4 Poems to Help You Navigate Family Tensions During the Holidays
Being home for the holidays can be peaceful and relaxing—but it can also be stressful, complicated, and can sometimes dredge up painful emotions. However, poetry can help you remember that you’re not alone in these situations, even if it may feel like it. Many poets, like the five on this list, have written about complex and challenging family relationships, as well as how to prioritize self-care as you navigate them.
1. “Self-Portrait as So Much Potential” by Chen Chen
“I am not the heterosexual neat freak my mother raised me to be. /
I am a gay sipper, & my mother has placed what’s left of her hope on my brothers. /
She wants them to gulp up the world, spit out solid degrees, responsible grandchildren ready
They will be better than mangoes, my brothers.
Though I have trouble imagining what that could be.”
In award-winning writer Chen Chen’s poem “Self-Portrait as So Much Potential,” he wrestles with the difficult reality of not meeting familial scripts and expectations. In the face of feeling like he lacks acceptance from his family, the poem’s speaker courageously and compassionately decides to accept himself. He also defines his own standards for happiness and success—realizing there’s no better future and life path than the one he envisions for himself.
2. “My Mother Is in Antarctica” by Jennifer Militello
“My mother is /
In Antarctica: I can feel myself grow /
Older than the ice there at her feet. /
I can see myself flee yet again her /
harsh climate. Dog at her sled, scarf /
at her mouth, flake in her hair: my /
In “My Mother is in Antarctica,” Jennifer Militello charts a difficult mother-daughter relationship, one that looms large throughout her multiple poetry collections and memoir. She uses Antarctica as both a setting and metaphor for the chill that emanates from this relationship, illustrating a landscape of ice, snow, and barrenness. In the midst of this, however, Militello emphasizes a concrete shift, a step toward independence, self-empowerment, and healing: “I can see myself flee yet again her / harsh climate.”
3. “Fertile : Sterile :: My Father : Me” by Jason Schneiderman
“I ask them to leave him alone again, but /
really it’s just a ploy—guilt, one more of their /
patrilineal tricks. I ask them all to leave now, /
to take their united front and go.”
The decision to be childfree has served as a theme in much of Jason Schneiderman’s poetry. In “Fertile : Sterile :: My Father : Me,” Schneiderman acknowledges that this decision contradicts family expectations, opting for a different lifestyle and purpose. Schneiderman responds to family and patriarchal pressures by holding firm to his truth: “I ask them all to leave now, / to take their united front and go.”
4. “We Made It After All” by Amanda Lovelace
“my sister & i /
spent our nights /
wishing upon /
the plastic /
plastered to our /
Looking back at childhood can be an impactful, wistful, and emotional experience. Beloved poet Amanda Lovelace has now achieved the dreams of her childhood self, a moment she takes time to revel in within the stanzas of “We Made It After All.” While the holiday season and spending time around family might make you think about what you haven’t yet accomplished, it’s important to counter this with positivity and self-love. Beat self-doubt by thinking about how proud of you your childhood self would be.
No matter what your feelings about family look like this holiday season, keep in mind that poetry can help you reflect and cope. Consider writing what you wish you could say to a family member, revisiting a favorite family memory, or writing a poem that empathizes with your inner child.