I love my family. I do. But by the time the holiday season is over, I am relieved to be back to my boring, family-light existence. The compressed time we spend together means everything that happens is intensified. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, but it can be challenging. I generally have at least three Christmas celebrations: one at my mother’s, one at the in-laws, and one at home with my husband. There is a lot of travel involved with these three events, including a couple of plane flights.
Oh, and sometimes, there’s a fourth celebration with old friends who are family in every way but blood.
So, okay, if you’re gluten-free, take all that and multiply by a factor unique to your own family. Or families, as the case may be. My sister is also gluten-free, so I get lots of support there. I am pretty sure my brothers will cheerfully eat anything they’re fed. My mom doesn’t eat red meat or fish or chicken with bones or, sigh, vegetables. We work it out.
Supportive or Supportive but Clueless
On the other side of the family, my in-laws love buffets like there is no tomorrow. They get that I don’t eat bread. They’re coming around to the idea that pies and cookies and cakes are off limits. But there are those buffets. Our get-togethers are really special for them (and us), and my husband does his best to control where we eat. But they really, really, really love buffets.
On my side of the family, I think everyone’s on board, even if my brothers don’t really get gluten-free. On my husband’s side of the family, I don’t think there will ever be true understanding. Not that they don’t care, but they aren’t going to put the required work into understanding what my eating life is like. This doesn’t bother me. Even at those dreaded buffets, I can find something to eat.
(Cautiously, worriedly, but so far I’ve been incredibly lucky. And probably the least full person to walk out of those restaurants. This is a good thing.)
Supportive. Clueless. That’s family. This season is about family, friends, and, yes, food. Maybe your mom will never “get” what gluten-free means. Maybe your dad will take up baking awesome gluten-free bread. Most likely you’ll need to work out boundaries and solutions over time. Life is very different when you live with something day in, day out versus a few days a year.
Which leads me to the biggest family challenge of all: the saboteurs. These are the people who, for whatever reason, refuse to take a gluten-free diet seriously. I don’t know why. I don’t understand why. I just know there are people out there who will not accept that we of the gluten-free tribe aren’t doing this for fun (trust me, I can name a million things more pleasurable!). They make us uncomfortable via words, actions, or insinuations.
Maybe they’ve heard that every hip celebrity out there has given up gluten. Maybe they think we’re trying to get attention. Maybe they are a bit jealous of the questions we inevitably get. I truly do not know. But these people exist. And they, knowing or not, will try to sabotage you.
It’s your job to recognize this sabotage and deflect it. Refuse to eat that one little bit of pie. Refuse to engage in arguments about your diet. Refuse to eat something you feel will make you sick. Refuse to compromise your health for the sake of “keeping the peace”.
This is about as harsh as I get in my life. I’m a pretty much live-and-let-live type person. I don’t judge (much). But I also refuse to go back to the days when I could sleep for 12 hours, and still feel like I needed another month. Nothing, NOTHING, can convince me a bite of gluten is worth what my body (and family) endured before I cut all gluten from my life and rediscovered I was alive!
It’s my job to take control of my health (though my husband is quite possibly the most vigilant person I know; he remembers how it was before, and I appreciate his refusal to let me go back to those bad times). I do everything I can, and if it’s a situation where I cannot feel safe, I must refuse to participate.
How you define that refusal is your call. Every family, every situation, every gathering is different. You get to make that call, but, please, please, please, remember it’s your health. That is the most important thing ever.
- Set Your Boundaries: Over time, you will identify what is working with your family and what isn’t. If this is your first gluten-free holiday, you’re likely to be scared and overly cautious. If this is your fifth, you’ve identified pitfalls, opportunities, and challenges. You need to identify what works for you, what doesn’t. Generally, your family wants you to have as much fun as they do, and sometimes it’s just a matter of frank discussion so everyone is on the same page.
- Be Flexible: This is my gluten-free motto. As a control freak, I want to make sure everything happens according to (my) plan. This doesn’t happen in real life. I cannot count the number of times I’ve walked into a situation I though was safe, only to discover menus had changed, venues had changed, or worse. I have trained myself to be ready for the unexpected. And to be grateful for those times when it all works out as I planned.
- Bring Your Own Food: This is a given. I don’t get on a plane without something to eat. If I don’t know the situation at my destination, I pack stuff in my suitcase (a great alternative is ordering food from a place like the GlutenFreeMall and having it delivered to your destination). Seriously. Knowing you have safe foods to eat during a family gathering makes things so much easier.
- Stay at a Hotel/Motel: For a lot of reasons, I prefer to stay at a hotel when I’m visiting friends and family. One reason is it makes certain interactions — breakfast, for example — much easier. If you get a room with a microwave and refrigerator, you can make sure you are eating fairly well while still enjoying time with your family.
- Work Out Shared Kitchen Space: At home, you have a fantastic, gluten-free space. Outside your kitchen, it’s a challenge. Gluten is tricky (and sticky). If you’re staying at someone’s home, their best intentions will butt up against the realities of their every day lives. If possible, work with your host to create safe zones (or as-safe-as-possible zones). Or, bring your own food, packaged into meals if possible. I know it seems tacky, but it’s also necessary. Again, most people don’t need to maintain gluten-free kitchens, so while they’ll do the best they can, it’s as much a challenge for them as it is you.
- Accept You Can’t Force People to Get It: I know, I know. You want your family to understand the challenges of living a gluten-free life. And possibly your family thinks they do. You have a choice: eternal frustration or accepting your family for what they are. Personally, I think acceptance makes the season much easier. Oh, and I don’t mean acceptance in the “going to the saboteur’s house and suffering sort of way”. I cannot, will not condone giving a pass to this kind of behavior.
- Host the Gathering: This is my personal choice for controlling the situation. It’s not everyone’s wheelhouse, but my house is a safe zone. Plus, I love having people over to celebrate all sorts of things. It makes me happy to feed people. It makes me even happier that the lack of gluten in the food I serve them doesn’t impact their enjoyment of the food I serve.
- Deputize Advocates: My husband is my number one advocate. He’ll talk about how eliminating gluten changed my life. He gets it. He goes to bat for me every time. My sister is an advocate. Some of my co-workers are advocates. I have friends online who will support me. You don’t have to do this all by yourself. Take advantage of people who support you.
- Find Neutral Ground: This may be hard, but it’s doable. Rather than having a gathering at someone’s home, suggest an alternate location, like a safe restaurant. It’s fairly simple to get a private room or group of tables away from the crowds. It may cost a bit more, but everyone can share the cost.
- Don’t Feel Victimized: I read a lot of personal stories written by people who are like me, gluten-free and figuring it out (it takes a long time to perfect this lifestyle). One common thread is that they often feel bullied or intimidated by the saboteurs. Don’t be defensive about being gluten-free. Don’t apologize for your health. You will be living this for the rest of your life, and you know how you felt before you eliminated gluten. You are a winner. Truly!
Gluten-free is a thing. It’s our thing. Sometimes our families comprehend and accommodate our lives. Sometimes our families do the absolute best they can, based on their understanding of what gluten free means. Sometimes our families don’t do right by us, for whatever reason.
Because this is our life, we must determine how to manage all aspects of our interactions. I sincerely hope you find your way with your family. I appreciate every moment that I have with my family.