to get stuck in Denver. There was a big snowstorm hitting the Northeast.”
I went home, made my phone calls with my apologies and regrets, and went to the beach. I will never forget this moment. It was a beautiful Southern California day, and I was swimming in the ocean and boogie boarding. I was like, “This is way better because what I was walking into was a hornet’s nest back home with my challenging mother, to put it politely. To be honest, my family are very nice people but it was an obligation.
It was not something I was looking forward to doing. It was a boring day for me. I have never been a big eater. I used to watch sports but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I found myself doing something that I wanted to be doing, which was playing outside in the sunshine and chilly waters. That’s when it occurred to me, “There’s a good alternative to this that exists.”
I’m not even sure that I would say an alternative. It’s just what I’m doing for the holiday. An alternative suggests that there’s some norm and you are outside of the norm. This is my holiday. I don’t know that I would use it as an alternative. I was like, “This is how I spend my holiday.”
I appreciate you saying that. It didn’t feel that way because I never debated whether I would go home for Christmas or not. You just went home for Christmas. What did you do? You spent an exorbitant amount of money on an airline flight because everyone else is doing what they ought to do. You sat in traffic, to and from the airport, with awful weather, oftentimes in that part of the world.
Again, you might have had an underwhelming experience. I’ve had wonderful Thanksgivings. When I was in graduate school, I had a friend whose family lived in Columbus, Ohio, which is where I was going to school at Ohio State, and I would go over to their house for Thanksgiving, which was delightful. They were the happy family, and jokes were being told.
A tradition that I’ve picked up that I use in different places. We went around the table and talked about what we were thankful for. I remember being thankful for them, welcoming me into their home for having such a lovely time. You are right. You get to decide oftentimes. We have some limits to what you want to do. If you are finding your holidays to be not creating value or not helping you live remarkably, then you should consider perhaps doing your holidays differently.
Most importantly, if it’s purely obligatory, you are going through the obligation of going home, and you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. That sets up a bad experience. I would much rather you do something that you enjoy and have fun with, and you don’t feel like it’s an obligation but it’s the joy of the day, whatever that day is.
We are going to talk a little bit about how you communicate that alternative choice that you are making. I’m thinking about the dominant culture, and you are deviating. I’m going to present some data. Most people, whether they are single or not single, do the traditional thing. It’s shocking how high the rates of participation are, especially at Thanksgiving in the United States. Christmas is less so because you might be Jewish or not do the religious thing quite as much.
If I did decide that I was going to go home and visit my family because I’m now in Maryland, so all of my family is in California. I love my family. We get along great and have a very great relationship but sometimes I’m like, “I haven’t been home. I might want to go home,” because I want to go home, not because of any obligation. I tend to like Thanksgiving a little bit more than Christmas.
Tell me why.
The reason why I appreciate Thanksgiving is that I do a lot of things with my friends here in Maryland for Thanksgiving. To your point, talking about what you are thankful for, we have a Friendsgiving where we all come together and have wonderful food and conversation because Thanksgiving is centered around food. Unlike you, I like to eat and eat a whole bunch. Thanksgiving is centered around food and being thankful. I’m very thankful for where I am, and so I appreciate Thanksgiving.
Christmas, if you take away the spiritual or religious part of it, it’s centered around gifts. I’m an academic. I’m not buying a whole bunch of gifts. I’m going to give you the latest books that one of my colleagues wrote, and everybody hates that fact. This year, everybody is getting my book. Next year, everybody’s getting my book but I always give books and they hate my gifts.
I feel bad that you don’t like my gifts, and you have to try to be polite and considerate and act like you like these gifts that you don’t like. There’s a whole gift-giving part of Christmas that takes away from the joy of it. Thanksgiving doesn’t have that obligation. That’s why I appreciate Thanksgiving so much more than Christmas.
If you are going to choose, you choose Thanksgiving. A quick PSA, Kris has a forthcoming book. We previewed it on the Love Jones Cohort episode a while ago. We are going to be doing another episode soon that will be coming out around Valentine’s Day. Stay tuned, folks.
I’m trying to destigmatize singlehood.
Let’s talk about some of the annoyances of these holidays, especially about being single during these holidays. How long is your list?
There are two things that are annoying. It draws some of the narratives in the book that I wrote and also for myself. Family always asks about your dating life. They are constantly asking, “Is there anybody in your life? What happened to so and so? What happened to such and such?” That in and of itself is annoying. The other part of that, which is directly related to the first annoyance, why is that single’s dating life is public consumption for everybody in the family. We don’t ask married couples, “When was the last time you got some? Is it good? Is it not good?” With singles, we can think it’s okay to ask us those questions, which is greatly inappropriate.
