How To Avoid Regressing When You Stay With Your Parents (Alternate Title: How To Survive A Family Christmas)


My friend & I were discussing spending Christmas with our families the other day. Here’s part of her email.

“I find myself regressing when I stay with my parents. There are inherent things that I find frustrating about the way we relate to each other… I get pissed off at them and I don’t want to be like that any more.
I guess I’m in a weird situation with my parents where I feel like I need to do what Mum does when I’m staying with her. She is ultra clean to the point of being an anal freak and she never sits down, so she is constantly moving constantly working constantly cleaning something doing SOMETHING. It’s a quality that I really admire in her and I want to be like that but I’m just not. When I get home after dealing with f*ckwits for 8 hours solid I relax by cooking and I make a glorious mess. I do the dishes with my husband and then I want to read or take my dog for a walk, pot around my garden or write in my journal and basically chill out in a productive but gentle way.
…I really want to encourage you to write that article, I think pretty much everyone I know ends up squabbling with their parents/regressing when they have to go back there. It’s such an awkward thing. I think a lot of it comes down to no matter how old you are, if you can’t adhere to your parents routine don’t overstay past the point where you become their daughter returned to interrupt their lives rather than a welcome guest.
How do you relate to your parents? Is everything cool these days?”

Oooooh, what a subject!

I definitely used to regress when I went back home to stay with my parents, even though I have been living out of home for years. It was almost like as soon as I stepped over that familiar threshold, I turned back into that loathsome 16 year old that I thought I had left behind.

I would become surly, uncooperative, selfish, grumpy & charmless — very teenage Gala at her worst moments! Not pretty! & I couldn’t understand it. Even the smallest request had me reacting completely churlishly. What was it that made me behave like that? What made me so short-tempered & unpleasant? Was it just the fact that my parents were completely insufferable, & I was brilliant, therefore they had no rights to ask me to do anything at all ever?!

Well, um, no, not exactly. The way I see it, it’s all about repeating patterns. Most of us lived with at least one of our parents until we were about 18, which is a very long time. In that time, thousands of patterns & routines were established, & that’s the thing about a pattern: it can be hard to break, especially when you’re thrown back into the situation or environment in which you are used to acting (or reacting) a certain way.

I really don’t mind cleaning up after myself, rinsing my dishes, making my bed. In fact, I do those things of my own volition when I’m in my apartment. But for some reason, it used to be that when I came back home & my parents asked me to do one of those things, I would react badly. I would grumble, complain, pout. “Just a minute,” I’d yell. Several minutes would pass. They would harass me to get off the internet. (Geek, you see.) I wouldn’t want to. Things got ugly.

Thankfully, that phase has passed.

I feel very fortunate in that my parents & I get along very well these days, & even after spending weeks (or months) together, we still all get along. Hopefully just saying that will give someone reading this hope, because when I was a teenager, our humble home was not always the most delightful scene. Familial relations do improve, & it’s not just mine — these days, most of my friends get along with their parents much better than they did when they were teenagers, feuding constantly.

I think part of the reason why my family & I can coexist peacefully now is that I have been out of home for long enough that I don’t really identify myself with them any more. That sounds weird, I know, but let me explain. When I left home at 18, I moved 600 kilometres away & since then, we have never lived in the same city. I have now been away long enough that I feel like I know who I am. I’m not just “Jonathan’s daughter” any more — I have lived in Auckland, in Melbourne & New York, have had many adventures & expeditions, & me & my lifestyle are so far removed from their routines & patterns that all the things they used to do that drove me crazy don’t bother me any more. My parents are nutty in their own delightful way, but I guess what happened is that I don’t take that stuff personally these days. They can do whatever they like & it doesn’t affect me. They are just people. It’s cool, & it doesn’t bother me.

Another thing that can make life tough is that most of us feel a reasonable amount of pressure when we return to the family nest. There are always so many questions, & the opportunity to delve much deeper into issues than you ever can by telephone. How is work going? How’s your relationship? Are you happy? How are you raising your children? Is everything going okay?

Our parents only want the best for us, which is sweet & touching, but sometimes we can’t help but wig out over all of that. We want to do things at our own pace, & when people ask us questions about things that maybe we’re working on but haven’t quite figured out yet, or that they think are important but we don’t, it can make us feel a bit nuts.

One thing that happens as we get older is that we become less partial to our family’s opinion of us. As we leave home & go out & experience the world for ourselves, we realise that we are capable of navigating things in our own way. With that comes the realisation that our parents are just people like anyone else. They do their best but they’re not perfect, & what they say is not gospel — just one person’s view. Some people resent their parents when they find this out!

Thankfully, I don’t feel like the child whose parents are waiting for them to blossom into something great, or to “make something” of myself any more, probably because I feel like I have done some pretty good stuff under my own steam. I am reasonably secure in my own identity these days, & even when my parents disapprove of something I’m doing, that doesn’t affect me anywhere near as much as it used to. (If I ever wonder about that, I just remember that they initially had their doubts about me starting this website!) I don’t know if they ever really put a lot of pressure on me, I probably put it on myself & thought it was them, but whatever the case, I feel much more comfortable just being myself around them these days.

