The Vine: December 3, 2014
When I was young I lived in a family where, at Christmas, the children each received a few somethings, and each adult received something nice and thoughtful.
Dinner was completely cooked by my mother, and all were welcome to bring additions if they wanted. Good conversations happened. The food was divvied up afterwards and all left with feelings of happiness and goodwill. I have now moved halfway across the country and into in-law…well, not hell, but uncomfortable-ness.
My brother-in-law and his wife moved back home (he's in his 40s) with their children (Irish triplets) who are all under age three. He is an artist, she is unemployed, letting her CNA license expire because she doesn't trust anyone else with her children. The matriarch of the family is effectively crippled, being unable to leave the house except in a scooter (so stairs are impossible) and the patriarch of the family is grumpy all the time and emotionally distant. We live 10 miles away from them in the same very small town.
In previous years when we have showed up for Thanksgiving with food, we were met by a turkey defrosting on the kitchen cabinet, dripping juices all over the floor and other foods. I attempted to clean the kitchen (a hazmat suit would have been appreciated), at which time Matriarch continued to send my daughter in demanding that she get a cup of coffee for her. When I said that I was cleaning for ten solid minute and anyone in the kitchen could help if they wanted to stay, and that Matriarch could wait for the coffee, she came in herself, and the wheels of her scooter left trails of turkey juice out into the living room and beyond. I then cooked Thanksgiving dinner.
This year, three days before Thanksgiving, I was called with a list of sides I was expected to make at my house and bring to their house, including (but not limited to) appetizers, mashed potatoes, rolls and two kinds of pies for dessert. We showed up, laden with food. (We spent approximately $150 on cheeses and other ingredients.) Both a ham and a turkey were cooking when we got there. The turkey was way overcooked but the ham was delicious. (I know I sound rude, but really, I was a gracious guest and I helped with dishes and clean-up and corralling kids and only mentioned how good the food was.)
While I was helping to clean up, I noticed that the wife was only cleaning up the food I had brought, and she was cleaning it up right into their fridge. (I was doing dishes at the time.) Then she took all of their food, broke it down, and put it into their fridge. We were not offered any of the leftovers. (Which feels really petty, even as I write it, but it just felt really rude as there was a huge cheese log I had purchased and it was swept into their pantry and was never even remarked on…I love cheese logs…)
This year, Wife has called with a list of things that I need to bring to Christmas dinner. I informed her that I could only bring some things. The items she was requesting would take quite awhile to prepare, I work, I don't have the time to make an apple pie from scratch, etc. I said that I could only do a few things, and she got huffy about all the cooking she is going to have to do in addition to cleaning the house. (All of the people living in this house are hoarders, there are four bedrooms, and only two of them are usable as bedrooms…which is seven people living in two bedrooms. The father sleeps on the couch in the living room while watching TV.) I eventually agreed to "appetizers" which I'll probably passive-aggressively "forget" to make, rolls, pumpkin pies, ranch dips, and I'm to purchase (emphasized that I'm to buy it) a veggie tray, chips and dips.
I've attempted to invite them to my house for holidays before, and Matriarch literally bursts into hysterical sobbing because she can't go up stairs. The Patriarch gets mad at me for upsetting the Matriarch. We've already stopped my daughter from going out there because I found that there was no bed for her; she was sleeping in the living room on a different couch. They get upset that we don't bring her out to visit, but the house is so horrible, both loud (they all communicate by screaming at each other in frustration) and messy/dirty, that we're miserable when we go out there, but any time we go out there now, they guilt-trip us about coming out more often. Right now we say that we are busy with work, which is true.
I'm not really sure what my question is…maybe just a request for outside insight on ways I can handle this better? We've considered flying to a different location for the holiday just so that we can have a quiet Christmas that is just about our family, not about theirs…
My husband and child feel the same way I do, we just don't know what we can do to change the family dynamic.
Am I the family Grinch?
First of all, look at the positive here, which is that your branch of the family tree is in agreement that the current situation is annoying. If your husband were like, "…What?", then you'd have a bigger problem. As it stands, you still have a problem, but it's that you do keep trying to change the situation, thinking that they might learn from your sanitary and generous example, or that you can passive-aggressively shame them into acting right, or that they'll figure out one day that they should clean up, or behave graciously, or offer to send home extra food with you, or whatever it is that doesn't happen that should.
But…you know. There's what should be, and there's what is. You don't actually "have to" go over there at all. You don't have to make Matriarch's overreaction, or Patriarch's blaming you for making him interact emotionally with his wife, your problem; I don't know the layout of your house or front yard, but I'm assuming it's not completely impossible to get Matriarch onto the ground floor of your domicile, where she'll eat and have access to a powder room, for one day. If you make a few adjustments, arrange to carry her and her scooter inside, whatever, and she's still not about it, well, then you're done.
Because your husband is done, your kid is done, and it's time for you to be done too. You already put your foot down about your child sleeping on a mungy couch in a hoard; you can put your foot down about cleaning up, too. If you get there and the kitchen is gross, point that out, and leave. Better yet, announce that you can't make it to Christmas this year, without giving any specifics or making any promises. "I'm sorry, we won't be able to come this year." "I'm sorry, that's not convenient for us." "I'm sorry, my allergies won't allow me to do that." I know it's easier said than done, but once you have done it a few times, it gets easier.
Like I said, the problem here isn't really your in-laws, although they sound rude and grimy. The problem is that you put up with it. You spend the money on the appetizers; you eat the dried-out bird; you clean the grotzky kitchen. And because you do that, the in-laws understand that they can act a collective fool and you'll keep coming around and bringing cheese and not asking to take any home. So: stop doing that stuff, is A. B, start your own traditions as a little family, and emphasize to the in-laws that fact — that they're welcome to join, to the extent they're able and willing, but this family is in fact its own discrete unit and you do want to have annual holiday celebrations and ceremonies that belong to you guys. Make it "we're doing this awesome thing" instead of "we're not doing the same aggro shit we've had to put up with in years past."
They're not going to like it. You have to be okay with that. You can do things your way, clean, quiet, on the stairs; or you can have everyone like you. For my money the cost of the latter is too high, and if you want anything about this dynamic to change, you will have to change it, specifically by subtracting yourselves from it and going to Hawaii. Or, hell, tell them you're leaving town, draw the shades, park the car around the block somewhere, and have a secret spy-cation.
But understand that the in-laws won't change at this point, because you've made it very comfy and free-foody for them not to bother. Design your own ideal holiday and work towards that; if they can't hang, that's on them.
Tags: happy hellidays the fam