Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell, Ph.D., Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Well, you got here safely. You and your spouse are still speaking to one another, and the kids didn’t get too wild. Furthermore, you prepared them carefully for some of the things that would happen and brought along important items from home. So why have you got that knot of anxiety in your stomach? If you’re like me, it’s there because you look forward to this week with a mixture of equal parts of anticipation and dread. Family gatherings are celebrated in our folklore as times of great joy—which, for the most part, they are. But they are also full of tension for all participants, and tension leads to a general shortening of each person’s fuse and greatly increases the likelihood of emotional outbursts.
To provide a framework for discussing the situation, I’m going to create an imaginary family drama. The plot involves a visit to the husband’s parents. The cast includes travelers Paul (35), Sheila (33), Jeff (4½), and Amy (2½); the host family (grandparents) consists of Roger (58) and Evelyn (54), Paul’s parents. This visit is a far cry from “over the river and through the woods” to get to the grandparents’ house and farm, where grandmother might have been baking cookies for a week. The grandparents, Roger and Evelyn, live in a big city, and both work full time. They have taken vacation time for this visit and are as excited as the younger family members.
Reflect for a minute on all the roles these six people have to play in this family drama. Take Evelyn, for example. She plays the role of wife, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother. Ditto, with reverse gender, for Roger. Paul has to be husband, father, and son (hopefully in that order). But Sheila is cast for the more difficult role of daughter-in-law plus wife and mother. Jeff and Amy are also triple-cast as children, grandchildren, and siblings. (If one of Paul’s brothers or sisters comes at the same time with his or her family, you have to enlarge the cast with the roles of uncle, aunt, cousin, niece, and nephew.) Having to play all these roles at the same time isn’t easy, especially when each person also has to play the role of himself or herself.
Let’s fantasize a bit about some of the lines sure to be heard from some of these characters in the family drama. I’m going to follow each one with some of the things Sheila, the young mother, is likely to want to say but hopefully won’t: