Every year I spend the last week in August at my parents’ beach house, and every year it is horrible. I realize that I am lucky that my parents have a beach house, and they generously share it with my husband, my daughter, and me. I love my parents, and I want to spend time with them, but spending time with them also drives me crazy.
Making them both happy at the same time is impossible, and making even one of them sort-of happy often comes at the cost of my own happiness, so on each trip, it’s not long before I give up on making anyone happy and then enter a shame spiral which makes everyone—including me—miserable.
August is coming around again and I’m already quaking with anxiety. Please help.
Not-a-Very-Good Jewish Daughter
Mazel tov and thank you!
On behalf of the Society for BIGASM (Behavior Induced by Guilt And Synchronized Misery), I would like to congratulate you on being elected as the newest Ambassador for Truth.
I’ll be honest, Ambassador, I’ve just handed you a crappy job. But you can handle it. In fact, being elected is about 23% of the battle, so put on your game face and your tankini, and let’s get ready to rumble.
First and foremost, yes it’s great that your parents are alive. I’m also delighted that they share their beach house with you. And guess what? I’m no mathematician, but I do know that human existence + seaside real estate does not always = happiness. There is this notion flying around that if we start our day with a gratitude journal, nothing will hurt any more. That, my friend, is a bunch of plankton. Especially when you’re in charge of making other people happy in a harmonized giggle fest and then you berate yourself when you find out that that’s impossible.
Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Pema Chodron, ordained nun and badass brilliant Tibetan Buddhist:
We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
(from her book, “When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times”)
Ambassador, I am writing this as much for me as for you. I have spent many of my years fermenting the art of passive-aggressive-nice-nice-phooey. Here are just a few self-destructive activities I enjoyed while trying to make everyone in the room happy at once:
– Drinking discount wine in excess
– Picking at my face so badly that I required medical attention
– Breaking a pane of glass with a bottle of sunscreen
Usually, I like to spiral into a self-hating tantrum before I get into the car, because then I can lash out at the people nearest and dearest to me, instead of the mom or dad figure who is truly the source of my angst. I’ve also been known to have full-blown meltdowns at the Vince Lombardi Service Area and Welcome Center, the couch section of IKEA, and the shoulder of the West Side Highway.
Do I regret these outbursts? No way. I just wish I got a plaque or something for best work in a dramatic series.
And that’s the thing, Ambassador. This week you are about to embark on is part of a series. It doesn’t have to be the season finale. So here are a few relatively healthy tactics I’d like to offer to you:
1. Be the Firefly
Just the other day I was reminded of this one. My daughter caught a bunch of fireflies in a jar and they were so spastic and bright under a canopy of aluminum foil… until we realized they were throwing themselves against the sides of the glass because we didn’t poke any air holes.
MAKE SURE YOU GET FRESH AIR. A lot of it. Every day. No matter how many storm clouds are tumbling by, it will give you space and calm. Morning coffee on the porch. A walk by the water before anyone else is up. If you’re feeling really daring, invite one of your parents on a stroll. That way it counts as one-on-one time and oxygen intake. Whenever the conversation strays into Stressville, you can find something to marvel at in the skyline. Or collect shells and whisper at the sea, Dayeinu.
You don’t have to actually do a rehearsed breathing technique, but it sure is fun to watch this video. Or this one. Point is, breathing is usually an involuntary activity, but if you focus on it, it can be the gateway to relaxation. Breathe in while counting to four, hold it for four, then breathe out for eight. Or switch it up and breathe out of the side of your mouth, puff like a dragon, whistle Dixie. Any technique that makes you concentrate on your lungs doing their magic routine. You can do this while chanting the Serenity Prayer, or when your mother is lecturing you on how much she sacrificed for you to understand the importance of a good haircut.
3. Research Jacques Cousteau
Yes, I’m a fishball, so my natural habitat is in the sea. I also believe wholeheartedly in the sanctity of free swim. Dunking under water—even if it’s a prolonged bath or shower—gives the world a weightlessness that is truly holy. You don’t have to be a freestyle qualifier. Just immerse yourself and let the waves toss your body and brain.
4. Ask for the Salt instead of Emotional Transformation
Ambassador, I am giving you an assignment:
Ask for something specific. Maybe it’s passing the salt at dinner. Maybe it’s something a little more substantial, like a week off from discussing immigration reform, or a night out with your husband. Something you want that’s fully attainable. As opposed to, “Could I maybe have some time to do something fun or just a moment of acceptance where we don’t fight or fall into old patterns of unrealistic expectations and, ultimately, disappointment?”
Be specific with yourself, too. Give yourself a challenge each day that has nothing to do with your dear parents. As in, “Today I will compliment that teenager at the snack bar,” or, “Today I will eat a fresh peach.” And then, get it done.
5. Jigsaw puzzles
The big kind that take days to complete. Also Monopoly, Parcheesi, Go fish, Scrabble, Connect Four. The more complicated, the better.
Outdoor concerts. New playlists. Even humming under your breath changes the vibrations of the air around you. Maybe get your daughter to lead everyone in a round of her favorite Katy Perry tune. Which brings me to:
7. The Next Generation
I’m so glad you procreated. And now your daughter can give back to you by being the focus of your parents. Invite her to tell Grandma and Grandpa about her latest science experiment or read off the cafeteria menu. Tell her to bring her yearbook from school, her bead collection, her favorite art projects. If she’s smaller, make sure she’s ready to show off her poopy diapers and gooey giggles. Build up the excitement by calling your parents the week before and announcing, “Nora has some great stories for you,” or, “Did I tell you Alice is really into volcanoes?”
Also, make sure they take her out to a meal, an aquarium, or one of those shops with overpriced pottery that you can paint.
8. Free fall
Obviously, these are not going to solve your decades of angst. So the most important thing I can tell you is surrender. When you feel yourself spiraling into shame, wherever you are, yell Weeeeeeeee! Because this is all we can do, right? Give in to the tender vulnerability of wanting it all to change. And if you dare, when you’re done howling, you can say, “Mom. Dad. I feel so sad and frustrated when this happens. I’m trying really hard.”
And make sure to stop at the Vince Lombardi Service Area and Welcome Center on the way home.
With love and schmaltz,
Have a question for Gefilte? Send it to email@example.com, and you might just get an answer.