“I dream of Christmasses at which the biggest source of tension is Dad nicking 200 Monopoly pounds”William Warby

I am already stressed about my wedding. Coming from the mouth of a barely-adult undergraduate struggling to even feed myself, let alone dwell on the distant spectre of financial stability, I realise that this sounds absurd. But honestly, I’m not a white-wedding-obsessed romantic, nor do I particularly dream of a perfect partner or married life. However, when you come from a family as complex as mine, the terrifying concept of every single family member within 50 metres of each other tends to cross your own mind more often than average.

The term ‘broken family’ is one I have always found to be at once problematic and yet have a ring of truth to it. I often prefer to think of it as ‘monstrously-limbed’: the kind of family that makes people a bit dizzy whenever I try to explain it to them. With two divorces, one half-brother with a different father, one technically step-sister without a marriage, another infant half-brother with a different mother, a sister, step mothers, parents, and all the multifarious conflicts that have come with them, I usually stick to simpler versions when people ask. My parents split when I was an older teenager, and it was therefore easier for me to understand that the decision was going to make them happier in the long-run; the marriage was already broken, in fact, while they remained together. Yet it is especially at Christmas, the holiday of supposed togetherness and goodwill, that the ‘brokenness’ of my family stands out sorely.

Many optimistically see a broken family at Christmas as Christmas twice-over: two dinners, two lots of presents, and two sets of family to share everything with. In some ways, this is true. More often, however, this version belongs to young children, and those whose families don’t struggle with money.  In a lot of cases, divorcees with young children will endeavour to preserve the shimmering festive magic of Christmas by suppressing any bitterness or hard feeling, saving arguments for when the children (at least to their knowledge) are out of earshot. Unfortunately, just as the trusting belief in Father Christmas slowly ebbs away with age, so does this level of protection. Becoming an adult in your parents’ eyes brings with it many perks: a greater degree of openness in your relationship, and freedoms you were not previously granted.

“I dream of Christmases at which the biggest source of tension is Dad nicking 200 Monopoly pounds, or Auntie Julie making an annoyingly smug Brexit comment”

For me, however, this transition came with an extra role as confidant. Suddenly, I became privy to every disagreement, spat, and attack between my parents and siblings. As the only one in the family who splits my time equally between two households, this Christmas I became a war pigeon as another huge argument opened a rift between my siblings and one parent. I spent half the holiday carrying messages from place to place and wearily begging everyone not to shoot the messenger. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place without means of exit. Being biologically and emotionally attached to all my family in equal ways means it is impossible to discern who is telling the whole truth, or to ‘pick a side’ when asked to. For the most part I end up feeling not only extremely stressed, but also useless, choosing to speak as little as possible to avoid upset, but in the process resolving nothing.

Such an environment is exhausting at any time, but it is especially hard at Christmas, a time when you are bombarded with sickeningly wholesome and nuclear-oriented imaginings of happy families around tables full of food and falling asleep in front of the fire. I dream of Christmases at which the biggest source of tension is Dad nicking 200 Monopoly pounds, or Auntie Julie making an annoyingly smug Brexit comment. There is an irritating assumption made by the University that ‘home’ is both a place you will always have access to, and a place at where you will be always be able to relax and unwind. But for many at the University, this simply isn’t the case, and the holidays can bring with them whole other kinds of stress and responsibility that tutors and University staff often fail to account for.  Many students return without having ‘recuperated’ in the way they are supposed to, and I often find myself preferring Cambridge in spite of the academic stress, simply for the luxury of my own space, and the somewhat selfish ability to put myself first.

Having said all this, of course, I wouldn’t change my family for the world, and I’m sure many in my position wouldn’t either. I am grateful for being surrounded by so many people, and for the unique relationships I have with each of them. I am lucky enough to know that many of the grievances between my family spring from concern and care rather than hatred. Besides, perhaps a Christmas with just three or four is boring, and those Monopoly games might actually drag on for too long, with everyone really wishing that they were somewhere else. I’ll probably never know. What I do know, however, is that Christmas will always be an affair full of conflict, joy, and too many people to count. It will always be both a blessing and a curse. And who knows, perhaps in twenty years’ time things will be different. Perhaps then I won’t have to consider a wedding seating plan that includes strategically-placed rope barriers and bouncers between the tables. Well, I can always dream 

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