My husband is coming home tomorrow. We are excited. However, I have also noticed another familiar emotion creeping back in each time the countdown to a family reunion gets closer; anxiety. It’s a feeling deep in the pit of the stomach that is born of the pressure to have a good time. To get on with each other and not get upset. To not spoil the precious time we have with stress, bad moods or confrontation (our family specialities!), to swallow down whatever has been bothering us, to not moan about the boring chores that need doing, or the things that need to be fixed.
Instead we tidy, rush around, fix, straighten, clean out, hide and bury anything ‘messy’ away so that we are free to ‘relax’ and have a good time.
This, of course, is a stupid plan. It puts too much pressure on all of us and at one point it is almost guaranteed that one, two, or all three of us will have a meltdown and have to live with the guilt of ‘spoiling’ it. I will feel under-appreciated for all the effort I have gone to. My son will be unable to control his pre-teen back chat or feel he has to hide his tears when it is time to say goodbye and spend all the time we have together worrying about it. My husband will get frustrated that I still don’t put cables away properly or care if the garage is untidy. FYI, if you’re reading this at the airport darling, it is.
The pressure to be perfect nearly always ends up in disaster and this summer holiday has been a big lesson in that. I had dreamt 0f time well spent together, discussing how things have gone over the last year and making plans for the future. Seeing sights, ‘making memories’, filling up our love buckets, or whatever other nauseating terms you want to give to it. Instead there have been cancelled plans, wasted money, hospital visits, mud, floods, tears, arguments, confrontation, disappointment, indecision, uncertainty and disaster at every turn. I am catastrophising a little bit, but it honestly hasn’t been great. There hasn’t even been that much of what we like to call ‘level 2’ fun , when you can at least look back at whatever calamity has befallen you and laugh. I haven’t even kept up my daily summer holiday ice cream quota, so am fatter for nothing.
It’s been disappointing, but I’ve come to realise it’s been made so much worse by the pressure I’ve been putting on myself and everyone else to have a good time. This is not a new thing to me.
Every Thursday evening when I was young it would begin. The awareness that ‘DAD WAS COMING HOME’. The sheets must be changed, the bins emptied, the toilets scrubbed, the house dusted, hoovered and immaculate. We were always excited to see him, but I can still conjure up that feeling of excitement slowly rotting away to anxiety every Friday as we rushed around to get ready. Literally sweeping the mess of the week under the carpet so we could ‘relax’ for family time.
Would Dad be back before bed time? Would he be in a good or bad mood after his week? What would we be doing over the weekend? So much anticipation. So much pressure on all of us. Just as I am finding now, we often failed.
We would annoy him. He would be exhausted and grumpy. There was DIY waiting, the garden to tackle, the supermarket shop to do. There may be a day trip, a drive or a walk, but it would depend on whether we had finished the weekend’s tasks, the weather, the mood, the time we got up, the list of chores, or whatever weekend activities we had signed up for that required a Dad taxi service to get there.
By Sunday we had reached the crescendo. My favourite meal of the week; The Sunday Roast. Again, however, the pressure to have a nice time and make it great was usually a bit too much. The mountain of vegetables to be peeled, the timing to get right, the pudding to prepare (the disappointment if there was no pudding). Then there were the arguments over eating our vegetables (I still hate broad beans), the immense task of clearing up afterwards, and then the dawning knowledge that Dad would be leaving soon. The bags being packed and then the goodbyes. At first they were teary, and then after the years passed, they became shamefully indifferent and maybe even a little relieved to have ‘our’ house back again and the pressure to be perfect relieved for a few days. ‘Normal’ life could resume again.
A Sunday roast is still my favourite meal (see picture below for evidence), but the making and serving of it stresses me out so much that I’m not ever quite sure it’s worth it. Like tea in bed, my husband never had this ritual, so doesn’t understand why I would want to put myself through it when we could just get a take out instead. At least I am now able to look back and see why it was both the best and the worst meal of the week and why it means so much to me.
For me, a Sunday roast, represents all the joy and pain of living life as an interrupted family. The pressure and pleasure of trying to make the best of every moment together and the pain of repeatedly failing to live up to that ideal.
I still clean and tidy obsessively before the weekend or before we go on holiday so that the ‘house is nice’ for when we get back. I will no doubt still exhaust myself trying to present the ‘ideal’ home for my husband to come back to, just like my Mum did before me, and her Mum did before that. Now, however, I am trying to do so with a bit more perspective and hindsight because it is too much pressure on everyone otherwise.
It is not a ‘normal’ way to live as a family, even if it seems normal to behave that way to me. I will strive to find ways to relax. I will forego the Sunday lunch for an M&S ready meal or a trip to the pub instead so that at least someone else can do the washing up. I will try not to care if the kitchen floor is bestrewn with crumbs and the ironing basket is overflowing. That way, we may all be able to enjoy our time together a little bit more, in all its imperfect glory.