The Bells, They Toll

The Bells, They Toll October 18, 2010

We’ve made a decision.

We’re going home for Christmas.

This is a big deal for many reasons. Practically, we have three kids and only four arms between the two of us, so that makes an all-day shuffling from airport to plane to airport to plane on standby tickets all the more difficult. For me personally, I really don’t like decorating our house for Christmas if we’re not going to be here. It just seems so wasteful. But Christmas is my favorite, favorite holiday and suffering through the weeks leading up to it without a decorated house seems nearly unendurable and certainly very depressing. But the biggest reason of all is that, without fail, every time we go home the Ogre and I fight.

Not little spats, either. I mean no-holds-barred, gloves off screaming matches. And the only thing worse than not being with our families on Christmas is not being with each other, spiritually and emotionally. We’ve promised each other that this year will be different, just like we did last year. I have my doubts.

The reason for all this angst and fighting is that we come from families who are just diametrically opposed to each other in terms of…everything. Not just religion but family power dispersion, hierarchy, parenting methods, diet, entertainment habits, holiday celebration ideas…I mean you name it, our families will come down firmly on opposite sides of it. And I do mean firmly. Additionally, we have lots of family in a concentrated area. Not only are both of our parents and siblings there, but I have three grandparents and many aunts, uncles and cousins all within about a 20 mile radius. The Ogre’s brothers are all married with wives and kids, and we’re all very close so we want to spend time with them too. His sister, who lives in Rome, is flying in and we’ll want to spend time with her too, since we only get to see each other every year or two. On top of all that, we left a great many friends back in Texas, and we try to make time to see them as well. Fitting all this, plus general Christmas hysteria on the part of the children (oh okay, and me) into about a week and a half is…exhausting. And stressful. And no matter how carefully I plan, someone always feels left out, and I always feel guilty. And then I get angry. And then I eat a lot of chocolate, and no one wins in that situation. Except maybe the chocolate.

So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this upcoming trip home. My first plan of attack was to tell both our mothers that I’m going to ration out time in advance and email a schedule and no one is allowed to say a word to me about it or I’m getting on a plane and going home. I think that was a little unkind and I’m pretty sure I managed to hurt both their feelings. I’m also a terrible bluffer and of course they know I’d never leave my children and the Ogre on Christmas, so it wasn’t particularly effective either. Just mean.

I’ve been trying to come up with an alternate way to protect my emotional health and keep my stress level down so that I can calmly head off any fights that erupt between the Ogre and me. Building a wall around myself is not, it seems, the right way to go. The best thing to do is just deal with the stress and laugh it off. This is impossible for me but with chocolate by my side, I’ll still be stressed but I might care a little less. As far as my relationship with my husband, the best thing for us to do is understand the root problems…which we do.

Moving to another state was really beneficial for our marriage. It allowed us physical space from our families and time to figure out who we are as a family. It gave us the chance to discover what parenting methods worked for us without the well-intentioned but pervasive influence of our parents. It gave us the physical room to become an autonomous family, no longer just an extension of our own families. Moving away also gave us emotional space. Instead of keeping our defenses raised against each other at all times, anticipating the other saying something negative about cherished family values and traditions, we were able to put down those shields and calmly (sometimes) discuss flaws and virtues we saw in our respective families. We had time and distance and clarity enough to find what was good in the different ways we were raised and try to implement those in our own family, while leaving the bad behind. These conversations also helped us both mature; instead of me coming out swinging, accusing the Ogre of “being just like his father” I was able to say, look, I love your dad. I have a lot of respect for him. But I really don’t appreciate X, and here’s why. Can we talk about that? Conversely, the Ogre stopped accusing me of acting “just like your mother” and started pointing out things in my behavior or attitude that weren’t healthy and asked me to work on it. And then we did something we’d never done before…we allowed each other time to change. We didn’t expect an overnight shift in behavior patterns that have been ingrained in us since childhood. The Ogre was much better at this than me; he was unfailingly patient and long-suffering. But I wasn’t too bad myself; I stopped snapping and feeling offended and oppressed at every request and just tried to be a good wife.

And it worked. We don’t have a perfect marriage, but it’s worlds and worlds better than it was three years ago. We love each other a lot more, and we love each others’ families a lot more too. The distance helped us appreciate just how much our families mean to us. Instead of dreading being pulled into the study by the Ever-Teacher (the Ogre’s dad), I really look forward to it now. I welcome his advice and opinions because they’re so well thought-out, so unique, so helpful and given with so much love. Instead of sitting on the couch like…an…Ogre, the Ogre now joins in my family’s banter and ribbing. He’s more willing to embrace the jovial, loud and busy atmosphere in my family’s house and has come to see the beauty in our telling each other a million times a day “I love you.” He’s even formed a strange and unnerving bond with my  mother over action movies and candy made from weird gelatinous material instead of chocolate. (I, obviously, think that such a thing is blasphemous and totally unnatural.)

But when we go home for the holidays, amid the stress of traveling and families and close quarters, we tend to let all that progress slip. We start being more defensive about our families and our heightened sensitivity notices the slightest sigh or slump of the shoulders and pounces. I remember being furious with the Ogre for remaining silent during a visit from a family friend because I was sure he was purposely being cold. It seemed to have miraculously escaped my memory that my husband is, by nature, silent. He’s gotten equally angry with me for blithe comments that he was sure were somehow made in an effort to be subversive. It’s like we revert back to the state we were in three years ago, when our marriage hung by a thread called Sienna. It’s miserable, and we both hate it, and it takes weeks to recover when we get back home.

I’m not sure what the solution to all this is. Being aware of our tendency to be defensive isn’t enough. I think maybe we need to pray a lot and consciously be more loving toward each other. Perhaps small acts of kindness or the willingness to let an off remark go, even if we have to grit our teeth to do it, will get us through Christmas without having to resort to copious amounts of screaming, alcohol, and chocolate. I’ll probably still take the chocolate, though. And maybe the alcohol.

*On a lighter and less personal note, I want to say congratulations to Emily and her family on their new baby boy!

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