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Whose family -- yours or hers -- gets which holiday visits? My wife and I have figured out how to make both sides of our family happy, sort of.
It begins the moment you're married and it never stops -- even after you're dead.
It's the competition over whose family gets more time with you, as a married couple. And, believe me, it's a competition that nobody really wins, which is amazing when you consider how much time and energy is spent keeping score.
Whose family gets you for which major holidays? Whose family gets more "spontaneous" drop-ins for dinner? Who has more access to the grandchildren?
And, of course, at whose family plot will you be spending eternity?
"How do you love me?" some parents may ask, with pleading eyes or telephone sighs. "Let me count the days."
By the way, I don't blame families for feeling possessive of their married children's time. I understand those feelings completely. While I adore my wife's family, sometimes when I'm having fun with them I feel as if I'm cheating on my own kin. I doubt my in-laws could ever understand just how guilty I occasionally feel because I like them as much as I do. And I understand my own parents' pain that they had to let go and share my brothers and me with our spouses' clans.
I think most people assume that their family will be more prominent in the marriage. I know I did. We grew up minutes from my father's parents, whom we saw weekly for dinner and on all holidays -- while visiting with my mom's family much less. And all our lives we saw people marrying into our family and getting sucked into its orbit. Then I met Diane, whose family was also accustomed to being the center of the universe.
Since we got married in late October, we had been back from our honeymoon for about two days when we had to begin negotiations over the most competitive run of holidays on the calendar -- Thanksgiving through New Year's. It's times like these when you wish you could hire a "relationship agent." What you're looking for is the ability to leverage any concessions against the tricky spring holiday gauntlet, which runs, depending on your religion, from Easter or Passover through Mother's and Father's Days and, since a lot of parents got married in June (as ours did), a set of competing wedding anniversaries.
Smart relationship agents would also include language about high school reunions, which may require a bonus trip home every five years. They might also broach the touchy subject of any family summer vacationing, which is actually more of a futures market. In reality, parents are less invested in vacationing with you than in securing valuable options on time-shares with their as-yet-unborn grandchildren.
Of course, we hadn't thought about any of this -- we were still writing thank-you notes. (And when I say "we," I mean Diane.) We let it all unfold naturally and, for several years, geography helped keep everything manageable. Because the drive to Diane's hometown took eight grueling hours and her siblings were scattered, the family had a tradition of getting together up there only twice a year, but for a week each time. My parents lived closer, but still too far away for a day trip. We saw them much more often than hers, but always in short bursts.
Naturally, each family wanted what the other had. Diane's parents wished they saw their daughters more. My parents were jealous of the blocks of time we spent with her family. But we had it pretty easy. We were dealing with two intact, relatively sane families and there were no religious holidays to dispute. (Diane and I are Jewish, as is my family; her family celebrates only a very secular Christmas.)
As our siblings got married, we adjusted to their holiday negotiations, and all seemed under control. Then Diane's parents moved nearby. Actually, they moved around the corner from Diane's younger sister and their first two grandchildren; proximity to us was just a coincidence. But Diane's extended family was suddenly much easier to visit.
On my side, my younger brother and his wife had the only grandchild (thus far), my nephew, Jake. But as their apartment in New York City was not a natural family gathering place, Diane's family was leading on the cosmic score card: four grandkids to one, and a more accessible venue.
Then my father died. His loss was devastating in so many ways, but there's one I've never admitted out loud -- an aching feeling that it marked the end of any "competition" between the families, and mine had somehow lost. And, whether Diane's family ever felt this way, the truth is, for the past eight years, they have dominated my married life. I am very close with my mother and two brothers, and treasure the holidays we spend with our extended family. I call my nephew in New York every Saturday after his basketball or baseball game. But I see my in-laws more often than my own blood.
I know this kills my mom. I hear it in the way she sighs when I phone her from Diane's parents' house. But what I don't think she understands is that it kills me, too.
Damn, I wanted my family to win. At least it was a defeat without bloodshed. And over time, the families have actually grown closer. My side of the family comes to Diane's family Thanksgiving.
And we've actually added an ambitious new tradition -- something Dad always dreamed of. For the past eight years, both clans have come together for an entire week at my family shore house.
Yes, that's right. All of us. On purpose.
Diane refers to this annual enclave as the "Ayres & Fried Family Beachfest and Food Fight." But with 17 family members and three dogs living in close quarters, it's more like a reality TV show.
Every day is the best of times and the worst of times -- sometimes at the same time. At any given moment, someone's laughing, crying, fuming, having a breakthrough conversation, or not speaking to someone else.
It's a magical, hysterical, and emotionally taxing week, engaging in every way. And when it's over, Diane and I come home so mentally overloaded that we can barely function.
This year we decided that someone needed to invent a new medication that would block memories of all the pressures of intergenerational family life without inhibiting the joy. Diane named the drug "FamilEZE," and before long we were both writing jingles for it.
Not only is hers better than mine, but it's the first pharmaceutical jingle ever to include a side effects warning. It's set to "America the Beautiful."
Spells fast relief
Of stressful mem-o-ries
From recent family gatherings
A whole week at the beach!
Ask your doc-tor please
T'will bring us all world peace
Reclaim thy brain
Your kin's to blame
(but may cause psy-chos-EZE).
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, November 2005.