How do you talk to your family about your work?

8 Jan

Whether it’s over the holidays or on an unexpected phone call, talking to family members about the reproductive health, rights, and justice work you do can be difficult.  Our bloggers give some tips, tricks, and strategies for navigating these sometimes challenging conversations.

Peggy: My suggestion to anyone navigating talking about abortion/reproductive healthcare/sexual healthcare/etc. with family is to keep yourself safe. Only say as much about your work as you are comfortable saying, and have a plan that allows you to walk away or change the subject when it gets uncomfortable – unless you are cool diving in. You don’t owe anyone a discussion, explanation or argument around your work. Be proud of what you do, for sure, but there’s nothing wrong with staying within your comfort zone when talking about it, especially around family during the holidays which is bound to be an emotionally vulnerable situation to begin with. My best advice is to set boundaries for yourself in advance and stick to them as best you can.

Chanel: I hate when people say this, but pick your battles. It often feels like there’s so much at stake, even when there isn’t, and so deciding you’re not going to keep arguing is a failure on your part. I had to end a long friendship over politics, abortion specifically, and it still haunts me, but the truth is that it was simply toxic. We have enough work to do, there’s no reason to keep that shit hanging around if we don’t have to.

Deva: My family is pro-choice; every woman I am close with in my family has told me their abortion(s) story, but talking about abortion with my family is still hard. It is hard because inevitably I am more liberal in what I think being pro-choice means. My piece of advice for discussing abortion with your family is to listen and be patient. If you listen long enough you will understand where their anger, disappointment or fear around abortion originates. Hearing awful comments about something you love, from people you love will always hurts. And that hurt is where where patience comes in. Be patient with yourself and others. Let yourself feel angry and disappointed, but try to wait those feelings out–ask calm questions and do not react from that place of hurt. Instead, breath deeply and tell them you understand where they come from (even if you don’t), and patiently explain why you believe their thought process is flawed. Some times people just need to be heard, and you giving them a chance to voice their opinion will open the door for you to voice yours. There may not be agreement, or even common ground, but I feel that if you listen and are able to be patient in your words of prochoice wisdom it will be a happier holiday for all. Also, remember to tell them you love them after a disagreement. I don’t believe in leaving or going to bed angry, and no matter how offensive their words, for me, nonjudgmental love is at the core of being prochoice.

Sara: The thing about my family is that I kind of had to create my own to feel like I was a really a part of one, but around the holidays I make an effort with the family I was born into. I come from a family that I have always thought was very progressive and liberal, but as I have become more and more active in social justice and politics, not just reproductive justice but other issues as well, I’ve questioned how my family got to where they are today. The best way to describe them isn’t just the “I’m liberal but let’s keep it a secret so we don’t alienate the neighbors” mentality, but more like “I’m liberal but I think others should do all the hard work to achieve what I believe we deserve”. It’s incredibly frustrating. I almost feel like I could handle being the black sheep liberal in a room full of conservatives better.

Now, coming from a small family, I should specify that my biological nuclear family consists only of my father and my daughter – I am the only child of two only children, only one of whom is still with us, and my daughter is also an only child. But other branches are larger, and the cousins are presumed conservative because of our environment, but who really knows? Because we aren’t allowed to talk about it.

So you can take the high road, and when your family asks what you’re doing with your life right now, you can say “I’m a community organizer” and change the subject to the weather or college basketball (because I’m from coastal North Carolina, these are the subjects we know we can all talk about with gusto – you may want to choose something else). OR, you can be me, and since I had an event prior to a Christmas family function, I drove over to the family farm to pick up my father not even realizing that I was wearing a Planned Parenthood t-shirt. Luckily I carry clothing in my car at all times for just such a situation, and I would have changed once I noticed. Except unfortunately my father saw it before I did, and he has a long history of pushing my buttons, so once he addressed it in not the nicest tones, I dug my heels in and insisted Duck Dynasty-style that I had a right to free speech and would be continue wearing the shirt I had on. Eventually the argument progressed to standing beside the car in front of the house, moving from Duck Dynasty to Jerry Springer, and whipping it off so that I was standing in my bra outside for anyone to see and announcing to my father that I AM READY TO LEAVE FOR DINNER CAN WE PLEASE NOT BE LATE.

