It’s all in the family.

I am part of a tight-knit family unit, consisting of my mum, dad, sister and cousin.  We get on very well.  We go abroad together once a year.  We look forward to seeing each other.  We bicker sometimes, but always say sorry.  I am constantly reminded by Mr K how lucky I am to have this, and how rare a thing it is to have no divorce, no estrangement, no skeletons.  I’ve always had it and am lucky enough not to know anything different.
But they’re my family.  Not anyone else’s. 
Until I got married, that is.     
One thing I never thought through prior to “I do” was that when you get married, the concept of family fundamentally shifts.  Not only do you, your new husband and any children you have effectively become your new “core” family, and not only do you share your aforementioned family unit with your husband…you also have to treat your husband’s family with equal importance as you do your parents and siblings.
If one of your in-laws needs something, you’re expected to drop everything.  In the same way you would if one of your own needed it.  And this is a little hard to say out loud…but it is really hard to do that instinctively.  It’s tough to do it without thinking, without resenting it, and certainly without feeling like you’re going above and beyond the married job description ever so slightly. 
Let me get this straight.  This isn’t a dig at Mr K’s family.  I’d still feel this way if I’d married into the Obamas (who will forever remain my idea of the Perfect Family). 
I’ve spent my whole life making ties with my own family…let’s face it they aren’t even ties, they’re bonds, flesh, bone, blood, DNA.  Whether I like it or not, I’m a product of their thinking, their actions, their history.  My values reflect theirs.  I was shaped by them.  I continue to be shaped by them.  And so being a good daughter and sister comes instinctively; dropping everything to be there for them when they need it is as intuitive as breathing.  To help them is to help myself.  It’s never been any other way.  That’s family.    
Doing the same comes easy when faced with Mr K.  He’s wormed his way into my blood and under my skin and I don’t even think about putting him first; it happens before I’m even aware of it.  But when it’s the in-laws, a family with a whole different set of values and an entirely separate history to you?  When it’s people you’ve seen sporadically over the course of a few years?  When it’s people who’ve grown up in a time and a place and a circumstance you cannot even imagine? 
I find that a whole different ballgame.
Mr K has a remarkable family who I respect and admire and love spending time with.  But respect, admiration and weekends under the same roof do not, in my books, family make. 
But family is what they are.  That’s what I signed up for.  And that’s a terrifying prospect.
When you get married you create a new unit.  Instead of one family, there are now effectively three; family A (mum, dad, siblings), family B (you and your husband) and family C (in-laws).  And whilst I still feel awkward putting C first…I live with continual guilt that I’m not putting B first enough, either.  
Mr K and I have only ever spent one Christmas together; that was our first and I knew, all the way through, that he was missing his dad, and no matter how much marzipan and Quality Street I waved at him, that wasn’t going to change.  Ever since then, we’ve spent Christmas separately with our respective families and I’ve gone to join him in Brussels for the New Year.  Every year we (read, I) say this will be the last, we’ll do it properly next year; every year it isn’t, every year we don’t. 
The public line is that it works for us, but honestly?  It rankles a bit.  It makes me feel like we aren’t taking our marriage seriously, or putting each other first.  Let’s face it, if it was that important to me, I’d obviously leave my family and go and join his for Christmas, to be with him.  No chance.  I’m not leaving my folks.  I clearly just like complaining.  I also don’t want to spend Christmas just with him, in London (see Aisling’s tranquil snow-tinted description of her Christmas alone with her husband which ours would echo NOT AT ALL, even though I’d love it to).  Christmas to us both is traditionally a noisy, raucous time and I know we’d both miss our families too much and it would be doing Christmas alone for the sake of it, at the expense of what we truly want.        
If we ever have kids, we’re going to have to sort this out, and we might have to get A round for some how-to-spend-an-idyllic-Christmas-alone training.  But in the meantime, I can’t help thinking that we aren’t putting enough effort into making family B work.
Which begs the question:  what am I trying to prove?      
Maybe I have to redefine the concept in my head of family as a rigid structure, as something that doesn’t bend, meld or expand.  For all I rave about my ideal childhood, maybe that’s something that a strong family unit doesn’t teach; the concept that a family can contract and expand and alter.  That it doesn’t matter if I want to spend Christmas away from my husband.  That just because I don’t have the same level of trust with my in-laws that I do with my parents, it doesn’t make me disloyal.  That building trust with people who happen to share DNA with your husband takes time, and that’s okay.  That moving on and adapting to new people and circumstances is perhaps the very definition of a strong family.  That family goes beyond a birth certificate and a surname.
Well looky here.  I wrote an entire blog post about an issue which Schiller managed to capture in fifteen words:
“It is not flesh and blood but the heart which makes us fathers and sons”