The next time someone wants to ask you about your dating life, ask them, “When was the time your husband or your partner took you on a date? When’s the last time you all have some good sex?” It’s so inappropriate. Once you say that, they should feel the error in their ways but it doesn’t always happen that way. Those are like the two annoyances. It’s always about who you are dating. It doesn’t matter what I’ve done since last Thanksgiving. It always comes down to the Mrs. degree that I have. Not the PhD but the Mrs. degree, and that’s annoying for me.
I’m working on a book, and I have a character and call her Aunt Sally. You can imagine Aunt Sally. “Kris, how are you doing, dear?” You are like, “Things are great. I got tenure. My second book is coming out. I’ve got a trip here. I closed on a condo. I got a new puppy.” “Honey, that’s great but is there anyone special in your life?” It’s such a lack of awareness and, in ways, insensitive to where someone might be in life.
I like to quote this a lot. “Half of the American singles are not interested in dating or a relationship at the moment.” It’s so presumptuous to even assume. What else would you ask someone if half the people are not uninterested in that? The other one is, “You are so great, why are you single?” It’s well-intentioned but the implication is, “Kris, you seem like you have your life together. What’s wrong with you that you are not able to find someone special?”
That’s usually implied or that’s explicitly said sometimes.
There’s the classic being seated at the kids’ table and getting the pullout couch, whereas other people get the guest bedroom because they are coupled up. Those things certainly exist. What other ones?
It’s funny with the one about sitting at the kids’ table. I’m not saying that that’s not true because I do want to talk about sociology. I don’t know if I’m sitting at the kids’ table because I’m single or if I’m sitting at the kids’ table because I want to talk about sociology but for some reason, I’m going to be at the kids’ table. I’m like, “Little kids, let’s talk about sociology.” They were like, “Auntie Kris. We want to eat our Turkey and dressing. I’m like, “No, let’s do this first.”
To your point, a lot of people probably have some of these similar annoyances or additional ones that they can add to the conversation and the list. We could have a running list but one of the things that are important is how we deal with those. Two points, one, however you deal with them, is how you deal with them. Don’t feel like you have to fight every single battle. If you are exhausted and don’t want to say anything, you just want to be, that’s perfectly fine. Don’t think there’s a certain thing that you have to say or do because that can become exhaustive.
I’m getting the sense that you probably say something.
To negate what I said, I’ve said this before, and I will say it again, one of the most benign responses you can give but is very effective is when someone says something that has this heteronormative relationship tone to it, you can always say, “What do you mean by that?”
I love this. I talk about it all the time. You’ve given me such a great gift with this saying.
It’s all about the way in which you approach because you can be like, “What do you mean by that?” You can say, “What did you mean by that,” in a very benign way. Their first response is probably going to be, “You know,” I’m like, “I don’t. Can you explain what you mean?” They are probably going to stutter and stammer over their words.
They are either going to do one of two things. They are going to dig themselves into a deep hole and show how heteronormative they are in their thinking or else they are going to say, “Never mind.” You don’t have to go home thinking about it by yourself. They are going to go home thinking about it too. I’m not going to be the only one thinking about me being single and how I should have addressed it this way. You are going to be up thinking about it too.
It’s a nice, polite way to point out that there’s something wrong with this. Again, this stuff is well-intentioned, and we are living in a couple-centric world. Jane and John get the guest room, and Peter or Kris get the pullout couch, that kind of thing. It’s not all the time. It’s like, “Let’s split it up.” Let’s talk about travel. We’ve alluded to that. Single people are often financially disadvantaged in the sense of they don’t have double incomes. If they are getting a hotel because they don’t want to sit on the couch, they are paying more per capita than a couple, and so on.
This is now an old article but I found this in Slate online magazine. It’s a series in which American events are described using the tropes and tones normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries. This is a very fun one. This one is called If It Happened There… America’s Annual Festival Pilgrimage Begins. I’m going to read a little bit from this.
“Washington, DC, United States, on a Wednesday morning, this normally bustling capital city becomes a ghost town as most of its residents embark on the long journey to their home villages for an annual festival of family, food, and questionable historical facts. Experts say the day is vital for understanding American society, and economists are increasingly taking note of its impact on the world economy. The annual holiday known as Thanksgiving celebrates a mythologized moment of peace between America’s early foreign settlers and its native groups. A day by Americans’ own admission preceded a near genocide of those groups. Despite its mercury origins, the holiday remains a rare institution celebrated almost universally in this ethnically diverse society.”
We will get into the travel stuff, which was almost several years ago. It says, “During the holiday, more than 38.4 million Americans will make the long pilgrimage home traveling an average of 214 miles over congested highways, often in inclement weather. The more prosperous citizens will frequently opt for the nation’s airways suffering through a series of flight delays and missed airline connections thanks to the country’s decaying transportation infrastructure and residual fears of foreign terrorist attacks.”
