Monday, July 06, 2009

Keeping it together on extended-family getaways

There’s nothing like a holiday to bring out the love and the judgmental instinct in all of us. Something about getting together with extended family for a national celebration boosts the expectations of communal family bliss sky-high and fireworks—both real and metaphorical—can turn out to be the spectacular end to the day.

This month my husband, daughter and I drove across three states to get to the city where he was born, where his parents, sister’s family, and assorted nieces still live. It’s a pretty city in a beautiful state, his family are loving and adventurous, and we always look forward to getting together.

Differing family togetherness styles

Let me say from the outset that, at heart, I’m a loner and that, while I like being with the larger family and believe it’s one of the most important, foundational things in life, I have serious needs for alone time when I’m going to be staying in the same house or cabin or hotel with anyone beyond my own family of three. And while my in-laws get this at a certain level, there always seems to be a degree of resistance to it.

So when I heard that my husband’s parents, sister and brother-in-law, niece and her husband, and his other single niece had all scoped out a beautiful vacation house in the mountains, and that they wanted to see if we wanted to go in on an even larger place with them, I panicked.

Explaining that our daughter was easily distracted by late-night card games among the cousins, and that my husband and I both had work to do on our laptops during part of the long getaway weekend, I let them know I’d be finding a hotel with wifi in town, but we’d be spending lots of time together.

Six degrees of separation

After arriving in our favorite low-key mountain resort town, I at first avoided even telling my mother-in-law our hotel room number, because she has a propensity for showing up at all hours and pressuring us to do certain group activities, whether we’ve previously stated that we have other plans or not.

However, after my evil plan worked quite well for the first day and a half--meaning my husband and daughter were able to sleep in, I was able to slip away for a walk to the lake or the bookstore or the coffee house, and I had some precious hours to work or keep my sanity before joining the frenetic group activities—I became more welcoming, allowing the in-laws into the room while our daughter changed into her swimsuit in the bathroom, serving cold drinks between activities, etc.

So on the third and final day, anticipating the need to pack and check out within about 90 minutes, I opened my hotel-room door with the “Do not disturb” sign poised to slip over the handle, when whom should I see in the hallway, with Sunday paper spread out over the floor and a bag full of curlers she’d taken out of her hair so as to style it IN THE HALLWAY, but my mother-in-law.

She said, “I was going to slip a note under the door, but the bottom of the door doesn’t have any room.” So…she…just…waited? This is 9:00 a.m. on the Sunday morning after a very late night on the lake watching the town’s fireworks display. The nine-year-old and the 47-year-old in the room need to sleep in. But my mother-in-law is there to ask me whether the three of us would like to drive the 35 minutes out of town and up the other mountain to their vacation house, where the rest of the clan were making breakfast.

I explained that we couldn’t possibly do that and still pack and check out by 11:00, whereupon a few teardrops slid down her cheek and she lamented how little time she’d had with all of us.

Now, bear in mind that we had and have at least 10 more days in her own house coming immediately on the heels of this weekend. I reminded her of this, and she nodded and seemed somewhat mollified.

Retreat and advance… the eternal dance

To my mother-in-law, constant togetherness feels comforting. Every minute of the day, from the time you get up and she pressures you to eat what she thinks is best for breakfast (“Are you sure you can’t eat French toast? Are there carbs in bread?”) to outings with family members she’s invited over on one of your workdays, to lunch and dinner and every step you take in between—more is better.

For myself, being so close to each other all day for days on end, inhaling each other’s exhale, literally feels suffocating to me. I have gotten to the point that I have told her straight out, “I need some time to work, to read, and to nap. This is not personal. I am exactly the same at my mother’s house. This is who I am. The way you are is fine and the way I am is fine and we’re just different.”

She seems to hear this. For awhile.

So, at this point in our 13-year relationship, the precious progress I’ve made has been by simply being open and honest about my needs. However, that does not mean that family members truly like it and I do still feel judged when I skip out on a group movie outing or let my daughter and husband explain my absence at one out of five family events. There comes a time when a woman has to say, whether anyone likes this or not, this is about my mental health, my emotional survival, and I’m going to take care of my own needs.

Emotional growth is so exhausting. I think I’ll take a nap.

P.S. If any of you fellow alone-time lovers out there have tips, drop me a comment below. I need them!

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