Well, you got here safely. You and your spouse are still speaking to one another, and the kids didn't get too wild. Furthermore, you prepared them carefully for some of the things that would happen and brought along important items from home. So why have you got that knot of anxiety in your stomach? If you’re like me, it’s there because you look forward to this week with a mixture of equal parts of anticipation and dread. Family gatherings are celebrated in our folklore as times of great joy—which, for the most part, they are. But they are also full of tension for all participants, and tension leads to a general shortening of each person’s fuse and greatly increases the likelihood of emotional outbursts.
To provide a framework for discussing the situation, I’m going to create an imaginary family drama. The plot involves a visit to the husband’s parents. The cast includes travelers Paul (35), Sheila (33), Jeff (4½), and Amy (2½); the host family (grandparents) consists of Roger (58) and Evelyn (54), Paul’s parents. This visit is a far cry from “over the river and through the woods” to get to the grandparents’ house and farm, where grandmother might have been baking cookies for a week. The grandparents, Roger and Evelyn, live in a big city, and both work full time. They have taken vacation time for this visit and are as excited as the younger family members.
Reflect for a minute on all the roles these six people have to play in this family drama. Take Evelyn, for example. She plays the role of wife, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother. Ditto, with reverse gender, for Roger. Paul has to be husband, father, and son (hopefully in that order). But Sheila is cast for the more difficult role of daughter-in-law plus wife and mother. Jeff and Amy are also triple-cast as children, grandchildren, and siblings. (If one of Paul’s brothers or sisters comes at the same time with his or her family, you have to enlarge the cast with the roles of uncle, aunt, cousin, niece, and nephew.) Having to play all these roles at the same time isn’t easy, especially when each person also has to play the role of himself or herself.
Let’s fantasize a bit about some of the lines sure to be heard from some of these characters in the family drama. I’m going to follow each one with some of the things Sheila, the young mother, is likely to want to say but hopefully won’t:
Evelyn (at dinner) —’I see Amy isn’t eating any better than she did last year.” (“When she has food that tastes good, she does fine.”)
Roger, to Paul—“I guess you’ve decided to keep your present job rather than take the one back here that my brother offered you.” (“Yes, a job with no more salary and fewer benefits. And one that would take me away from my job and the kids away from their friends.”)
Jeff, to his grandparents, both of whom have just lit a cigarette—“I’m getting out of here. Smoke is bad for me.” (“I told him you both smoked and asked him not to make a big deal out of it.”)
Paul, to his mother—“I love this casserole. What do you call it?” (“If I tried to serve you eggplant casserole at home, you’d leave and go to McDonald’s.”)
Evelyn, standing nearby as Jeff has a tantrum because a toy he wanted to play with was taken away from him—“My goodness, Sheila. Why do you let him carry on like that? Don’t you ever discipline him?” (“Okay, Mom, you get him to stop if you think you can. It only happened in the first place because you took his favorite truck away from him.”)
Roger, to Sheila who has taken one of Evelyn’s figurines away from Amy—“Aw, let her have it; she won’t break it.” (“Yes, but if she did, Evelyn would never let me hear the end of it.”)
Evelyn, after her daughter-in-law offers to help with the dishes—“Why that’d be fine. The last time I was at your house you left them in the sink all day.” (“The last time you were at my house Amy was just a baby, and I barely had time to cook for you, much less clean up.”)
Roger, to Sheila—“You still working, Sheila? You know I can’t get used to the idea of having our grandchildren in daycare. Mom here didn’t go back to work until our kids were in first grade.” (“Well, Dad, you made a lot more money at that time than Paul does now, and everything costs 10 times as much today.”)
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Have you ever had a part in a family drama like that? Not exactly a TV sit-com, is it? If the wrong thing is said or done, it can quickly turn into a sit-tragedy. I’ve given the older generation most of the bad lines, and perhaps that’s not fair. The younger generation can be just as sarcastic and critical, and they are just as likely to say or do something that leads to bad feelings as the grandparents are. There’s really no way to prevent people from being who and what they are, but there are probably a few things we can do to defuse these situations and maintain a reasonable level of harmony.
Try not to be too defensive or offer long explanations for why you do things as you do. Operate from the premise that their subtle criticisms are based on their principles of what should be done and how it should be done. When they make some of the remarks with an undercurrent of hostility, they undoubtedly think they are saying this for your own good. Though it’s hard, try to interpret it this way. Remind yourself that it’s just possible they are right.
And try to support one another. When Sheila got the barb from granddad about daycare, it would have been nice if Paul had spoken up and said, “Dad, they’re in really good daycare, and they love it. There is plenty of evidence that if daycare is good it doesn’t hurt the kids. Besides, we need the income from Sheila’s job, and she has her career to think about too.”
You’ve had all the effort and expense of making the trip and, after all, this is your vacation. But it’s theirs too, and having extra people in the house means extra work. Do all you can to ease that burden. Food preparation takes longer, and there is more shopping to be done. When you feed a lot of people, there are always dishes to be done or to be put away. And there are more beds to make (or air mattresses and sleeping bags to be put out of sight) and a lot of toys to pick up. I would like to extend a special request to husbands in relation to being helpful, and I’ll illustrate it with a personal example. In our own home my husband always either helped with or did the dishes. However, when we went to his parents’ home, where his mother and his two sisters had always had dish duty, he seemed to think that he didn’t need to do this and that I, as the new daughter and sister, should handle it. It took us a long time to work that one out!
Beds and clothing strung about the room call for cooperation also. Even if at home you don’t place a lot of stress on making up the beds, your mother-in-law might. I personally can’t stand an unmade bed. My oldest granddaughter, who has no problem tolerating them, says that to me the Eleventh Commandment is “Thou shalt make thy bed every morning.” Not a bad one—especially when you’re at someone else’s house.
Give yourself, and your parents, some space.
Too much togetherness is toxic. Find an occasional opportunity to go off somewhere with just your little brood—or, if they offer, leave the kids with the grandparents. Go off to a shopping mall, a park, or a movie for a few hours. Everyone will be refreshed and eager to get together again after you return.
No matter how much tension there is in the household, remember that these people are your family and you are theirs. The family as a social institution has a lot of problems, but, to date, no one—in any culture in any period of history—has come up with a better one. These people are a significant part of your children’s heritage, and the children represent the grandparents’ link with the future. Reflecting on this irrefutable fact will make you more tolerant of their weaknesses and idiosyncrasies.
So it’s time to go home. Offer and accept any needed apologies, and hit the road. And, who knows? If you did everything you could to maintain the peace, you just may get invited back next year!