This was several years ago. It goes on to talk about football, Black Friday, overconsumption and the calorie bomb of the day, etc. If you find yourself traveling, this is of substantial financial cost, perhaps emotional cost, and certainly time that could be spent doing what you might want to do during the holidays, which is to rest, recover, exercise, sleep, and so on.
I will look at flights, and if flights are less expensive the week after and before Thanksgiving because it usually is, I don’t have to go home on Thanksgiving. I’m not making that economic decision. I’m going to spend $700 on a flight to Los Angeles. Where the following week, I can get the same flight for $400 or $300. I’m not doing that. That’s bad business. That doesn’t mean I love my family any less, that I’m narcissistic and selfish. That means I’m a shrewd businesswoman, and I’m not going to spend $700 to get to LA.
I’ve lived away from New Jersey for almost all of my adult life. My solution to this was not to ignore family. It was that I would let them know that I love them and wish them a wonderful holiday and that I will be visiting during a more opportune time. In October, when I get to enjoy the fall leaves or in the spring as the flowers are blooming and I get to enjoy a little better weather, more inexpensive flights, and less congestion. Frankly, in many ways, much more focused time with them, where the focus is on seeing them and spending time with them. That doesn’t feel like a trade-off to me. If I got any pushback, my joke had always been, “You just have to bake a ham.” I never said this to them but I would always think about it.
All of my family is in Los Angeles. I’m the only one that’s here in Maryland. I’m like, “Why don’t you all come to see me?” They are like, “That’s unheard of. All the family has to pack up.” I was like, “That’s what I have to do every single holiday or year.” I was like, “Let’s come this way. Have a White Christmas.”
“I would love to show you where I live. I would love to bake a ham.”
The other thing is that it’s an annoyance but I’m also quite grateful. On this side of town, when I don’t go home, I get invited to everybody’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, in particular. They feel like I’m an orphan and I don’t have anybody, so I get all invitations, even from the people that I’m not that close to. I’m like, “I’m going to be here in Maryland by myself. I’m choosing not to go home,” and they are like, “Please come to my house.” One of my student’s parents called me, “Come to my house. We are having a cookout,” and I was like, “What’s your last name again?” I’m going to be the weird lady in the corner.
I appreciate that everybody thinks that I have to be around somebody. I don’t want to use the word annoying but I’ve made my decision. I’m not going to get interrupted by phone calls. I’m not going to be interrupted by emails. I can absolutely do all of the stuff that I wanted to do. I’ve made this decision, so please try not to dissuade me from the decision I made but I also am very grateful. It’s twofold. I want to make sure the gratefulness does come out.
Yes, I get it. It’s flattering. There is a funny dynamic. As a single person, when you are with your family, you can be this black sheep but then when you are dropped into another family, you are a party favor in a sense. You are a little bit of a lubricant. You are changing up the dynamics, and it’s a glimpse into a different world but I agree with you. I like to zig when everyone else zags.
I use these holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, in particular, oftentimes to catch up on work to do all these things as there are no emails and phone calls. What I do is I use some other time to then while everybody else is working and the airports are quiet, and the roads are uncongested to do my adventures. I have to admit. I get a little bit off. I wouldn’t call it smug satisfaction but certainly satisfaction when I’m playing and everyone else is working in a sense. I want to be clear. I’m not trying to convince anyone to live like us but if you want to live like us, there are people who do it. It’s never broadcast.
The major take-home point for me would be, “Be comfortable in whatever you decide to do. Please don’t let anybody talk you into or out of what you want to do. We are all adults. We all pay our own bills, so we can do whatever we want to do. If you decide you don’t want to go home for the holidays or you don’t want to be with your family, so be it. Don’t let anybody tell you that that makes you a bad sister, brother, cousin, nephew or niece. Don’t let them try to put that guilt trip thing on you. They are just mad because they have to go.
I remember when my grandmother was getting older and not in great health, making the decision to do the holidays. I did it because I loved her. I knew that it mattered to her. I was comfortable with that. I was happy to do it. It was joyous to see her and participate. After she passed, I didn’t have that anymore, so I went back to my typical ways.
Speaking of travel, I did a survey about the Thanksgiving holiday. I collected about six weeks before Thanksgiving. I asked 225 Americans aged 29 to 59 a few questions about the holidays. The first question was, “Do you have firm plans for Thanksgiving?” I’m going to present to you the data for people who are in a relationship, married or steady versus single. The effects are almost exactly the same for married versus non-married. People who are in a relationship are more likely to have firm plans, 75% to 62.5% for singles.