Well, Schiller, you may be a fancy poet and have a concise way with words, but you didn’t have Sev’s hands in your hair on Friday, did you?  Ha.    

Flesh, blood, and cracking taste in pyjamas, obviously. 
Categories: Family, Friends and Relationships, Life Experience
21 interesting thoughts on this

21 Comments

  1. Fee
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    As usual Anna, I feel like you are reading my confused and scrambling mind! How do you do it?

    I too come from a very close (and unusually large) family, I have five siblings and luckily for me, my soon to be husband has embraced them all and become a well loved member of a team that does not admit newbies easily – he does not come from such a close family, which has always made it harder for me to prioritise Family C as much as I do my own. I do feel bad about this.

    Christmas, is for us, also always an issue – we spent 7 years spending it apart as I wouldn't budge on going anywhere else. Mainly because two of my brothers are much younger (teenagers) and I feel that they should have their whole family with them on Christmas, as I did growing up. Also, purely on a selfish level, I don't know if I could bear missing the raucous, loud, chaotic, karaoke singing December 25 antics at my house (well, my parents' house).

    I am very aware this is not sustainable and am seriously considering hosting Christmas at our place for both of our families – although just typing that made me start having palpitations!

    Maybe we'll just go to Barbados and be done with it! See you there for a rum cocktail?

  2. Mahj
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Morning everyone,

    (Very) luckily I've never had to contend with the Xmas debate. Y'see, my parents dont celebrate Xmas (what with us technically being Muslims an' all) but I do. Very much so. So does my brother and his fiance and my sister and her boyfriend.

    So Xmas time was easy for me, when upon being asked to Martin's Aunt's house for the traditional Xmas Day celebrations, I actually squealed out loud and started making mince pies! This Xmas Day would happen with his Aunt and Uncle, Nana and his Mum. As his parents are divorced, we would go and see his Dad in the evening.

    When Martin and I bought our own house, things changed. We decided Xmas at our house would be rather lovely and as Martin's Dad typically has no where to go on Xmas Day, we had him round to ours with Martin's Nana and Mum coming round later on in the evening.

    And now we are married. And Xmas will remain the same. Last yr we had my sister over too but this yr she abandons us for Ireland with her fella.

    Our main problem at the moment is my Mum. The woman who for 28 years has been telling me that we dont celebrate Xmas and no we cant have a Xmas tree, is now saying she is going to come round on Xmas Day with my Dad (who isnt arsed in the slightest)! Problem with this, is that our Family C will also have to be invited too and we dont have enough chairs or table space and right now, we dont even have proper working kitchen….but its only Sept right?!

    xoxo

  3. Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Firstly Anna K, I have that same necklace with the leafy things on, and those PJ's so clearly I must have excellent taste right?? Haha.
    You always look like a model in your pics!

    I think you have to do what makes you happy ultimatly and whether that involves spending it apart or together, as long as you are both happy there is no need to over-analyze what you think you should do.

    I have the opposite problemo, I would love to have each christmas just us two.
    However as it stands we had one alone, but that did involve visiting the sister in the morning. And the rest is alternating his family with mine.
    Mine is very hectic though as it consists of mum, sis, four kids and then potentially another 2 kids and another sis popping in.
    It is ok for a short while but drives you mad all day!

    Other thing is we have choc bear and she is not allowed at my sisters cos her husband hates dogs.

    So, we are probably just going to volunteer to work all christmasses and have ours at new year and go away. God that sounds like I hate family, I don't honest. I just prefer family B for special occasions and the like.