I got to wear my t-shirt. And surprise, surprise, it didn’t start any debates and no one refused to talk to me. It was actually probably a bit of a let-down for my father as he didn’t get a chance to say “I told you so”.

I suppose the lesson here is not for you to go crazy the way I did, although if you want to know the truth, sometimes that feels like the highlight with this crew I was born into. You have to entertain yourself somehow, you know? The moral to this story is to be yourself. Don’t hide what you do and don’t hide what you feel, but do it respectfully. Okay, maybe the episode with my father doesn’t scream RESPECT, but sometimes crazy is the only way to get through to him, and it’s usually the family you aren’t quite so close to that you have to mentally and emotionally prepare for. If anyone at your family get-together chooses not to respond civilly, you can sidetrack the conversation – isn’t it wonderful that two people from the same family can have such differing viewpoints, can still love one another, and can catch up on each others’ lives every year at holiday get-togethers? Then take a slow sip from your wine (or ‘shine, if you’re from MY family – they drink sweet tea but I need something a little stronger to get through) while you let that sink in for them…and if they continue to push the issue, THEY are the ones who get the annual talking-to from the elders about their behavior, even if everyone thinks you are the one with the crazy opinions and too many hippie bumper stickers they hope the neighbors don’t notice in the driveway.

Dena: My family is mostly pro-choice, save my grandmother. My approach to conversations around reproductive rights and justice is just to be open to hearing my grandmother’s perspectives and sharing mine, even though we almost always end up respectfully disagreeing. I love having an open, safe space in my family where these debates can be had, but at the end of the day we all still love one another. And that’s what truly matters to me.

Anna: I will be the first to admit that I am overly sensitive and hate upsetting other people’s feelings, and so in the past I always went the easiest route and vaguely described the work I was doing in hopes of not ending up in a charged situation. Considering that I only see my extended family once or twice a year, this seemed like the best tactic because there was never enough time in our visits to have the space to properly talk, listen and understand each other’s thoughts and values. This worked for a while, mostly because my family is mostly pro-choice and tends to shy away from political or controversial conversations. But one day the topic of abortion came up with a close family member who is generally more conservative and I decided I needed to speak up and share my thoughts. So I listened, I asked thoughtful questions, explained my views and responded in a way that showed that I wasn’t pushing my agenda but rather curious to share our thoughts in hopes of getting to a place where both of us could try to understand where the other was coming from. And in the end while no opinions changed, we both learned something from each other because we love and respected each other enough to thoughtfully listen and have a constructive dialogue.

That experience made me realize that I need to talk openly about abortion and reproductive rights because I am proud of the work that I am doing and want to share that with my loved ones, and I also hope that if I do, more people can learn and be aware about why this work is important. So my main tactic is to do so in a way that acknowledges that it’s okay if opinions differ and that these conversations are meant to share the happenings in my life, not to directly change the views of those around me. The first way to do this is to read the situation in a “pick your battles” sort of way to make sure that there’s the space in your relationship to respectfully disagree. If there is, then listen, ask questions and take the time to explore together. And don’t be afraid! Sometimes people can surprise you and have actually been looking for a space to share their thoughts. Most importantly, always say thank you at the end because to have the chance to talk deeply with your family is a beautiful and special thing.

Emily: Since I’m on my way to medical school, I get the ‘which specialty’ question very often. My immediate biological family is very small and very close to me, but my partner’s family is huge, and many of them I don’t know very well. I feel better about myself in these interactions when I am open and honest about my interests in abortion provision and family planning, and that response usually starts the conversation. If folks want to know more, I try to highlight how incredibly varied people’s experiences with reproductive self-determination are. Every person’s choice to have or not have an abortion is as complex and individual as that person and their circumstances are. When I’m able to communicate that, it seems to break down some barriers.

What advice would you give? What are your experiences sharing your work/views with your family?

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