I thought that it was already an interesting thing that 6 weeks out from Thanksgiving, 1 out of 4 or 1 out of 3 people, respectively, don’t have firm plans. “Do you celebrate Thanksgiving?” Ninety six percent of people in a relationship, yes, and that’s 90% for single people. We talked about the convention. These are high rates of participation in the holiday, broadly defined.
“Are you celebrating and hosting?” These are our ham-makers and non-hand-makers. It’s 29% of people in a relationship versus 14% of singles. It’s nearly double the likelihood that people are in a relationship because they are the ones who often have more space. They often have children. There’s a whole bunch of reasons that they are the ones hosting but there are still single people who have people over and they tend to be friends, is what the evidence is.
My sister, her partner, and the kids are not flying cross country typically to hang out with me on Thanksgiving. It’s the reverse. “Will you travel for the holiday?” Sixty two percent of people are in a relationship, and 51% of people who are single. A lot of people travel, so that’s half or more than half. This is my favorite question, “Do you find some alone time during the holiday?” This is the most striking difference. Of people in a relationship, only 40% say they have some alone time during the holiday weekend versus 70% of single people.
We know alone time matters. There’s this thing called loneliness, which is this stressful feeling we have when we don’t have a chance for solitude. It is part of the reason why this joyous time can be hard on partnered people and people hosting because where’s your rest in recovery? You are going, socializing, cooking, hosting, and all those things. At least one of the benefits of being single is that you get to pick some time for yourself.
As I said, since I live here in Maryland and my family is in California, I do a lot of things with my friends. We have like Friendsgiving and do potlucks and stuff like that. We make it a point to do a potluck because we don’t want to put the burden of responsibility on one person. Everybody brings something. I don’t know if it’s good or bad but I’m always the salad girl. I always bring the salad. I tend to think my friends think I can only cook a salad. I believe you do cook a salad or make a salad but they are like, “Kris, all you could bring is a salad.”
I remember my mother would host a lot of holidays at our house, and she would start 3 days before and 3 days after she was still cleaning up and getting everything together. We are like, “We don’t want to put that burden on anybody. We are going to have an equal distribution of labor.” Everybody does their part. Among friends, you are able to do that. Among family, you are told what to bring and what you are going to do. I do think there’s much more latitude to have more equality when it’s friends and friends celebrating the holidays together.
I have to be careful because sometimes I overweight my experience as a voice of singles. I recognize I’m a freak. I love my alone time and seek it out, especially during the holidays. I like the quiet but not everybody does. When it comes to alone time, people have one of two problems, and I’m talking specifically to singles now. One is to recognize that you need more of it. I say ask for what you want. Ask yourself what you want. “How can I get a little more time for myself to decompress?” These are busy times, especially Thanksgiving, then Christmas is right around the corner.
There’s the flip side to this, and that’s the person who’s alone and doesn’t want to be. Maybe they are a solo in a new city. Maybe they are a struggling graduate student who has a big deadline and is feeling the pressure. I had a conversation with a woman who talked about how she was alone for a holiday and went to the Denver Art Museum to spend some time there. During her commute, she came across this homeless man and took him to lunch. She said, “He’s shooting up in the bathroom,” or something.
It didn’t go completely smoothly but she took him to lunch, gave him the leftovers, and then she paused, and I was thinking about her generosity and how wonderful that was. It fits this holiday tradition. It’s what these holidays ought to be about. It’s about giving and being thankful for what you have gratitude. She said, “I didn’t want to be alone.”
I recognize that some single struggle with this family atmosphere. There may be some turmoil. They may be treated like black sheep. It may be financially difficult to be the good little boy or the good little girl but then there’s the person who is single, and they want a partner and their own family. It’s not even possible for them to consider cross-country flights. My heart goes out to those folks because that doesn’t feel like a choice in any way.
I do think what we are getting at is the difference between circumstances and choices that we made. Maybe circumstantially, you don’t have anybody, you are going to be alone, and you don’t want to be in that space. To your point, we are empathetic towards them and understand that. There are some people that made the choice, “I don’t want to be with anyone else. I want to be by myself because I enjoy myself and I don’t want to be alone with somebody. I would rather be by myself and enjoy myself.” I do believe, for those that are alone for the holidays and circumstantially not by choice but by force, we have to get innovative. There are innovative ways that we can probably interact with other people.
What I appreciate about like the holidays, and you even said that yourself. I am a big sportsperson. I’m teaching a class on the sociology of race, gender, class, and sports. I am loving sports. I have a new love affair with sports all over again. I appreciate that there are great sporting events that are happening around these holidays. In some ways, it feels like a big family because you are all supporting the same team. You were in the same brown and gold, whatever the colors were. You can feel one big happy family. You are giving high fives to everybody.
If we want to be with someone or with people, we have to be innovative in the way in which we think about how we spend these holidays. Sporting events are a great way to melt into the larger scheme of things and feel like you are a part of a larger cause. I also think, to the point that you were making, about sometimes we want that time to decompress and focus on ourselves.
