Going home for Christmas when you are a quite well-functioning adult with a solid enough relationship with your parents is pretty much the greatest - the homemade mince pies, the fridge that is always stocked with delicious food, the fact that you can wear a novelty t-shirt without a speck of irony.
And yet, a few home cooked dinners in, and a proximity to your family that is usually quelled by distance, witty emails and careful Facebook curation there inevitably comes a turning point that causes said well-functioning adults to morph into the worst version of their teenage selves.
It might be that you and your brother start using the retort "you are", to any faint and possibly reasonable insult, or when you bellow "muuuuuum" rather than walking down the stairs to ask her a question, or give sullen responses in between stuffing your face with chocolates and laughing at private jokes while snap chatting your friends at the dinner table.
""We can easily fall into a trap of reverting back ..."
Writer Eve Wiseman describes the pilgrimage home for Christmas, and the subsequent reverting to her teenage self, as a kind of ritual,
"Once home, I honor a different kind of tradition: regressing into a petulant teenager, coughing up monosyllabic answers to innocent parental questions: "Where are you going?" "Out." "How are things?" "Fine" ... They don't deserve it, obviously, but what is the alternative? Interacting like actual adults? Where is the fun and dysfunction in that?"
When you are away from the life that you have established apart from your parents, there comes this odd, mis-shaped time of your feet hanging over the edge of your old single bed, and not quite knowing what your relationship with your parents is now that you too are an adult. Your version of adulthood might be different to theirs, and that becomes the catching point - the one where irritations, bad behaviour and unfair snapping may reside. For some, these small irritations can lead to Christmas becoming a full-blown hostile situation that not even mum's legendary plum pud can salvage.
As Lyn Fletcher, Director of Operations for Relationships Australia, points out, part of the problem comes with unrealistic expectations of both Christmas and 'family time',
"We can easily fall into a trap of reverting back, if you don't live with your parents and go back to visit you can fall back into the way it used to be ... you haven't established new ways of behaving."
"Christmas comes with a whole lot of expectation - of happy families, presents we want, and the reality is, and we know this as adults, it doesn't live up to the hype. As adults we still can then have problems with trying to cope with reality vs expectation," she says.
It is true that it is only with your family can you really be yourself - your rude, occasionally disgusting and not always kind self. But when letting your mum do your laundry and not leaving your favourite reading chair, like, ever, becomes something that you feel ashamed of is where the gap between you as a teenager and you as an adult becomes apparent.
For one thing, you generally know better. But wanting to be a gracious and patient adult isn't the same as carrying it through.
To keep our brattish behaviour in check Lyn Fletcher advises tapping into that puddle of self-awareness that exists beneath the newly rediscovered boorishness, and also to take a reality check on our expectations of Christmas, and our families.
"Think about what Christmases have been like in the past, and if they don't live up, lower your expectations ... it's [also] a case of observing your own behaviour and reactions and checking out whether that it's reasonable. As an adult you have the self-awareness to do this that you don't necessarily have as a teenager," says Fletcher.
Not that self-awareness will necessarily stop us from behaving badly, mind.
In his 2012 New York Times piece, The Total Agony of Family Time, novelist Ethan Hauser wrote of returning home to his family for the holidays,
"Everyone means well - or at least wants to mean well. The problem is that great divide between intent and action. It's where we all live, a lot of the time, and somehow this is supposed to be comforting yet is not."
Ultimately, having a good relationship with your parents as an adult, and enjoying the enforced family time that accompanies Christmas - and indeed any family gathering - comes with some self-reflection, acceptance and empathy. Realising that your parents, and other family members are adults, and also merely human, is an important, and occasionally shocking, discovery,
"It changes your relationship when you recognise your parents as an equal... the one rule is to treat them like you want to be treated," says Fletcher.
That doesn't mean that you can't occasionally sleep in until 3pm and eat the last piece of shortbread when you go home for Christmas, but be warned that part of making grownup choices comes with a crushing sense of responsibility for your own actions.
And there's no dramatic slamming of doors that will ease that feeling.
- Daily Life
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