    Great post! And Mahj you make me snort with glee with your mince pies! xxx

  4. Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    I love this post (and Mahjs squealing!)
    We've been together 9 years this Christmas (getting married in June) and the only fair way that I have been able to have what I want at Christmas is to some years not have it (if that makes sense?)
    so every other year Christmas at one Boxing day at the other (then vice versa)
    I always feel a bit guilty when we spend Christmas at his (particularly as we live round the corner from his folks – mine a 100 odd miles away) plus I know that his folks have tons of visitors on Christmas day. Last year they spent it just the two of them :( but the years where we go for boxing day we spend longer down there (because of holidays etc) so I never know which is best! This year it's Christmas there Boxing day in Cardiff….. Maybe one day we'll spend one alone, but for now this works best to keep everyone happy .

  5. C
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    This is encouragingly honest! We have the same trouble in our house – only we now have to juggle giving our families enough grandchild exposure on special occasions. They don't care about seeing us anymore…I think this year we might get Christmas at home. Quite frankly I'm looking forward to only keeping US happy for a couple of days x

  6. Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    I had this exact problem…and if I am being honest still fo. I am just glad that I am not the only one who feels that Christmas at the in-laws is not quite the same.

    At the moment we alternate between my parents and his and it is is ok. It keeps every one happy and the family we don't spend Christmas with we visit between Christmas and new year.

    But I get the feeling this isn't enough as we get jibes about not spending enough time with some people and feel guilt tripped to stay longer.

    My parents don't really mind what we do and more than understand the pressures of this time of year but I don't feel like the in-laws are quite so accommodating, but maybe that is just me.

    So when they find out we are having Christmas just us two maybe skiing at the end of this cycle, I think there might be some cross words.

    But hey ho…Christmas 2013 is ours and I can't wait!

    xxx

  7. Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Oh, as always, you readers make me feel so much better.

    I've wanted to write this for ages and have always stopped myself because I fear coming across as selfish, or as though I resent my in-laws. But I wanted to highlight how when you get married, you end up adding to your family, whether you like it or not. And that's not always something that is considered in the run-up to W-day.

    The Christmas question is ALWAYS difficult. Half my battle is being confident enough to say "yes, we spend Christmas apart, but that does not mean our marriage is doomed to fail". I'm still battling through it all….will let you know if I ever figure out the answer!

  8. Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Fab topic Anna, and you don't sound selfish at all!

    We are lucky that our families live about 10 minutes from each other (met at school, us not our parents) so we've always been able to spend time with our families but also see each other to exchange gifts later on on Xmas Day. That was until a couple of years ago when my sister decided to spend Xmas with her boyfriend's family far away and my Dad used that as an excuse to spend it with his wife and her family. So by default I spent it with my other half's family. I wasn't looking forward to it and was really down about our family not being together for the first Xmas ever, but in actual fact I had a lovely time. Waking up with my (then) fiance on Xmas day was great fun and getting to share presents straight away rather than having to wait until we saw each other was lovely. I was nervous about family C's traditions which were very much unlike ours but as long as you roll with it rather than make a fuss it is ok. And plus I then got to have family time a few days later once family A were back home too.

    I totally understand where you are coming from Anna, I was so reluctant to ever give up Xmas with my family, until I had the choice of Xmas with family C or Xmas alone! But you might like it if you try one year, or maybe a quiet Xmas just the two of you could be nice and relaxing. I'm tempted by this now, going to read Aisling's report to learn some tips…

  9. Anonymous
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful post, Anna. I think the issues you're dealing with are completely normal. I'm actually jealous that you can say that you respect and admire your family C. Sadly, I cannot say the same about mine (example–his mother has been to jail, and is just an all around bizarre person, among many many other things), but they're still his family, and therefore we still need to spend some amount of time with them. They're a stark contrast to my large and close knit family, and it makes things REALLY tough. My own mother thinks that I'm selfish for only wanting to spend holidays with my family A, but i'm just not willing to give that up quite yet. We're he and I will continue splitting up for Christmas until kids are involved. There aren't any rules, do what makes sense for both of you. Thanks again for the post.

