Each week our resident agony aunt Rhona McAuliffe helps a reader with a problem. This week, a reader has a difficult festive relationship with her father
My Mum died two years ago after a long illness and I have always had a difficult relationship with my Dad who is very critical of how I live my life and now, how I raise my kids. His negativity and judgment have intensified in the years since Mum’s passing and he’s very difficult to be around. This year, he is intent on having Christmas in his house as that’s how it has always been. Up until a few years ago, there were 15 of us around a huge table and Christmas was a fun and happy affair; now with my Mum gone and her relatives dispersed, there will only be five of us, myself, my partner, our two young children and my father.
Dad doesn’t cook so I will be bringing everything to his house, cooking and trying to settle the kids in strange beds when I would far prefer just to host at mine. Or go to my in-laws, where we’ve all been invited, with the bonus that there will be loads of young cousins for my kids to enjoy. My father has refused both suggestions a) because he doesn’t want to come to my house (I don’t have any comfortable chairs apparently) and b) because he doesn’t like my in-laws.
I feel trapped between wanting to give my kids a great Christmas when they’re at an age now of being able to appreciate it and also not wanting to upset my Dad who is obviously struggling to cope. He’s already saying that he’ll go to a hotel by himself if we’re so set on not going to him but that’s not how I feel. I want him with us I just wish that he would compromise and really don’t want a miserable Christmas as it’s hard enough already. Where is the middle ground?
Feeling far from festive, Galway.
I’m so sorry to hear of your Mum’s passing. Two years is little time to process your loss and as we all know, Christmas can be particularly difficult as it amplifies the blow. Bereaved partners or children often refer to Christmas as feeling like an anniversary of a loved one’s death as it loudly punctuates the end of another difficult year. Although you haven’t said it, it sounds like both you and your Dad miss your mother hugely.
On top of that, there is mounting expectation surrounding the festive season. Whether it’s rooted in Christmases-past, drawn from the fuzzy warmth of Nancy Meyers’ The Holiday or easily staked against the emotional grenades mega brands call ‘advertising,’ our hopes are generally high. Our fantasy Christmas – the delicacies we will eat, the respectful and enlightening conversations we will have, the teary appreciation for our efforts and gift- buying mastery – is crushed under the behemoth that is real life.
We’re more likely to spend the day swerving awkward questions and scraping plates than singing Little Drummer Boy around a crackling fire.
Still, your father has added further layers of guilt and stress to an already super-charged day. This is not his fault but it does make your life very difficult. His demands are born of a need to keep things the same, to carry on as you always have regardless, to perpetuate a tradition that included your Mum and holds many happy memories for him.
The fact that he is resisting change and unwilling to bend to your needs – when you are four and he is one – is indicative of his lack of perspective, which may be mired in grief, with a possible side of social anxiety. This would also explain his blinkered commitment to the status quo: he’s just not ready to move on yet.
Added to this you have his negativity and judgment, both of which can be toxic and overwhelming. From everything I’ve read about negative, judgmental parents, the general consensus is they view their children as extensions of themselves and take an open-season approach to ‘constructive feedback,’ which is rarely constructive and never requested. If they are that hard on you, experts say, imagine how they talk to themselves?
This kind of behaviour is rarely indicative of their lack of love or disapproval for their children and far more suggestive of their own issues. People who feel good about themselves don’t spend a lot of time criticizing others. And as we’re inherently social animals we are naturally drawn to people who like themselves and lift others up with words of praise and encouragement, not tear people down.
So try to shake off the guilt. Understand that unless your Dad sees a therapist – which would be the ideal – you are unlikely to change his behaviour by challenging his comments. Nobody responds well to criticism, even a highly critical person! Accept how he is and work around it as best you can. This might be by limiting your time with him and limiting the topics you’re happy to discuss, as well as engendering positive behaviour by ignoring toxic comments or changing the subject.
This involves immense willpower, a gut-full of compassion and teeth gritted so hard they crumble to dust. Remember that you are the bigger person and your Dad loves you very much (so say the psychologists).
And so to Christmas day. Part of managing your Dad’s negativity is also taking responsibility for your own happiness, so try not to be a martyr. As the day is so close now, consider tabling your compromise for this year. It’s fair that you would want your kids to have a fun, family-packed experience and you have offered your Dad several options. As he is fixed on his ideal, perhaps suggest that this year you will indeed cook in his house, as requested, with his help. Later in the afternoon, if it works with your in-laws’ plans, you could bring your kids to see their cousins and inhale the chaos you crave. Your Dad can choose to join or not.
Talk to your Dad about creating new family traditions you’re both happy with moving forward. This might be adopting a new family for Christmas Day or inviting friends who have no plans. Or it might mean relocating to your house. As you’re both likely grieving in different ways, create a new Christmas tradition together in memory of your Mum. This might be each writing a letter to her every year to be opened years from now, simply
lighting a special candle in the house or buying her a present which you will donate to charity, for example.
And remember, your Dad is an adult who must ultimately look after himself. Your happiness and wellbeing are equally as important as his. If you try to please him without prioritising your own needs or the needs of your young family, resentment is sure to fester.