This is for singles or people that aren’t even single. If you are a professional and work in any job, it’s tough on these streets. I don’t know if it’s because of COVID or what but it’s challenging. I am a big proponent of having my mental health Mondays. Anybody that knows me knows that I have a mental health Monday. I do all of the stuff that I want to do and none of the stuff that I have to do.
Bless you for that.
To that point, if I decide that I want to be on a show with Peter, it is because I want to, not because I have to. If I want to send an email to a student, it is because I want to, not because I have to. I am committed to my mental health Mondays. I do all the stuff that I want to do and none of the stuff that I have to do. I usually want to go golfing but it’s getting caught a cold out here. I don’t know if I can golf and get ready in 30-degree weather.
What I appreciate most about my mental health Monday as a professional and as a professor, I have students that are looking at me, and I’m trying to model for them when they become professionals. Single, married, divorced, widowed, separated or anywhere on the spectrum, you want to make sure you have some time for yourself. What I appreciate most about my students is that they will email me like, “Dr. Marsh, I know it is your mental health Monday but on Tuesday, when you read this email, please let me know if I finished my exam on time,” or whatever it may be.
I draw my boundaries, and my students respect my boundaries. My colleagues and my friends respect my boundaries. Independent of your single status or identity, it’s important if we are working in any profession that we have some time for ourselves. I, as a professor, can take an entire day but if you can’t take an entire day, take between 2 and 4. On Thursdays, you don’t send emails, and you are not on social media. You have to do something for yourself because trying to take care of your mental and physical health is as important as all of the stuff that we have to do as professionals.
That’s well said. I like the metaphor of oxygen mass may drop from the ceiling. Place yours first before helping others.
I don’t know if it’s good or bad but there are rare occasions where I also work out because a workout keeps me balanced too. Students will either say, “Dr. Marsh, you didn’t get your mental health Monday. Dr. Marsh, you didn’t work out now.” I’m like, “Did you call me a bitch without saying it?” You are being a little mean or nasty. I was like, “You call me bitchy without even saying it.”
The thing is, the world wants you to behave the way the world wants you to behave. Recognizing that what other people want you to do and the way they want you to behave may not be in your best interest. What I would rather do is disappoint those people than begrudgingly do something I don’t want to do or be resentful of those people.
Again, it’s an important point of recognition that the airlines want you flying that weekend and the malls and online platforms want you buying stuff on Black Friday, even if you don’t have the money to do it and even if it’s going to hurt your health and wellbeing. Learning how to disappoint people in a kind, compassionate way so that you can live your best life is an important skill to be able to develop.
To your point, we will disappoint ourselves over and over again but we don’t want to disappoint anybody else. I’m like, “I’m not doing that.” I’m not going to disappoint myself and make myself go to this thing that I don’t necessarily want to go to but I feel like I should go. I’m like, “No, I got to take care of myself first.” If I take care of myself first, I’m going to be a happy, healthy, and whole Kris Marsh for whatever event or holiday I have to go to. If I’m only doing it for the other person and not for myself, it’s not going to work out well.
I’m going to use a different metaphor. What this means, though, is that when you fill your glass, then you can help other people. This is not about selfishness. It’s about being the best person that you can be. I give a lot in my life. I want to do it in a way that I feel most excited about and is going to have the most benefit. I’m going to put forth a few ideas here for that person who finds themself alone by circumstance and doesn’t want to be. The reason is there’s no script for them.
Beyond the fact of hoping to get invited to a Friendsgiving, there’s no script for the person who’s solo on the holidays and not feeling it. One is to stretch yourself and host. Be vulnerable and reach out to people and see do they want to do something with you. You risk rejection but that’s an asymmetric bet because you might end up getting the yes that you want or the yeses, and you have your potluck, or you go, “Let’s go to my favorite Chinese restaurant. Let’s get takeout.”
You can volunteer in the same way that that woman helped out someone who was less well-off than you. The soup kitchens still need to run on Thanksgiving. Singles give a lot. People think we are selfish because we won’t settle down and won’t grow up but single people give more of their time and money than partnered people. That can be very fulfilling.
Also, if you are in any Metropolitan area, there’s an alt community somewhere, and these are people who often are left out of society and rebel against society, who don’t want to do the normal thing. You might be able to find a drag show, a band playing or a comedy show that’s there with like-minded people who aren’t necessarily part of the dominant culture. Get on Meetup and look at the calendar. You might be surprised that while the whole world is zigging, these people are zagging. You might be able to find very warm, welcoming people who don’t care that you are showing up alone. They are happy that you are there.
