Spending time with the in-laws can be stressful, especially when there are children involved. Here are a few ways to keep calm and carry on.
One of the many challenges that you will face, which is never mentioned in the directory of “parenting hurdles”, is the one navigating the dynamics of the relationships between you, your parents and your in-laws. Love them, loathe them or just tolerate them, they are an essential part of your family. And whilst many people chose their partner, in-laws cannot be selected so easily.
From the moment you marry, you are forever connected to them, as part of an extended “boil in the bag” family. You have been thrown together, but with what results? Suddenly spending special holidays, weekends and celebrations with total strangers whom you must instantly find common ground with and love can be very difficult. Developing effective strategies for doing this and actually enjoying it are vital for survival.
Back in the day of your first rush of love, in-laws did not seem remotely relevant. The connection with your partner was the only important thing. It was you and him against the world, as you saw the possibility of a lifetime together mapped out before you. Then, as weeks and months passed, they took on a magical quality. Meeting the parents was all about making the best impressions possible. For most, this stage is about making a connection and about wanting to fit in and be liked.
It’s hard to imagine, at that moment, that relationships might become difficult as years pass. However, managing the expectations of our own parents and those of our partners, as they grow older and children arrive, can be fraught with anxiety.
Living overseas as expats can make issues between families doubly difficult, as we see our parents and in-laws for more extended periods of time than perhaps we would have if we lived in our native countries. An overnight visit becomes one week, two, three or even a month. As wonderful as their visits are, visitors are a little like fish. The initial euphoria has waned, the children’s excitement has dimmed and it’s down to you with your ever busy lives to incorporate “tour guide” into your list of long parental duties. Not only that, but no one can shut the front door at the end of the evening and say “phew”. As your in-laws stay with you, you will be constantly on duty for the entire period of their visit, feeling a sense of obligation to be a perfect Martha Stewart or Alan Wicker.
You may feel that your life is under the microscope, in-laws projecting a sense of “we didn’t do it like that”. Your own parents or your in-laws can feel that, despite you being the parent, you still need parenting yourself. From the way you keep the fridge, to the way you discipline your child. Maybe this is helpful and insightful sometimes — it can be a happily received wake-up call — but at other times it can feel stressful and unfair.
There are some simple strategies to help you make sense of family visits and which help to ensure you get the best out of them.
One of the really fundamental things to consider is the expectations of your visitors. Perhaps it’s something they cannot afford to do very often, which often leads to them putting pressure on the trip being perfect. Wanting to make sure they have a good time at every stage can lead to weighty disappointments and frustration. So, have realistic expectations at the very beginning of the trip. Know from the start that as you all do not live together all the time, adjustments must be made. Decide on what you all want from the visit and think about how you want to be together. It won’t be easy for you, but also it won’t be easy for them as they are “guests” in their own child’s house. Fast forward your mind, if you can, to how you will feel 20 or 30 years from now, faced with the same situation and try to exercise some empathy as to the myriad of emotions your parents or in-laws may be facing. At the same time, remember their age is a factor. We cannot begin to imagine the emotions we will be encountering as we age. Grandparents have a stronger sense of mortality and quite often morality, whilst we remain oblivious. But to that end, their visits are precious for so many reasons, perhaps it’s the financial pressure of how often they can do this, or perhaps they have failing health, or have lost a partner and find travelling so far enormously daunting. Perhaps they are acutely aware of what they can no longer do. In short, think beyond your own agenda and consider theirs for a little while. When you try to stand in their shoes, you might just realise why these trips are so important to them. Reframe your point of view and try again.
When you find yourself confronted by an unwelcome opinion about your parenting skills, take a deep breath. Do not make the mistake of judging yourself by the things other people say. If you know you are doing a good job, then that is all that matters. Other people’s observations are just that. You can control how those words of criticism “land” on you and thus you can control how you act after receiving them. It’s easy to retaliate when you don’t completely understand or to launch into a long dialogue as to the background of the story and why you have reacted the way you have in disciplining your child, if they perhaps have suggested you were too strict or not strict enough. Whatever the story, don’t get attached to it. Reason with yourself logically. They couldn’t possibly know the elements that lead to that particular style of parenting — unless they had been sitting on your shoulder watching silently for all the months and years they were not present. So, of course their opinion is based on their limited knowledge. When you know that, let the comments roll off you like water off a duck’s back. Smile, and know that their comments come with the very best of intentions. Take what you want and need.
Focus on the good
Do your best to make the good time stand out. Build on positive memory making. People rarely forget a bad feeling and a horrible argument, but ask someone what was said? They can rarely recall it. It’s sentiments and emotions that come back to us, not words and specifics. They will remember a kind gesture, a pat on the back of reassurance, a wonderful photograph.
A few rash moments can permanently damage your relationships forever. Once they leave, resentments and things left unsaid due to time and distance can stick! Imagine it this way. If you were in the same vicinity as each other, or even in the same country, and words were exchanged; you can usually make it up to them the next weekend. So, be imaginative and find ways to make amends while they are still there. Re-build bridges almost immediately, if you can.
We all need to remember that time is a precious commodity. Youth passes in a flash, childhoods are gone before we blink, and grandparents are not around forever. Cherish those moments, all of them.