Christmas: traditionally a time of giving and guilt

It’s not my children who bear the brunt of my unrecognised Christmas stress: they’re happy to keep out of the way with their presents, it’s my long-suffering in-laws, especially my sister-in-law, Sarah. I’m incredibly lucky in my in-laws. They are welcoming, tolerant, open-minded, intelligent and incredibly forgiving of me. They don’t deserve this, or to have their time with their own beloved sister/ daughter made difficult.

Sarah is very close to Jo, her sister, and thus makes herself at home in our house, comfortable and free with her opinions (which I don’t always agree with). This is good and right and is just as I would like it if in normal circumstances, but, these days, she’ll come into the kitchen and busy herself making tea, saying “Can I make anyone else a cup of tea?” and it irks me and, without warning, some caustic comment sort of erupts out of me. I mean, it’s not her kitchen or her tea, but, then again, I want her to feel at home. I confuse myself.

Jo gets upset when I snap at her sister. It puts her in a difficult position, and so I try to restrain myself but this seems to make me more sensitive to her ways – I’m just waiting to let myself down.

And hers are such minor transgressions. For example, because she is interested in other people, she engages with whole-hearted attention to what they say, but her habitual discourse is interrogating what you’ve said, turning it around and trying to see alternatives to it. She always says, “Well, … I suppose…” and then suggests an alternative. If you say “God, Robert Mugabe has turned into an absolute bastard”, she’d say “Well, … I suppose he’d say colonialist powers are interfering in his country” If you say “I guess I ought to put the turkey on” she’s say “well, … I suppose we could get a take-away”. This can even lead her to suggesting opinions that she fundamentally disagrees with. God only knows what she’d say if I said “I hate racists!” or “the holocaust was wrong.”

Of course, this is excellent intellectual practice, probably drummed into her over years of rigorous education (she’s a doctor) but to my over-sensitive mind, it seems she is always contradicting, challenging, checking. She says it all in the most caring, interested way, of course, but I have trouble negotiating even the simplest, most benign conversations.

This is also the problem with her elder-sisterly advice. She approaches any problem you tell her of with a fusillade of possible solutions, all of which you’ve already thought of and rejected, when all you want is for somebody to say “poor you” and let the conversation drift on! The barrage of facile solutions suggests (to me) that she thinks your problems are minor and easily solved (which she probably does – she’s a cancer specialist: she’s seen worse.) Part of the reason I resent this is because I’ve probably only brought up the subject in the first place because I’m trying to make conversation because I’ve been forced into society. (I believe it’s rude not to be mildly negative about your own life, otherwise you sound terribly smug and self-congratulatory.) And I find all conversations so difficult to manage!

Eventually, she’ll say something that causes me to flare up and suddenly I’m really snapping, telling it like it is, being critical and furiously defensive. A part of me seems to observe this with a calm and curious surprise. It doesn’t seem to be me who is acting this way, because I don’t feel rancour at all, and it’s only after I’ve managed to stop myself that I’m hit by a sort of back-wash of stress and shame.

It’s ghastly! Sarah must be really wounded and I sound like a teenager. It is mortifying that I should betray myself into such childish behaviour. I feel wretched, so I apologise and try to make it up with more cooking or cleaning, which inevitably brings me back into conflict with the poor old in-laws who just want to help.

My relationship with Sarah is very important to me. She’s Jo’s sister. We used to get on pretty well, but I think we’ve now got unhelpful expectations of each other. Perhaps there are ways we could both be more accommodating of each other, but I know Sarah tries really hard and always forgives me. The problem is that the narrative of saying sorry and magnanimously forgiving leaves no room for negotiating a new peace. One person surrenders and the other remains victoriously and completely in the right, in possession of the field of conflict.

I tell myself that she is making assumptions, is too set in her ways, but the reality of the situation is probably that I’ve become highly sensitive to all visitors, because I am ashamed of what I have become. I wish to hide my savage face away, my yellowing fangs. Sarah, for love of her sister, is the only one who dares approach the cave in which the maiden Jo has been imprisoned.

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