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Home (Bitter) Sweet Home

The Ties That Bind

WebMD Feature

I'm heading home for the holidays. As I get off the phone with my travel agent, I feel nothing but joy and goodwill toward my family. But the closer the departure date looms, the greater my worries grow.

My anxieties start with what to wear. I look through my closet and imagine my mother narrowing her eyes and frowning. Do I own anything she'd approve of? "That's a nice dress," I hear her say. "Why don't you wear that one?" I'm just going for the weekend, yet my bag might as well contain a 50-pound turkey. My clothing needs are few, but I'm packing a lifetime of resentments. Lingering grudges, stale spites, and smoldering indignities jostle for space among the toiletries and socks.

Why travel light when I can burden myself with memories and fears? I seethe over the injustices and slights I remember -- or imagine -- as I dread the inevitable irritations to come. Will my father ask me -- as always -- if I have health insurance yet, though I've been paying my premiums for 15 years? Will my mother hitch her glasses up, zoom in, and comment on the state of my complexion, even though my acne faded alongside disco and polyester?

Families. What big opinions they have, the better to judge you by. I spend the eight-hour flight from San Francisco to New Jersey perfecting my responses to every conceivable attack on the imperfections of my life. By the time I arrive, I'm ready to defend myself on all fronts. Woe to the careless relative who questions my job, appearance, home, or life! All guns are loaded, and all safeties are off.

The Visit

My parents are at the airport, emanating love and warmth, welcoming their eldest daughter home, home, home. We hug and we kiss. My mother hovers close, peers in, and says my skin looks good. I sigh. The ride home is a time warp. I sit in back just as I did as a child, while my parents, up front in the adult seats, squabble on cue. "Right lane, there's the exit," yells my mother. I silently recite her next line with her. "If you're going to drive, then drive." My father swerves toward the exit and says as always, "Stop controlling me. I know where I'm going." I sigh again.

I sleep in my brother's old room, kept company by his Ping-Pong trophies and dinosaur statuettes. My room has long since been converted to an office. In the morning, jet-lagged and lizard-eyed, I slump downstairs and into pre-holiday chaos. My mother itemizes which dishes she's already prepared and which she's saved for me to do with her. My father announces grandly that he'll be setting the table, and my mother replies that she hopes he'll do it in the morning and not leave it to the last minute as he always does. I wonder if two days was a little overoptimistic as to how much of this I can take.

But by midday the holiday is in high gear. The table is gloriously set, and more important, my mother has approved of my dress. Everyone arrives and the house is delirious with food, banter, and a swarm of toddlers. We take our traditional places at the table, and we recreate the old dynamics, too. Who says you can't recapture youth? We instantly revert to the same old jokes, same old barbs, and same old competitions of yore. Under the witty repartee, there's a definite whiff of "I'm right and you're wrong, nyah, nyah, nyah!"

Taking Control: How to Prepare

According to the professionals, my holiday experience is typical. "It's natural to regress," says San Francisco therapist Linda Gourley, PhD. "You're not five any longer, not physically, emotionally, or cognitively. But when you're in that situation, old habits return."

Still, progress is possible. "If you anticipate conflict before it happens," says David Presti, PhD, a clinical psychologist and neurobiology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, "then you have a little bit more choice in the matter. You're still going to be pulled to react in old ways, but you can modulate it. People do." You can actually prepare and upgrade your holiday standard by considering a few issues in advance.

  • Decide why you're going home. To satisfy yourself? To satisfy someone else? It helps to know why.
  • Plan a reasonable, limited visit. As George Bernard Shaw said, "A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of hell."
  • Reflect on your expectations and whether they're reasonable. Do you believe a major family conflict will suddenly disappear with the magic of the holidays? "That," says Gourley, "probably won't happen. Doomed illusions just set you up for disappointment."
  • Know your limits and your buttons. Presti says, "If you have insight into your buttons and how your family might push them, you can prepare. You can say: 'I'm going to use this as a positive experience to avoid reacting in my old ways.'"
  • Watch out for the urge to control. Instead, come equipped with gracious verbal outs to defuse potential conflicts.
  • You'll always be somebody's child or sibling at home. "You respect that the situation may not be ideal, but it's temporary," says Gourley. "You're going to get back to your world."