I want to push back a little bit, if you don’t mind. Before I go there, I don’t know enough about social media. I admittedly so, but here are watch parties and stuff like that. You might be able to join some international watch parties or watch some shows. I don’t want people to end up going to some event and have no connection, so now they feel a little bit even lonelier or more alone because there’s no intimate connection.
I’m suggesting this as a way to be part of something on a day that makes it hard to be part of something unless you are part of a family or part of an intimate group of friends.
I absolutely think this is where you can take advantage of social media. On the internet, there are a ton of options and stuff out there.
For the people who are alone by choice, not by circumstance, who want to deviate from the norm, I asked members of the Solo Community, “How might you would be taking an unconventional approach?” I’m going to read a few of these things. It may provide some ideas. One person wrote, “I walk cities on holidays. It’s mesmerizing to me.” That was a little bit of a theme. I have an episode on Flâneuring. If you are going to walk a city, I encourage you to listen to that episode. There is something about when the streets are quiet. When there’s no hustle and bustle, you notice different things as a result.
I had another reader who said, “I was having issues with my family treating me like a doormat a few years back, and it was mentally draining. I decided to take a mental health break. Ditch the family for Christmas and do a ten-day road trip.” There’s a wonderful description of going to Knoxville, Atlanta, Wilmington, and Raleigh, North Carolina.
This person talked about spending two nights in DC and braving the cold to wander the empty national mall and do some photography. She goes on and says, “It was a great trip for me on my solo nights. I enjoyed empty restaurants. I got to decompress, read a bunch of episodes of SOLO, etc.” Another says, “My friend and I get an Airbnb on the Oregon Coast for Christmas. We surprise each other with hilarious gifts and make big homemade meals from our family traditions. We walk for hours on the beach and take pictures of our dogs in Christmas sweaters and fun cocktails too.”
Another person says, “I’m into Friendsgiving. If someone is hosting, and historically, I’ve done Chinese food and Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm binge on Christmas but lately, I have been thinking about traveling over the holidays as a way to reclaim the time for myself. I can’t remember the last time I traveled somewhere without a specific purpose related to someone else, like a wedding or to see friends and family. I got a trip on the books for the week before Christmas.” By the way, flying internationally and leaving on Thanksgiving is a little bit of a cheat code because there’s so much domestic travel but heading out to Europe, Asia, South America or wherever sometimes can be good because everybody is focused domestically.
It’s good to know.
I like hearing those little stories about people finding hacks and finding ways to live remarkably. Let’s revisit one question, which is how to let people know that you are going to be doing something different. How do you have that conversation? We can agree that it’s pretty easy to justify reclaiming to use the Solo Community member’s time for themself and not doing something for other people. How do you communicate when you decide you are not going to be coming home for the holidays? How do you communicate this to people who love you and want to see you even though they think you’re a weirdo?
“I’m not coming.” That is tongue-in-cheek but seriously, I would argue the fact that we have to strategize, think about it, and figure out how we are going to do it as part of the problem. I have resolved that I’m not coming home. “I’m not coming home,” enough said. “I’m not going to think about it. I’m not going to overanalyze it. I might see you Christmas.” I’m not going through this dog and pony show with you.
I will come on any random Thursday in April and can cook dinner with my mother. My mother likes to make sweet potato pies. We can make sweet potato pies on a random Thursday in April. It is the best holiday ever with her. Everything is cheaper in the grocery store. I’m not frazzled, having gotten from Maryland to California. My rent a car is inexpensive. I feel so much better. I don’t put a lot of emphasis on this day. I’m not spending $700. I’m not coming home.
That’s one way to do it.
Part of it is the anxiety of having to figure out how to tell your loved ones but I’m not. What I’m saying is that you almost have to stand in your truth.
That works for you because your family knows you. You have a dynamic with them. Let me run a different scenario. Esther Perel has this term she calls power parting. If you are dating and you decide you don’t want to see someone again, so rather than ghosting them or putting them on the back burner saying you are too busy. You say, “Thanks for the date, but I’m not interested in seeing you again. Good luck with your search thing.” I get the sense you are good at power parting. How is this received? An elevated person loves to be power parted. I love it when someone says, “I’m not interested in seeing you again.”
However, it can be a little abrupt. A little bit of what I called the baloney sandwich approach can go a long way. It goes something like this, “Kris, thank you so much for the invite to the holidays. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Grandma and Grandpa are going to be there, etc. As much as it would be nice to see everyone, I’m not going to be able to make it. I’m unable to make the trip. I’m happy to talk to you about the variety of reasons why it doesn’t work for me but I’m not going to be able to do it.”