  10. Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    We're currently avoiding this debate. This will be our first Christmas a married (eeeee!) couple. If we make it to November that is…
    But we've never had Christmas together. Our parents live 100 miles apart and neither of us want to go to the others family, not in a bad way, just in a not wanting to give up our own family way. I'm tempted to have it in our flat but noone lives in the city we do and i'm worried i'd be mighty bored by 2pm. Although cooking something nice and taking some wintery walks migth also be nice.
    Decisions, decisions. Glad to know others have this dilemma too though.
    And I also feel odd becoming part of his family, because I'm not I'm part of my family. Ahhh the weird things weddings do, I'm doing the head in the sand technique with this one. Call me childish but I don't care!

  11. Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed this post, but my perspective on Christmas is the exact opposite! Having spent quite a few fairly miserablish 25 Decembers driving with my sister between various family events occasionally taking the chance to rant or weep about the stress and politics of it all, the first Christmas day at my husband's family gathering was one of the best ever. I've not had Christmas with my side the last 3 years, and I'm still not sick of being chief adult toy tester with my adopted neices and nephews. Anna surely the most important thing is that you do what makes you happy, not what you think you 'should'… aow is f**k should, remember? Xx

  12. Posted September 13, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Haha Linsey yoor ostrich technique made me laugh! But you hit the nail on the head. being a good daughter comes easy. Carving out a role for a good daughter-in-law? Not so much.

    Gemma, agreed! I wish I could stop worrying about what I should do. My only excuse is that I'm still trying to figure out how all this works…and the roles we all have…and until I do, I don't want to upset anyone.

    Anon…I can't say much in this public forum…but believe me. I empathise. Oh how I do.

    I'm just glad that this challenge manifests itself in so many ways and its something we can all identify with. I thought there was a rule book I was supposed to be following. Apparently not!

  13. Posted September 13, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Two and a half years ago me and Sam got sick of all this and had our first Christmas with friends. It was awesome. Now we alternate whose house we go to each year, which has worked really well so far.

    But it's not all bliss. I happen to think (and this may sound awful) that you shouldn't have to care quite as ridiculously for your in-laws as you do your own family…. I couldn't ever love them equally, I'm not kidding myself. Don't get me wrong, I adore Sam's humungous clan, because they are genuinely lovely people, but mostly I love them ONLY because I love Sam. If it came to the crunch I would walk through fire for these people, but I gotta be honest, 90% of that is because I would walk through fire FOR ALL ETERNITY for my husband. And he is them. If you look at it like that it all becomes a lot more easy to deal with. We've got to be nice to ourselves, we're not biologically programmed to have an connection with these people.

    Px

  14. Esme
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Am I the only thinking 'do we HAVE to talk about Christmas already'?!

    Anna, I'm so with you on family A/B/C. I sometimes feel like disowning the whole lot of them because it can be so bloody complicated (long distances, divorce, babies etc etc etc)! I think hubby and I are destined to never have Christmas just the two of us, which I would LOVE.

    xxx

  15. Posted September 13, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Ah, Christmas…My boyfriend and I finally moved into a place of our own this year, and his mother fully expected us to spend Christmas together, either at my families house, or at our house. But, even though I miss him on Christmas day, I know I would miss my family if I was at his, and visa versa. It's not selfish to feel this way, it's normal. I'm close to my family. My extended family (who we are also close to) are 6,000 miles away and we miss being with them. My grandfather died 9 years ago on Christmas eve. To be away from my family would add the normal feelings of missing them, to the feelings I already have of being home sick (even after 16 I miss South Africa at Christmas time), alongside missing my grandfather. So I'm just not ready to give up my family yet. And I wouldn't expect Corey to feel any differently. We will have to make a decision at some point, I know. But we're not willing to yet. And we don't have to, yet.

    As for the rest, it's taken me 5 years of spending a lot of weekends and sometimes full weeks with his family, but I'm slowly beginning to feel like they are mine, too. I think it takes time, and depends on what your family situation is like. My mother was never close to her family, so my father's family took her in (from long before she was my father's girlfriend) and sort of adopted her as one of their own. She felt closer to them than she did her own mother and father. But if you are close to your family to begin with, I think its perfectly normal to feel as you do. It's not selfish. And I would say you are taking your marriage seriously: you aren't forcing Mr K to do what you want to do, nor is he forcing you to do what he wants. This is your compromise, which you accept will probably have to change at some point.

