If your family is normal, and you enjoy going home, you can stop reading here.
If, like me, you get anxiety at the thought of boarding a plane on December 21 and not returning again for a week, cozy up with a hot toddy and read on.
In my family, things always start out nice. There is the inaugural email my mom sends out, with the “theme” of the year’s holiday season, which always strives to set a tone of philanthropy and love. There are follow-up emails requesting our favorite dishes, soliciting ideas for the itinerary, and simply noting just how beautiful the house looks decorated and how lucky we are to have everyone at home this year.
The subtext is always completely different.
It starts with little jabs, like “Oh, I am so disappointed” when I announce the length of my stay, clearly said with no recognition of PTO or cost of flying during peak time. It quickly leads in to the awkward conversation about how difficult it is to plan for (separate) sleeping arrangements for my boyfriend and me. He is coming to my parents house for the first time, and my mom—a Southern Catholic—is clearly still angry we are not married, but living together. She makes it more pronounced by inconveniencing my little sister, who has been relegated to the couch so that the family toddler can have a bedroom to herself, a ridiculous move given she is only two. She could easily fit in to a room with her parents (my older sister) who right now are assigned their own. We’re two weeks away, and already we’re battling where we’re all going to sleep, despite the fact we are not a big family and our house has plenty of bedrooms.
These are not real problems. These are holiday tactics, Christmas bombs that come out every single year wearing a different guise.
Now that I am a bit older and wiser, I choose not to engage, but fight back with something positive, off topic, crowd-pleasing. This year, I tried to smooth it all over by suggesting we have a lighthearted Christmas cocktail party, something I know my mom loves. What do I get from the other side? “What a great idea, honey. I would love to have one that is girls-only.”
A plus and a minus is that my family can be quite festive. During the holidays, the wine flows. Sometimes, we simply unwind, listen to music, and laugh about the lighter stories of our childhood. Other times, the floodgates open. The stores of comments that are easy to avoid during weekly phone calls from my city far away suddenly hit me in the face. They may be as innocent as a review of my job status or a check-in about my friends, or they may lurch deeper into darkness by probing into why my relationship does not match my parents’ template or how I need to realize my parents won’t live another ten years.
This year, I am going in armed.
Not to sound like a spineless fool, but going home and enjoying it needs a strategy. I am beyond the days of the college student who still needed to be cared for, fed, and given her childhood bedroom. I am now an adult who is living her life to the fullest, even if it’s outside the accepted value system of the South. I want to bring some of this life to my family to share. I want to keep the conversations sincere and loving and recognize when they get ugly to stop them before they go too far. I want to be able to enjoy my family without constantly feeling criticized or attacked. I want my boyfriend to get to know them a bit better, and see some enchantment amongst the ugly bits. I am hoping this is all possible, though I do admit I must have wine on hand and know when it’s time to go to bed.
It’s only a week out of my life, but the preparation and recovery feels like a year. The energy seeps out of my body at the thought of leaving my own decorated house, kissing my dog (and $500) goodbye, and waking up for my 6 a.m. departure. I know at times over the week, I will hate myself for feeling this way, and I will smile and laugh and appreciate the home I have to go to. I know, too, that there will be times I simply long to be back here, to curl up with my dog and my boyfriend, take that phone call from my home far away, give those well wishes, and save my visit for a month other than December.