Guess Who's Coming To (Thanksgiving) Dinner?

Gathering for turkey can be a stressful affair for many families. That’s particularly true for family members introducing significant others to the holiday table. Host Allison Keyes talks about how the definition of family is changing in America and offers tips on dealing with the awkward moments with NPR correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates and Brian Powell, co-author of the book “Counted Out: Same Sex Relations and Americans' Definitions of Family."

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

Back to the present day, and gathering for turkey can be a stressful affair for some families, especially when the definition of the word family is changing. Like this scene from the classic Thanksgiving 2000 movie "What's Cooking?" Rachel announced to her parents and relatives that she's pregnant, and that she would be raising the baby with her partner, Carla.

(Soundbite of the movie, "What's Cooking?")

Ms. KYRA SEDGWICK (as Rachel): This is something that I really, really want.

VICTOR RIVERS (as Javier Avila): Rachel...

DOUGLAS SPAIN (as Anthony Avila): Dad, no.

Ms. SEDGWICK (as Rachel): I'm pregnant.

ESTELLE HARRIS (as Aunt Bea): What?

Ms. SEDGWICK (as Rachel): I'm having a baby.

Ms. HARRIS (as Aunt Bea): Mazel Tov.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She's having a baby.

Ms. HARRIS (as Aunt Bea): Oh, it's wonderful.

Mr. SPAIN (as Anthony Avila): Isn't that great, dad?

Mr. RIVERS (as Javier Avila): But you're a lesbian.

Ms. HARRIS (as Aunt Bea): What?

Mr. RALPH MANZA (as Uncle David): What'd he say?

Mr. SPAIN (as Anthony Avila): Oh, dad, come on.

Ms. HARRIS (as Aunt Bea): Rachel is a lesbian. You know, like Ellen.

Mr. RIVERS (as Javier Avila): Who's the father?

Ms. SEDGWICK (as Rachel): It doesn't matter who the father is.

KEYES: Whether your news is that dramatic or not, introducing a significant other to your family can be a little nerve-wracking. So to help us understand how to prepare for those moments, we're joined by NPR correspondent, Karen Grigsby Bates. She is author of "Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times," a book outlining and etiquette and social graces for African American Culture.

And also joining us is Brian Powell. He's the author of an extensive study on the changing ideas around family. It's all in his new book "Counted Out: Same Sex Relations and Americans' Definitions of Family." Karen and Brian, thanks for joining us.

Ms. KAREN GRIGSBY BATES (Author): Thank you.

Mr. BRIAN POWELL (Author): Thanks for inviting us.

KEYES: Karen, let me start with you. What is it that makes introducing a significant other to your family, no matter, you know, whether it's a boy or a girl and you're a boy or a girl?

Ms. GRIGSBY BATES: Well, I think Thanksgiving is probably the most emotionally-fraught holiday of the year because we're all sort of thinking in the back of our heads that we should be adhering to this Norman Rockwell image that we've seen over and over again through the years.

It's one of the series from his "For Freedom" series, and this one is "Freedom of Want," and it shows grandpa carving a ginormous turkey at the table, and dad and mom are there, and the kids are there, and grandma's there, and all the assorted relatives. And everybody's getting along just fine.

So when you think Thanksgiving, lots of time this has been sort of drummed into you, that's how supposed to look. And I don't think Thanksgiving has looked that way for a really long time, maybe not even for Norman Rockwell, who actually in his lifetime had three wives.

KEYES: Oh, wow. I did not know that. So that means anyone you bring into the house with you, Karen, you're kind of asking the people already at your dinner table to accept this person into the family?

Ms. GRIGSBY BATES: Well, and you're also telling the person ahead of time, I hope, that he's sort of being brought on display and that he's going to be poked, prodded, asked uncomfortable questions, assumptions made, the whole thing, because that's what people do at Thanksgiving if you bring your significant other. It's how it goes.

KEYES: Assumptions made. Brian Powell, you've done a lot of research on the definition of family, I should say the changing definitions of family. And you found that we're becoming a little bit more open about that. Talk about some of the changes. Who's family now that wasn't before?

Mr. POWELL: Well, today, people have really moved towards a more open definition of family. One group, for example, that people are increasing counting as family are man-woman who live together, not married, and have children. Gay couple with children, lesbian couple with children.

These are groups that if we, even ten years ago, probably we would have ended up with a much smaller number of people saying, yes, this counts as family. But now, we're really moving towards a much more open definition in which we're really beginning to accept and maybe even embrace these different types of living arrangements.

KEYES: So but you have to have children to be considered family? Say a heterosexual couple together without children is not considered a family?

Mr. POWELL: If you don't have a child, you're less likely seen as a family. But I think the reason for that is important. It's not that, oh, you have to have a child or you're not a family. But children convey something. It signals that this couple is more than just maybe being together, that they really are committed.

And that's what we're finding from the interviews. You know, whether we agree with it or not, Americans, once there is a child, they believe that there is a real bond and a real notion of some type of guarantee.

KEYES: Let me just jump in here for a moment. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes, and we're talking with NPR correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates, and author Brian Powell, who has new book detailing a study about the changing definitions of family, and how to help relatives deal with over the holidays.

KEYES: Karen, I wonder, do you think people have more trouble accepting people of different sexual orientations or of different races at the Thanksgiving dinner table?

