Dear Dr. Andrea,
I am about to spend 2½ weeks with my parents. I haven’t seen them since before the pandemic, and we all decided that a long visit made the most sense We are self-quarantining and testing beforehand. I am 29 and have never spent more than a long weekend with my parents since I was in college. We see each other typically a few times a year just for two or three days at a time. I have a good relationship with them overall, and I do miss them. I am looking forward to seeing them, but I’m worried about my patience.
I think I need some practical advice about how to not get annoyed or feel trapped. We have very different living styles. My parents can be pretty nosy at times and pretty stubborn about the way that things “should” be. I also am worried that I might drink too much, because my father relies on that a lot in stressful situations and is always looking for a drinking buddy. I will be working some, so that will keep me occupied some days, but I am also worried they may be intrusive since they are used to having my full attention when I am home. Help!
— I’ve got cold feet
It’s completely understandable that a visit of 2½ weeks will cause strains that a visit of 2½ days would not. The first step here is not pathologizing that, not feeling guilty about it, and not letting it feel like it’s a knock on your relationship with them as a whole. It’s human, and acknowledging it will help mitigate it. So, why not have an open conversation about expectations, and the idiosyncrasies of this particular visit (and year)? If you address some of your concerns in a preventive way that feels respectful, proactive and collaborative, then it won’t seem like something has gone “wrong” in the same way that it would if you instead found yourself having a desperate argument about boundaries six days into the trip.
What does this sound like, though?
“We haven’t lived together in a long time, and I know this will feel from my typical visits. Is there anything I should keep in mind to make the day-to-day easier for you?” is a good place to start. Think open, nonjudgmental and loving. This need not be a deep heart-to-heart but rather just a basic primer on how to best be considerate of each other.
And the more you listen to their needs, the less awkward it will be to establish your own.
“It occurs to me you’re not used to having work while we’re together; that may feel a little weird. Should I just set specific hours where I’m holed up in a room with a closed door? I don’t want you to feel like I’m ignoring you, but the more productive I can be at certain times, the more quality time we’ll have together.”
Anything specific that you can imagine that would be helpful for you to set expectations about — or for you to hear their expectations about — is fair game.
The bulk of the prep work, though, will come from making an individual plan. How will you get physical space and privacy? What relaxation exercises (breathing exercises, meditations, physical movement) can you do when you feel yourself growing an anxious edge? What friends can you contact for a mental break? What conversation topics can be safe harbors if it is feeling uncomfortable? What joint activities can you look to for fun and connection? What solo activities (yoga, errands, walks, baking, watching a movie, “work calls”) can help you feel less trapped?
It will also be helpful to develop a script to counteract nosiness: “There’s not a lot more to say about that, I’m afraid,” “Would you mind if I changed the subject?” or “I’m not comfortable talking about this anymore” are good starters.
And make a point to connect each day with the bigger picture: the reason you’re there, your gratitude for your relationship and what it is that you love about your parents.
Finally, the drinking. I’m not sure to what extent this touches on a deeper struggle — for either you or your father — but that’s another potential guardrail to establish early on, first with yourself (what is a reasonable amount of drinks and frequency?) and with him (“I’ve really been cutting back this year” or “I’ve developed a tea habit.”)
In fact, to help with this whole trip, we can borrow a mind-set from those who struggle with more serious alcohol issues: “One day at a time.”