Jump directly to the Content

In-Law Overload

When visiting family, Carol and Kevin Heffernan had to redefine downtime.

Carol's side: I need more space!

On December 23 Kevin and I arrived at his parents' house to celebrate our first holiday as a married couple. After a five-hour drive, a late arrival, and a hearty welcome, I was eager to catch more than a few winks, rejoicing in the fact that no alarm clock would jolt us out of bed the next morning.

I was in for quite a shock.

We were awakened at the crack of dawn by a train whistle blowing not so subtly outside our bedroom door. Evidently, my father-in-law loves to rouse houseguests with a bang and an announcement: "Breakfast time!"

After breakfast time came talk time, then snack time, shopping time, and lunch time; cooking time prepared us for dinner time, which preceded game time, and then—finally!—bedtime. Saturday and Sunday followed suit, except we were awakened by a ukulele one morning and a recording of Handel's Messiah the next. By Sunday afternoon I was ready to crack. Too much talking. Too much food. Too much activity! I needed some downtime—fast.

"How can you handle going, going, going all the time?" I asked Kevin as we dragged ourselves to bed. "I haven't had a chance to think, let alone nap or read the book I brought. I can't take any more of this constant commotion."

I expected Kevin to sympathize and promise that we'd spend the following day lounging around. Instead he responded, "This is what I'm used to. My family enjoys being with each other, and my parents like to be on-the-go."

"Staying active is fine," I replied. "But it's not easy spending my vacation following someone else's agenda. Our lives at home are busy enough, so when we're away, the last thing I want is a jam-packed schedule."

I love my in-laws and I want our visits to be fun for everyone. But how can I handle so much time together without becoming completely overwhelmed?

Kevin's side: I enjoy active family time

Growing up, my dad often said, "Adventure is on the road." So my family was always on the lookout for a concert to attend, a vacation to take, or a new restaurant to visit. But Carol's mom and dad were much more hands-off. She spent the bulk of her free time with her friends, and family time was limited to the occasional Sunday evening meal.

So when we visited my parents for the holidays, I enjoyed and found comfort in the constant stream of activity and marathon conversations.

"If you'd let down your guard and accept that my family is different from yours, you might start to have fun," I told Carol one morning when she complained. "We don't see my parents that often, so the least we can do is enjoy the activities they plan."

"That's just it," Carol replied. "Why does there have to be a plan at all?"

"I know your ideal vacation doesn't include this much activity. But I wish you could understand that my family likes to pack as much into a day as possible. Why can't you accept these differences instead of fighting them?"

It would be easier if Carol could simply relax and appreciate this is how my mom and dad express love to us. Right now I'm frustrated, torn between the desires of my parents and my wife—and that's a no-win situation!

What They Did

Because they knew this friction wouldn't simply go away, Kevin and Carol had to come up with a plan for future visits.

"I enjoy being with your family," Carol told him during their strategy meeting. "I just need a little time to myself!"

"I know my mom and dad would be hurt or offended if you opted to sit out on activities while we're together," Kevin replied. "But I also realize the intensity of our family get-togethers can be a lot to handle. We need to figure out how to strike a healthy balance."

This discussion led to their first boundary: family trips should be kept to a few days in length.

"I didn't want to be selfish in my expectations for Kevin's family," Carol says. "With a shorter visit I can participate in all the activity without feeling overloaded."

A second boundary had to do with sleeping past sunrise. Kevin offered to gently remind his up-and-at-'em dad to hold off a couple hours before striking up the band.

"I'm used to my dad waking me early, so it didn't occur to me that other families handle mornings differently," Kevin says. "But trust me—I don't mind making a change when it comes to sleeping in."

Their third boundary? Carol suggested she and Kevin take a walk, a drive, or a coffee break each day—just the two of them.

"Sure we're around each other when we stay with his family, but the distractions can lead to a break-down in our communication," she says. "Taking an hour away from the hubbub is all I need to refuel and reconnect with Kevin."

Even though they were reared by parents with radically different ideas about family time, Kevin and Carol ultimately reached the same conclusion. "We take God's command to honor our mother and father to heart—and that includes in-laws," Kevin says. "It helps us to pray together for our families, especially before we spend time with them. That way, we're unified as a couple and intentional about looking out for each other's needs."

Carol has since adjusted to Kevin's family. "I still get tired on occasion," she says. "But I'm thankful that Kevin has been so patient and willing to talk this through."

"Defining our expectations has made all the difference," Kevin adds. "Now visits with my parents are more enjoyable—for them, and for us."

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Free CT Women Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: CT's weekly newsletter to help you make sense of how faith and family intersect with the world.

Read These Next


Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter

Follow Us

More Newsletters