Ms. GRIGSBY BATES: You know, I don't know, and I guess it depends on the household. And I think that one of the things that I've seen - I've done a lot of reporting in California on the whole issue of whether or not marriage for same-sex couples is going to be legal.

KEYES: Mm-hm.

Ms. GRIGSBY BATES: And one of the things that I've seen is that when I interview young people, they're like, yeah, whatever, you know, it's like that's who they love, that's what the deal is.

Older folks have a more rigid definition. I think they would say a probably more definite definition of what marriage and family constitutes. The younger folks that I've interviewed tend to say, well, you know, if his best friend is like his brother, then his best friend is family, that's that.

KEYES: Brian, that jibes with your numbers, doesn't it? And you also found that women are more open as well.

Mr. POWELL: Absolutely. The age difference is really dramatic. If you talk to someone over the age of 65, the definitions that they give are much more limited. One word that was used often when people are talking about co-habiting couples, whether straight or gay, was the idea that they were shacking up together. And I kept on hearing that phrase over and over.

KEYES: People still say that?

Mr. POWELL: Well, people over 65 say that.

Ms. GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. I was thinking people who've got a little bit of mileage on them say that.

Mr. POWELL: You know, when I was going through my transcripts for the interviews, if I saw the word shacking or shacking up, I knew exactly what age group I'm reading about.

And in contrast, those under the age of 30 have a really much more open definition. To them, a family is who acts like a family. Now, that same position is held by a large majority of women. For them, if a living arrangement feels like a family, if it acts like a family, if it loves like a family, then it really is a family. And...

KEYES: Brian you found a different pattern according to race, did you not? African-Americans are having a little bit more of an issue accepting all of these newfangled openness?

Mr. POWELL: Yeah. It's interesting, because if you simply asked do cohabiting couples count as a family, does a lesbian couple count, gay couple, they'd say no. But then if you ask, well, how do you define a family? The African-American community, the responses were actually much more open. They actually were the ones more likely to say a family is one who does things for you whether you're related or not.

So it seemed this to be, you know, this disjuncture between what living arrangements they said count as a family, and instead, how they actually thought about it. Because when they talked about it, it really was a really remarkably open definition.

Ms. GRIGSBY BATES: I've seen that too, just anecdotally from reporting, that you may find a Christian fundamentalist grandmother who really wants her grandson home for Christmas. And she'll say, well, you know, we're planning on his mother and father being there, so and so being there, and then John is coming with is special friend, or with his friend, Kevin. She doesn't say his lover, you know, that's pushing it a little bit too far for her.

KEYES: Right. Right.

Ms. GRIGSBY BATES: And she may not say his life partner because that's too touchy-feely, and kind of not how she talks. But Brian clearly loves and adores Kevin, then grandmama is ready to make a place for him at the table and treat him as she would any other guest.

And eventually, you know, when Brian and Kevin adopt Sidney and Jack, she's going to be right there at the baptism and spoiling them and, you know, chastising them because these are her great-grandchildren, and that's how it goes.

KEYES: How would you suggest, Brian, that people behave if they're coming in with a new person to a family gathering this Thanksgiving?

Mr. POWELL: This really varies by families and, you know, you have to really have a good gauge on how your family is going to act. But I think the biggest mistake is for people to come in - a couple to come in and act like they're not related to each other, act like they're just roommates. I think the key thing is for...

KEYES: Interesting.

Mr. POWELL: Yeah. I think it's important for relatives to see that two people together - and we're not talking about huge public displays of affection here.

KEYES: In other words, no making out on the couch.

Mr. POWELL: Yeah. Or even holding hands, maybe. I'm not sure where that point boundary is. That will depend on the family. But, you know, helping out with, you know, the dishes. Helping out with the cooking. Not cooking the whole dinner, but just, you know, if you're going to a movie, you know, having the person pay for the movie. Just little acts that show that this is not just a roommate, not even just a special friend, but a really special friend.

KEYES: Karen, let me jump in here and just ask, what if it's someone you're just casually dating? Do you just not bring them home at all?

MS. GRIGSBY BATES: I don't know that I'd bring a casual date to Thanksgiving dinner, just because there's so much going on both emotionally, physically, you know, seating people, dealing with the courses, all the rest of it. I don't think I've ever brought a casual date to Thanksgiving dinner.

I have brought people whom I've dated seriously, and when I got really, really serious I invited my really, really serious person to come, but I did with a warning. I said, look, you know, these are people that I've known. None of them are related to me by blood except maybe one. But they're all family in many ways.

We've been having Thanksgiving dinner together for, you know, 10 or 15 years now, and you're going to be the outsider. So when you come in, they're going to look at you, and you're going to teased, and you're going to get subtly and maybe not so subtly interrogated. And they basically want know if you're good enough to be with me. And so if you can hang with that, then you should come, you'll have a wonderful time.

So he came, he had a wonderful time. Everybody did exactly what I said was going to happen, and I've married to him for 24 years.

KEYES: Congratulations.

Ms. GRIGSBY BATES: Thank you.

KEYES: And for all of you listeners out there introducing a significant other to your family for the first time, we wish you good luck, and happy Thanksgiving.

Karen Grigsby Bates is an NPR correspondent and author of the African-American etiquette manual called "Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times." She joined us from our studios in Culver City.

Brian Powell just published his research findings in the book "Counted Out." He's also a professor of sociology at Indiana University, and spoke to us from member station WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. Thank you both for joining us.

Mr. POWELL: Thank you.

Ms. GRIGSBY BATES: Thanks for having us.

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