WAVING, NOT DROWNING

Dear Viv: How can I choose between my husband and my parents at Christmas?

On this week's podcast, it's a Christmas special. Viv discusses what to do when an elderly relative wants to be alone, choosing between family on Christmas Day, and grandparents who buy overly expensive gifts

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By Viv Groskop on

Dear Viv,

What do you do when your nan says she wants to stay on her own at Christmas? Literally alone. We've tried to persuade her not to, it seems heartless to just leave her on her own (and I have a feeling she doesn't really want to be left alone – she says she doesn't want to make a fuss). Should we keep trying to persuade her or is it best to drop it?

Dear compassionate grandchild, Oh this is heart-breaking, I can’t bear it! I’m with you. Don’t let Nan be alone at Christmas! This is such a difficult one because you are navigating three very sensitive areas -- one, your nan’s right to her own views and her own independence, two, your anxiety that she may not actually be telling you what she really thinks, and, three, your own feelings of sadness about not spending Christmas with her. I think the last point is probably the one to focus on so that you can find out what’s really going on. Can you tell her that you’ve been thinking really hard about this and you really respect her views, but you just wanted to let her know that you’ll be sorry not to see her on Christmas Day. That you know it’s selfish to bring that up and she’s welcome to spend Christmas however she wants but that you just wanted her to know that you’ll miss her. This would be something you’d need to say as neutrally as possible so it doesn’t sound like you’re guilting her into it. But at least after that if she still says, “No, thanks, I’d rather be on my own” then you know that she really means it.

It’s frustrating sometimes when we feel that someone is doing something not because they want to but because they don’t want to inconvenience others -- when in fact the others would not be inconvenienced at all anyway and actually they’ll probably be more inconvenienced by being anxious that nan isn’t there.

So this is a sticky situation with no easy answer and you might have to bear in mind that you’re going to be frustrated in your efforts to get to the bottom of things. The trouble is, it’s everyone’s right to say “I don’t want any fuss or bother” when in fact they mean the opposite. It’s an incredibly annoying place to be in and I really share your irritation. Members of my own family who shall remain nameless (hello, Mum!) are champions of this most British of traditions: “Don’t mind me! I don’t want anyone to go to any trouble!”

But take it from someone who has tried screaming “JUST SAY WHAT YOU WANT FOR ONCE” that sometimes you just have to let people be vague and let things be. You ask whether you should persuade her or drop it -- I think neither. Adopt a middle course and leave the door open so that she can change her mind anytime, knowing that she’s just as welcome and accepted whether she wants to be with you or whether she wants to pull a passive-aggressive Marlene Dietrich move. Merry Christmas to Nans-who-don’t-like-to-make-a-fuss everywhere!

Dear Viv,

My husband works over the Christmas period so I usually spend it with my parents and he spends it alone. This year he's asked me to stay home with him, but it means I'd be alone for most of Christmas whilst he works and my parents would be disappointed. What should I do?

I don’t know, you wait all year for letters about loneliness at Christmas and suddenly two come at once. It’s the time of year for worrying about whether you’re with the right people, isn’t it? This is ever such a tricky one and I’m not going to pretend there’s an easy answer. I’m glad you’ve asked this question, though, as families, couples and singles everywhere will be looking for a solution to this conundrum: how do you make everyone feel happy at Christmas and make sure that no-one is offended or left out?

The answer is: you can’t. Unfortunately you have to make a choice and you have to decide what’s more important to you. This is the kind of thinking that maybe you’d like to keep private: whatever you decide there’s no point in telling the other party: “Guess what, you’re less important to me.” But you are going to have to decide.

Maybe you’re asking me because you don’t know what decision to make yourself. (Although strictly speaking, I can’t make that decision for you.) But let’s look closely at the situation. Usually you’re with your parents and your husband is working. What has changed? The only thing that has changed is your husband not being OK with being alone.  This is significant, I think. He has specifically asked for this and he’s going to be unhappy if he’s left alone. Your parents, on the other hand, are grown-ups and they have each other. They might be upset but they will get over it. Also: you don’t have to live with them. You do have to live with your husband.

Whilst you’re mulling all this over, it’s also worth thinking about whether there’s a compromise that gives other people some choice here too. Could you spend Christmas Day with your husband but some time before or after Christmas with your parents? If you can afford it, could you send them away somewhere for Christmas as a treat? Could you invite your parents to yours for Christmas?

I don’t have enough detail about your personal circumstances to know any of this. But the main message I’m getting from your letter is that you are used to doing what everyone else wants rather than what you want. This might be a time to think about what it is that you’d most like to do at Christmas. I have to say that I would be slightly worried if you would rather spend it with your parents than with your husband -- you have married him, after all! So the important thing is letting them down gently and finding other ways to spend time with them. Plus, you never know but your parents might be secretly glad to have some time to themselves -- they’d never tell you this, I’m sure, but they might be excited about the chance to have a slightly different Christmas.

Figure out what you want, stick to your guns and if you do end up on your own a lot around Christmas because your husband is working and your parents are too far away -- well, this is the time to stock up on DVDs, plan shopping outings with friends or hold a massive party.

You can hear the answers to these and the following question on Viv’s podcast, Waving, Not Drowning, above.

Dear Viv,

We live close to my parents, who are brilliant at helping out with our kids – but such constant close contact comes with a price: they seem to forget they're grandparents, not parents. Sometimes it's in small ways, which I tend to let pass, such as packing wipes and snacks for group outings – something which I, as their mother, of course naturally would do; sometimes it's in bigger ways, like totally undermining me on the discipline front if she feels I'm being too harsh with them. And now Christmas is coming into the mix and my mum wants to buy my six-year-old a massive dolls' house, which, in my eyes, is a 'main' present, ie one from my partner and myself, or Father Christmas. She's even said, "But I don't want her to be disappointed with a small parcel!" and I had to bite my tongue when I really wanted to snap back, "But you're GRANDMA, not bloody Father Christmas!" I feel like telling her she's had her turn at being Mum, and that being a grandmother is a totally different thing. But I never say anything because I feel bad that she does us so many favours and the kids adore her. I wish someone would write a book on how to be a grandparent because I know I'm not alone in feeling like this.

Got a question for Viv? Email her at DearViv@thepoolltd.com. The Dear Viv podcast airs fortnightly on The Pool at 5pm on Tuesdays. All letters will be edited for length. Unfortunately Viv cannot reply to your emails personally. 

You can subscribe to The Pool's podcasts on iTunes

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