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How to love your in-laws during an extended stay - you can't

Date

Jan Etherington

The plight of the English family marooned over the festive season is a lesson to us all.

A bit of a strain ... Christmas with the extended family can throw up some irksome issues.

A bit of a strain ... Christmas with the extended family can throw up some irksome issues. Photo: Supplied

In what could turn out to be the understatement of 2012, Pam Hughes, 71, from Fareham, Hampshire, admitted it was ''a bit of a strain'' to spend so much time in a confined space with her ex-husband and his new wife, her son and his partner and other assorted in-laws, after floodwater trapped them for a week in a holiday cottage in Worcestershire.

She added: ''It would have been nice if we could have got out. We were getting a little bit stir crazy by the end.''

Having arrived at the house on the banks of the Severn on December 22, the eight adults, four children and a dog were rescued only on Saturday. I'm sure it sounded like a good idea at the time: ''Let's get everyone together. It's just four days. What could possibly go wrong?''

Rising floodwater might have extended their confinement, but I bet they'd bailed out of ''best behaviour'' long before they got the sandbags out. For the trouble is, at Christmas, everyone is on tenterhooks and if you are trying to impress your family, the least thing can tip you over the edge.

My in-laws are no longer with us, but they used to come regularly to stay. Although they claimed they were ''no trouble'', I always found myself praying, as I drove to the station to pick them up on Christmas Eve: ''Please let me be a patient and nice person and not sigh and snap, just for Christmas.''

By day two, steam would be coming out of my ears - and the kitchen. My mother-in-law was boiling handkerchiefs. ''You can't get them clean any other way. And I got you some eggs. You were running low.'' I had just a dozen left.

She was afraid of the dishwasher. So, however many times I explained how it worked, I only had to turn my back for five minutes and she'd rinsed everything ''to save me''. From what, my inner voice would scream. And then there was my father-in-law's whistling in the bathroom. Without his teeth in.

Ideally, in-laws should come for the day. They should arrive at about noon, and leave at about 4pm, after a bit of cake and trifle. If they have to stay, then two nights is the limit. It is physically impossible to hold that rictus grin any longer - the one you perfected when you opened their present to you. And two, maybe three, days is the longest you can wear that clunky, wooden necklace or the itchy scarf.

''My mother-in-law gave me a brush and comb set this year. It had hairs on it. Hers!'' says my friend. ''And I spent weeks putting together a photo calendar for her!''

Being a hostess 24/7 is gruelling. Every five minutes someone wants a cup of tea or a conversation, and there's no privacy, so you can't have a good row with your husband. Worse, when the in-laws are around you can't lie on the sofa eating chocolates and watching back-to-back episodes of Mad Men. In fact you find yourself monitoring all TV shows for embarrassing bits, just as you would with children.

When friends phone up on Boxing Day, you know it's an excuse for a rant about the in-laws. ''She actually said: 'Do you find it easier to clean the oven every time you use it, or do you do it just once a week?' The cheek. Although to be fair, we had had trouble squeezing the roasting tin through the burnt bits on the oven door.''

The first time my mother came to us for Christmas my husband was in charge of the cooking. He almost wept when she insisted that the sprouts be boiled dry before she considered them edible. As far as she was concerned, al dente was an Italian dentist. It certainly had nothing to do with any food that passed her pursed lips.

She had an uncomplicated relationship with my husband, her son-in-law. ''Your present's in the garage,'' she said, one year. He promptly went out and found a gift-wrapped bag of manure. ''You said you wanted something for the garden.''

After years of everyone piling into my house on Christmas Day, you'd think I'd be happy to pass the oven-glove on to my son or my daughter's family. But that presents its own dilemmas. As a mother-in-law, should I offer to help or not? Truth is, we're damned if we do and damned if we don't.

If I leave them to it and kick back with the grandson's Nintendo DS, I can sense smouldering resentment. On the other hand, appear in the kitchen with anything remotely bordering on an opinion about lunch …

All I said to my son-in-law was: ''If you want to eat at 2pm, you should think about putting the turkey in now.'' As subtle as a Jacuzzi at Versailles, I think you'll agree.

''It's much too early,'' he insisted. ''Doesn't need that long.''

Then, instead of shutting up, I heard myself carrying on: ''Look, I've been cooking Christmas lunches for 40 years!''

My daughter flapped a newspaper between us. ''Survey here says families have their first Christmas argument at 10.13am.''

I looked at my watch: 10.15am.

How we all laughed. And then they locked me out of the kitchen.

It's no wonder that Pam Hughes's family have already planned quieter festivities for 2013. ''Next year,'' said her son's partner after their rescue, ''we will spend Christmas at home.''

Telegraph, London

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