I am often writing about families in my books – children, parents, sisters, grampas, aunties… the whole family scene. And because it’s all fictional and written for entertainment, these imaginary people are so much wittier, lovelier, kinder and more insightful, or on the other hand, so much more awful, melodramatic and dreadful than the family members that you have to deal with In Real Life.
In real life, these relationships are usually less hilarious and less dramatic, but often much more complex. When everything is going well, it takes care of itself. But when it’s not going well, then family dynamics can quickly become one simmering meltdown of petty insults, tiny resentments and unintended offence. Most of us want to have that loving wider family that we can spend summer holidays with and plan big Christmas reunions around, but for many of us… it’s complicated.
So with New Family Required, I wanted to get under the bonnet of a family that isn’t working well and look at what the problems were about and see if they could be forced by unexpected events to understand each other better. This doesn’t mean it’s one big, involved family therapy session – oh no! In fact, it’s all set over a very long weekend involving a glamorous wedding anniversary party, a roadblock, one very flooded bathroom, and a totally over-the-top Parisienne Grandma to keep everyone entertained.
Families can be difficult
I wanted to write about how family relationships can get harder to maintain over the years. People are growing up in different parts of the country, or world; they are doing different things, and have different interests. Your idea of an idyllic family getaway, might be someone else’s idea of hell. Throw in husbands and in-laws and it all becomes much more fraught.
Giving someone the wrong present at Christmas, forgetting their birthday in the midst of your busy life, older parents gifting valuables or money to one sibling and not the others, one sibling becoming a tearaway success or having financial struggles – all of this can make it really hard to have the kind of relationships you might want to have. Family get togethers, instead of looking like a scene from a Nancy Myers’ movie, start to look like Succession.
Accept that people are different
I have certainly had my ups and downs both with my wider family and my own, little self-made one. I’ve reached a place I’m fairly happy with by accepting that people are truly different – hello neurodiversity – and you can’t foist your own expectations on them. For example, some people just don’t want big, emotional get-togethers, even though other people live for them; some people are at their best, one-to-one on a long walk.
Some relatives love remembering birthdays and sending gifts, while others don’t. Take it from me that Christmas secret santas with wishlists can save all kinds of hurt feelings. And to parents of all ages, it is your job to be fair to a fault to your children of all ages. The smallest thing you didn’t think would matter, can really matter and cause all kinds of upset.
I try to take the long-term view that I would rather have a family I get on with, so let’s just try and smooth over this little disagreement because it matters much less than the bigger picture.
So what can work?
I can do brief and joyful get-togethers, but a big, wider family holiday would completely wear me out, and I won’t do it. I had thought me and my sister-with-children would love talking about parenting, but actually, it’s easier for me and my sister-without-children to do that and with my other sister, we find much more common ground talking about business. Our parenting styles are different and we let each other get on with that without advice or, even worse, remarks. Aren’t families the worst for ‘remarks’? People say things to their blood relatives they would NEVER say to their friends. And we know we shouldn’t… it’s just that sometimes, someone in the family presses that button and the remark is out there in the open and you can’t take it back, no matter how much you would love to.
I’m trying to teach myself to let the pressure out slowly, as soon as required, because it’s better to say a calmer: ‘Hmmm, I’m not sure about that’, or ‘we’ll have to agree to disagree on that’, than bottling it all up and trying to be nice, before finally exploding in a Vesuvius of a meltdown.
The impossible relatives
Some people aren’t very nice – they are selfish, self-obsessed, hyper-critical, and if you’re related to someone like that, it’s understandable that you might want to want to free yourself. But because I’m a sentimental, idealistic type of person, I’m always hopeful that one day there can be at least a moment of real understanding between people who have grown apart. If someone can understand why this person has become like this, maybe they can forgive them, or can find a way to be closer.
So, all of the above is in my mind when I’m interacting with my own relatives and when I was writing this story.
I really look forward to hearing your thoughts about families and about the book.