“I recognize that might be disappointing but I want you to know that I’m going to be planning a trip for April, and seeing you and the family will be a high priority for me. It’s why I will be making the trip. I hope you have a wonderful holiday.” Essentially, the idea is that this doesn’t mean that I don’t love you. It doesn’t mean that what you are doing is stupid. It means that it’s not right for me. Not everybody is as open to the unconventional, and this is a nicer way to do it. What do you think?
I wish you all could see my face.
She’s making all these faces as I’m power-parting Thanksgiving with her.
On a side note, with the power parting, I just did a power parting, and I’m only 5 feet tall, and the guy was a little upset because then he was like, “I’m glad that you are power parting with me anyway because I wish you were taller.” I was like, “Now, you want to be cruddy. You want to be mean and nasty.” I was like, “I’m 5 feet tall but I still knocked you to your knees, didn’t I?”
I didn’t know you were 5 feet tall. You have a tall personality.
It’s so funny. We were on Zoom, and once I finally met my students, they were like, “Dr. Marsh, where’s the rest of you?” I guess I have a very big appearance. They are like, “You are only 5 feet tall.” I was like, “Whatever.” That was a side note. Here’s the point, though. There are some people that may not be able to do it the way in which I do it or you do it. They have to carve out what works best for them but I fear that in that niceness that you are trying to portray, you might be talked into going on the trip anyway. You need to be clear and emphatic. “I’m not going to be able to make it.”
My favorite term is I’m unable to make the trip. By the way, I never say I’m sorry. I’m not apologizing because you are not doing anything. You should only apologize for things that you do wrong. You are never like, “I’m sorry. I can’t make the trip.” You say, “I’m unable to make the trip.”
When we try to be polite and nice, that’s how we get talked into doing stuff that we don’t want to necessarily do. I believe that, in some ways, is very emphatic, not direct but considerate, “I’m not going to make it. I will look at maybe the 1st or 2nd week in January when tickets are cheaper.” I don’t think you need to give a whole bunch of explanations.
One of the things I’m trying to talk through in my book manuscript and to a point we made is that I want people to be as likely to ask somebody, “Why are you married versus why are you single?” We ask everybody why they are single but we don’t ask people why they are married. Until people have to justify why they are going to holiday dinners, I am not justifying why I’m not. I’m like, “If I say I’m not going, why are you going?” If it’s some obligatory stuff, I was like, “You need to think about engaging in some self-care.”
I wanted you on this show because I knew you wouldn’t always agree with me. I will tell you this. It is a process. Again, I’m not encouraging people to skip holidays. If you want to do this, you should do it. There’s no one path to a remarkable life. My friend in Columbus never misses a Thanksgiving holiday because it’s so wonderful for her. Now, no one asks me.
My sister doesn’t go, “Are you coming for Christmas?” She never asks that anymore. There can be this progression from the Peter power part to the Kris power part to you are not even getting an invite to the need to power part that can happen over time. Again, you should do what’s right for you and the people you care about and balance these needs.
We are giving you different tools to put in your tool chest. I hope that whichever tool you use, you are using it with you in mind first. We don’t always put ourselves first. We put everybody else first. If we put ourselves first that makes it a much better experience whether you go or don’t go but the tool you use is completely and totally up to you.
As a quick side note about the internet, you can now Zoom in to a holiday, people can pass around the iPad, and you can chat with everyone nowadays. There are ways to hack the system where you get to have some connection, see friendly faces, and catch up with Aunt Sally, and she gets to ask you, “Is there anyone special via Zoom?”
You can do that, and I’ve done that a couple of times but for whatever reason, I’m always seeing the top of my father’s and my grandmother’s head. I’m like, “That’s fine. I said hello and Happy Thanksgiving. I’m going golfing for the rest of the day, and then I’m watching football. I’m out.”
Let’s finish with two things. Let’s talk about the Coupled Focus holidays that follow, New Year’s and Valentine’s Day. As my community member pointed out, those are less about family, and they are a little more about friends and certainly more about a partnership, that’s there. I’m curious. What do you do for New Year’s?
I typically go to church on New Year’s Eve. For me, it’s the end of one season and the start of another season. I want to reflect on where I have been and where I’m going. The church setting allows me to do that best. What I don’t want to do is be with someone of the opposite sex for the sake of being in some partnership with someone who hasn’t been there the entire year. God knows you are not going to make it through January 7th or 8th. What’s the point?
I would much rather spend more time with myself and use that time for reflection and looking at what I did well the year before and what I hope to do much better in the year coming. I always try to be the better version of myself at the start of every year. To be the better version of myself, I must reflect on who I was the year before. I don’t want to do that reflection with anybody who hasn’t been there or isn’t going to be there. This whole notion that it has to be with a partner, absolutely not. I go to church alone. I do not go with people because it’s important for me to reflect.