Plus, when I come back to see them, I’ve actually had time to miss them & I’m looking forward to spending time with them again. If your parents just live around the corner though, I can definitely see how it might be a little bit of a how can I miss you if you won’t go away? situation!

It’s always weird going home, though. After all, your parents raised you (probably). To them, you are pretty much always going to be the kid that they devoted all their time to, so the way they see you is probably not the same way you see yourself. I think it shocks my parents that they never get to see me in my school uniform any more, especially based on the way they behave sometimes. My father will sometimes bring up old phrases or things I used to say as if it were yesterday — when I have all but forgotten the fact that I used to do this, that or the other thing.

Unfortunately, one of the things I’ve learned about “going back home” is that if you want to do it successfully, you really have to play by their rules, & sometimes those rules clash with your world view. Think you’re a successful adult in your own right, with an exciting love life & an independent lifestyle? Think again — especially if your friends want to call after your parents have gone to bed! Reigning all that stuff back in after you’re used to living by your own rules can be tough.

Sometimes it makes me laugh to think of huge celebrities going back home for Christmas. “I don’t care how many Grammys you’ve won, Mariah, can you just put your dishes in the dishwasher once you’re done?!”

Christmas can be especially difficult, because usually it’s not just you & your parents, it’s you & your extended family. I think there’s a lot of pressure on Christmas to be this magical time of family & shared jolliness, when sometimes it turns into a mud-slinging fest as soon as the first bottle of champagne is popped. Alcohol + relatives is almost a guaranteed method of discovering someone’s true nature!

We all feel like just because we’re related to one another, all of a sudden we should have lots in common, plenty to talk about, & a cozy feeling of brotherhood & kinship. Sometimes it can feel like our family is dysfunctional if we’re not all sitting around a fire laughing good-naturedly & knitting each other matching sweaters. It’s completely normal for small factions of our families to break off & go & smoke outside & complain about one aunt or another, for old grievances to resurface, or for someone to get hysterical over the turkey. It’s not necessarily what we want to happen, but it can & it does, & that’s okay. Families aren’t perfect.

The crucial thing about getting along with your family — also known as not buying into the bullshit — is to remember who you are. Who you are, not who everyone else thinks you are. We all play roles in our families, relationships & workplaces, but don’t let other people’s thoughts about who you are determine how you behave. There is no surer route to misery. Your parents might remember you as a child in the nativity play, your cousins might think of you as the kid who went through that weird goth phase, & your grandma might always remember you fondly as the girl she taught how to sew — no matter how old you get or how many children you have. All of those things may be true of your past, but you are more than the sum of other people’s memories. You are whoever you want to be, & even that can change from day to day. This Christmas you might be the turkey-carver, salad-bringer, champagne-pourer, couch-commando, peace-maker, pace-maker, whatever. Your family will have expectations of you — this is par for the course. But you don’t have to play into that role unless you want to; unless it serves you & makes you happy.

It’s extremely easy to act the role we’re used to playing, especially when everyone else in your family is playing their role perfectly. It’s like one big discordant orchestra, each person plucking their own badly-strung instrument. The thing is that if you can manage to break your own patterns — say, for example, instead of spending the day texting furiously, you help your mother with the turkey or give your uncle a break by looking after your cousin — you will remind everyone else that it doesn’t have to be the way it always has been.

The best way to survive a crazy family Christmas is to act as your ideal self, & hold up a light for everyone else. It’s just like those psychology experiments where someone who is brave enough to behave differently inspires others to do the same. Think how shocked your parents would be if you played the part of the dressed-up-ray-of-sunshine! It might even influence your father to neglect his typical role of the-man-who-gets-grumpy-after-too-many-beers, or prevent your mother from reprising her award-winning epic as the-woman-who-overcooks-everything-&-then-cries-about-it! After all, it’s hard to continue as you normally do if everyone around is behaving in a way that’s intensely out of character.

Before you cross the threshold, bearing gifts or grudges (& perhaps both), sit in your car & check yourself out in the mirror. Don’t just look for errant eyebrow hairs; use this time to re-group & centre yourself. How do you want this Christmas to go? Regardless of your religious beliefs, most people agree that December is about celebrating family & friendship — so think about how you’d like to do that. Does complaining about the meal, squabbling with your brother & getting into a passive-aggressive argument with your grandmother really embody the ideals you’re aspiring to? Is that how you want to see out the end of the year?

Christmas puddings may be the perfect size & weight for pelting at your irksome relatives, but if you can exercise some restraint, everyone will be better for it!

So, what are you doing to do differently this year? I haven’t had a family Christmas since 2005, & plenty has changed since then. I’m going to pay close attention to my mother, the one who holds it all together, since I’d like to throw a big (American! Winter!) Christmas bash next year…