  16. Posted September 13, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    This is so true and perfect, and something I've been struggling with since getting married nearly 2 years ago (and maybe a bit before). I *like* his family, really really like them. They're lovely people and I know my hubs loves time with them. But I *love* my family, have had a lifetime of being with them and building up traditions and shared history that I don't have with his fam. Plus, while in some ways he's got things in common with his folks, he's also really different – whereas for me the apple definitely didn't fall far from the tree (except geographically, as in I live in London and they're in NY and california).

    We've struggled with this too, being apart for Christmas a few times or him coming with me. I'm sort of categorically NOT missing xmas with my Dad, because dad doesn't really have any other family whereas my in-laws have tons of different people they can celebrate with. They're cool with that but i still feel a bit selfish not being more flexible.

    And I definitely hear you on not wanting to do Xmas just the 2 of us. Hubs suggested it a few years ago but it just sounded so sad and isolated to me, no waking up and making omelettes with everyone? i know others do this and love it but the very thought made me feel incredibly lonely. Maybe the longer we're together we'll start to claim this stuff a bit more, but it's nice to know (many) others are in the same boat.

  17. Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    I love that no matter how different your tales of in-law/Christmas woe, the basis is the same…we sacrifice and we adapt.

    There really is no 'normal', is there?!

    You're all awesome. Batshit crazy inlaws and Christmas' too.

    x

  18. Sama
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Ohhhhh god, Christmas! Like most other commentors (commenters?), the boyf and I have been together 6 years and spent Christmas together 0 times. This is complicated further because we both have divorced parents, so both already have the ritual of alternating Christmas Day with one parent and Boxing Day with the other. Four sets of parents, two days and many many miles between them?? Serious down face :(

  19. Posted September 14, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Ah the eternal debate! We've done it differently every year… in the course of 5 years we've done it apart, together, alone (in the morning at least) and having christmas day twice.

    Our family's do Christmas very differently, his is quiet and lazy and mine is loud, raucous and chaotic and has been known to include a trip to A&E; followed by a rather drunken Christmas dinner at 11pm!

    I'm sure we'll settle into a routine eventually but at the moment I like that every year is unique.

    This year? We'll be in Kenya, on our honeymoon! Can't frigging wait!!

    Much love xx

  20. Rebecca Norris
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Hi Girls, Great post as usual!

    I've had all the thoughts and issues you have had regarding Pete's family, any I'm happy to say that with the passage of time it's becoming easier and easier. Pete's sister particularly welcomed me with open arms as a Sister in Law, but has also now become a friend.

    Perhaps it is my different perception of 'family' – having a very small one, Parents and sister plus me, (my grandparents were all gone by the time I was 13 and my Dad too.) Growing up, my parents friends were my 'Aunties and Uncles' and that defined my perception. To me, my best friends are almost as much my family as my real family so it's not hard to invite in some extras that pete loves so much. :)

    On Christmas… we both love it so to spend it apart would be unthinkable but we do have to do the *other* unthinkable (everyone does unthinkable things in the eyes of others) thing and religiously alternate years for spending it at each in-laws house.

    This year, it's my year. GET IN!

    One day, when I've moved I really want to have it at my house but the problem with that is, although we'd love to have both sets of parents there and siblings, each sibling now has an other half, husband or girlfriend, who'll be missing out on time with their respective family so it gets really tricky. One day I'm sure we'll all crack the perfect Christmas, but in the mean time, we have to make the best of what we can manage.

    xoxo

  21. Posted September 14, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    What our family has started doing for christmas as we have gained more folks with in-laws (read as the children have partnered up), we've started alternating years, one year on dec 23, one year on dec 25, and back. It means folks only have to miss their in-laws Christmas every other year, but don't have to miss ours.
    It works really well (except that we can't afford to fly and visit my inlaws every year). As our tribe grows, I suspect we will transition to family reunions and smaller family christmas. (like my immediate family of origin, rather than my extended family).

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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