I’ve done it all. I used to do these group trips when I was in my twenties. It was largely a single group. People started to couple up as we got close to our 30s. It would be big-time parties, late nights drinking, and all that stuff. Anybody reading knows that I’m not a big proponent of alcohol. I do all my reflections on Christmas Day, so I spend the day reflecting on what went well during the year and what didn’t go well. I get a sheet of paper, put a line through it, and write what went well and what didn’t go well. I have these sheets of paper going back a couple of years. It’s very interesting because after I do, I do the list, and if it’s a good year, what went well is much longer than what didn’t go well.
I then go back and look over the years in part to see if there is a theme with regard to what didn’t go well because that suggests that I might need to make a change. Let’s say if health stuff comes up in 3 out of 4 years, that’s a wake-up call of some sort. I also tend to pick my theme for the next year. I have a yearly theme that I talked about on the show but I do that on Thanksgiving Day, which then opens New Year’s up.
It’s natural that the change in the calendar year reflects the change in seasons and so on. I recognize that this is arbitrary. Someone decided on this calendar a whole bunch of years ago. Why is it that we need to reflect once a year? Why can’t we do it every other time? I don’t go out on New Year’s. It’s amateur night, typically. It’s almost never as much fun as you think it’s going to be. Getting an Uber and all this stuff. I go to bed before midnight and wake up refreshed, well-rested, with no hangover, and energized for a New Year, and I sit out all of that other stuff.
That’s so funny because I’m a teetotaler. I don’t consume alcohol, either. That’s a big SAT word. It’s like you abstained from alcohol. When I was in college, I couldn’t afford alcohol and food, so I went with the food. It’s so great to make a list. I write in my journal, and sometimes I write some of the things that I want to do for the new year but there are three things that I have on my list every single year, and I have not mastered them yet.
1) I’m going to become a vegan on January 1st of every year. I’m believing that it’s going to happen this year. I am believing it. Number 2) I’m going to give up coffee. I typically drink decaf but every now and again, I have some coffee. Number 3) I’m going to work out and do some cardiovascular something every single day. These are three tasks that have been on my list for several years but I am determined that in 2023 that these things are going to come to pass.
I wish you the best for those as you as you are sizzling bacon that next morning. The last thing, is there something you want to talk about that we haven’t covered?
I would love to talk about being single and living alone in the Black middle class. I appreciate being a scholar and being in conversation with other scholars that are talking about singlehood. Part of the reason why I’m excited is that one of the things that I keep trying to push back against this whole big singlehood movement is that it’s important for us to understand that there are some racial differences in how people become single.
Some people are single by choice but we think about different racial and ethnic groups and want to mirror people that are similar to us or partner with people that are similar to us. We must understand that it looks a little different for Black Americans than it does for other racial and ethnic groups. I’m excited about the singlehood movement but I’m also very cautious that we can’t say that they are monolithic. How people got there might be very different, and I keep trying to have that conversation over and over again. Those are some of the concepts that I play out and talk about in the book.
That’s important. I appreciate you providing that voice. Again, there’s this tendency to compare single people to non-single people, and you spend a lot of time busting myths. Single people aren’t selfish, sad, and all these kinds of things but to compare single people to non-single people, it’s not a great comparison because of the vast diversity of single people in terms of their age and their circumstances. It’s not a monolithic group.
Certainly, my perspective is rather limited. I’m providing one voice but you are absolutely right. I’ve moved from a single by chance in my life to single by choice. It’s easy to forget those single-by-chance moments and how difficult they were, and how adrift I was. Now, you are talking about ethnic, demographic, sociological, and economic reasons that people find themselves solo. It can be very easy for us to be very empowered to fight the power thing. Yet, there are people who are like that person I described who are struggling with their situation.
In case you haven’t googled me yet, to let you know I am a Black American woman. I don’t want to make any assumptions. I want to let you know that I am a black American woman.
I’m very excited about this forthcoming book. We are going to dive very deeply into that with a forthcoming episode. As always, Kris, I appreciate your perspective, powerful voice, the fact that you make me defend my ideas, and being a great model for people who want to live a little bit of an unconventional life and live the life that’s right for them.
I appreciate you, Peter because you always give me a chance to come to the show and be myself. I try my very best not to tell you no. When you ask me to come, I’m like, “Let’s make it happen,” because I am a big fan of the work that you are doing, and I hope that you continue with the work.
Mental note, I won’t ask you to do this on a Monday.
- Dr. Kris Marsh.
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About Kris Marsh
Kris Marsh is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland. A Fullbright Scholar, her research focuses on the Black middle class, demography, racial residential segregation, and education. She is a contributor to CNN in America, the Associated Press, NBC Washington, and Al Jazeera America and is frequently asked to contribute to the Washington Post. Kris writing a book that examines the mental and physical health, wealth, residential choices and dating practices of an emerging Black middle class that is single and living alone.