Going home from time to time to visit your family after moving out can bring up a lot of confusing, sometimes upsetting feelings. However, returning from college for the winter holidays? Those challenges are next level. There is something about the half-occupied bunk beds and clothes horses inhabiting your childhood bedroom that can almost instantly draw a sigh. Or a tear. These feelings tend to be amplified by the fact that the winter period often encourages us to spend time with family, celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year, or the many other occasions that punctuate that time of the year. Maybe it is the post-Christmas lull I am experiencing or the desire to know how to tackle these feelings in the future, but I have been reflecting on how the most wonderful time of the year can sometimes feel like the most difficult one.
“Trying to pull on that jersey from when you were 12 reflects squeezing your newfound independence into your home life.”
Reintegrating into family life after having lived alone for a while often feels like trying to fit into old clothes — something I do find myself doing, literally. Trying to pull on that jersey from when you were 12 reflects squeezing your newfound independence into your home life. The novelty wears off quickly, and it can actually be quite painful.
I remember my first-year self being desperate to go home and celebrate Christmas – college is a bittersweet experience after all, both socially exhilarating and socially exhausting. I felt like I could finally hide in that small pocket of the countryside, away from lonely Lidl trips and Circuit laundry. I realise how privileged this sounds. Living away from home is both luxurious and liberating. The growing pains, however, cannot be ignored.
Getting home for the holidays, no matter how much relief it might initially evoke, comes with shock at the dissonance between oneself and one’s hometown, a dissonance that has developed over the time of only a few months. This is a position a lot of people find themselves in upon returning home from college. It can manifest itself in different ways: maybe it felt like that middle bit of Scott Street by Phoebe Bridgers or — however painful it has become to bring up Paul Mescal and Phoebe Bridgers in the same breath — that bit in Normal People when Connell explains to the counsellor how he neither fits in at college nor at home anymore. This familiar sense of limbo, of having almost accidentally and irreversibly thrust yourself away from your childhood, but not properly into adulthood, is incredibly hard.
Not to mention the traumatic at worst, awkward at best, family histories that lurk at most dinner tables. The holiday season can put unwelcome emphasis on who might no longer be there, or give rise to long-standing tensions, even in families of relative calm. All of this on top of intergenerational clashing values might be enough to make you seize your Terry’s Chocolate Orange and head back to the big smoke. I have put together some coping mechanisms which have helped me over the past few years and perhaps they will also soothe the pains that you are experiencing when you return home.
“If I have learnt anything from going home for the holiday, it is that listening to LCD Soundsystem’s Christmas Will Break Your Heart feels a lot cooler when you’re wearing a fabulous outfit, headphones and shades.”
First and foremost, keep in touch with your college friends. Send a card, a text — a carrier pigeon if necessary — to help yourself adjust to the feeling of being at home without beginning to think that Fresher’s Week, the Arts Block and Workman’s were just a convincing fever dream. Make a plan with said college friends for when you get back; and if you haven’t yet found your crowd (or even if you have) it is valuable to reach out to friends from home too. If they too have returned from living elsewhere, they will be feeling the familiar lurch in their stomach when they call their place of study home instead of the place where they grew up in. Having someone else identify with your feelings can be validating amid mixed feelings of nostalgia. Another way to beat the hometown blues: along with the new worldview you are forming at college, take home that cool vintage shirt you bought or a few pictures from the semester. If I have learnt anything from going home for the holiday, it is that listening to LCD Soundsystem’s Christmas Will Break Your Heart feels a lot cooler when you’re wearing a fabulous outfit, headphones and shades. If you do choose to take family members to task over any differing values across the Easter table for example, I find that hefty eyeliner and contextualising any seemingly outlandish opinions helps a lot.
The adolescent feeling of being trapped at home, only to suddenly find yourself feeling locked out when you go back home during college is quite common. And however much you fight it, it firmly establishes that you are growing up. Uncomfortable situations, nostalgia and yearning to get back to college can all be part of this process. Give yourself time to adjust and allow yourself to be a work in progress when you deal with these mixed emotions — I, like most of us, still struggle with it — and if this year was a bust, remember that another winter is upon us in no time. Our expectations of the winter period are often heightened by a lot of the familial sentiments that are associated with the time, and the pressure that this brings can be burdensome; I have recently taken to trying the approach that The 1975 sing about in Wintering: “I just came for the stuffing, not to argue about nothing”. Take comfort in the fact that all experiences can feel somewhat ambivalent, and that this rule applies to both home life and college life. All this is to say that if you too have ever returned home from college for the holidays and felt the relief of your return disappear as quickly as the sun at 4pm — know you are not alone.