Q Every year we spend our vacation “en famille,” with my French husband’s parents at their large “manoir” in Burgundy. Life there is pleasant but highly ritualized – meals at set times in a dark dining room – never outside, lots of “no-no’s” for our children and obligatory mass on Sundays. My husband doesn’t understand why I’m eager to find other solutions for our long vacation. He sees this place as hassle-free, ideal for our kids, a way to connect with his extended family and to save money. He says that his parents would be extremely hurt by our refusal of their hospitality. I’m starting to dread summer vacation already..
A I think it’s hard for us Americans to understand the strength of the parent-child bond which exists in Latin cultures. The further south you go, the stronger it gets. American parents raise their children with an eye to their later independence, sending them to camp as kids, encouraging peer group activities, insisting that they take summer jobs as teenagers, and generally giving them more decision-making power in their daily lives.
French parents, by contrast, tend to be much more controlling in their upbringing style, valuing conformity to cultural and familial norms rather than individualism in their children. They emphasize loyalty to their clan, punish deviations from that, often try to insulate their children from outside influences, and foster dependence by making money, goods and services available to them well into adulthood. In addition, French adults authorize their parents a considerable amount of involvement – which we might call meddling – in their lives.
The spouse – in this case yourself – is expected to fall in step with the program which, apparently, includes the vacation you describe. Your husband seems to have comfortably accepted a family tradition which has existed for generations.
Though bucking this system is going to be tough, I have the following suggestions:1. When you discuss the matter with him, avoid all criticism of what goes on in this family home, unless you are certain that he chafes under it, too. To the contrary, show appreciation for all the benefits he highlights, as a way of lowering his defenses. 2. Explore what he enjoyed about the more casual lifestyle you had in the US, and use it to help him see the importance for yourself and your children of being able to vacation like that occasionally, even though you realize it has some down sides (greater expense, for instance). Keep in mind as a mantra, “this is for me, not against you.”3. Recruit your in-laws to the possibility of change by laying on praise for all they have done, while evoking the other ideas you might have – even suggesting that they might join you briefly as a way of changing the scene. 4. Sometimes my own French in-laws project a homesickness on me which I don’t necessarily feel, but which I use to justify my need to do things differently. If this happens to you, seize it as an opportunity. Your own in-laws will less likely experience hurt feelings if they don’t see your wanting a change as a rebuff.
Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she organizes workshops dealing with improving relationship skills and building self-esteem.