Recently his mother gave 22-year-old Max the money to put down on a flat of his own, saying she'd miss him but at least he'd be home for birthdays and Christmas. But Max, just down from university, wants to spend this Christmas with his girlfriend and her parents. He knows his mum, a single parent, will be upset if he goes. What should he do?

A lot is written about how mean teenagers are to their parents, but little is written about that odd period between 20 and 30 when children may go through a period almost more hurtful. At least teenagers slam doors in your face and tell you they hate you. But the twenties can be a time when they're so busy establishing their own lives that they not only have no time for their parents but little thought, either. They can appear to be completely oblivious to their parents' feelings.

I look back on my twenties with a shudder. I still did sulky duty by my parents but it wasn't until I had a child of my own that it dawned on me that my parents were actually people with real feelings, and that they weren't invulnerable to my actions or remarks.

Max is different. He knows his mother will be distressed at the double independence whammy he will be laying on her this year. Not only is he moving out of the family home, but he's also planning to leave his mother alone at Christmas for the first time as well. If I were Max's mum I'd be very understanding but I'd still feel upset.

The emotional pitfalls of single-parenthood linger long after the stage when there's only one of you to get up to screams in the middle of the night, or only a reflection in a mirror with whom to discuss the vexed question of schools. It's terribly tempting, when a child is older, to use him or her as a prop to keep loneliness at bay from time to time. And I can well identify with the feelings that Max's mum will probably have on hearing his proposal. For Max not only wants to be with his girlfriend at Christmas, rather than his old mum, but, worse, he wants to be with her family, a family that appears to contain, even more galling, two parents. How her imagination will run riot as he leaves, full of expectation, on Christmas Eve. If she's anything like me she will fantasise about his girlfriend's parents seducing her boy with promises of expensive summer holidays, yachting weekends, all the happy family activities she's never been able to give him herself.

I don't think Max can pretend he doesn't want to go to his girlfriend's. And certainly, were I his mum, I'd be very upset to have a resentful young man gobbling down his turkey on Christmas Day, switching on the telly and looking at his watch, only hanging about till Boxing Day out of guilt. He would have to be a very good actor to feign real enjoyment, and mothers know their sons as well as sons know their mums. The unwilling feelings would pop out somewhere and ruin Christmas.

So Max should either explain how he feels but assure her that he'll ring twice on the day and reassure her that he'll be there at New Year; or, if he knows them well enough, ask his girlfriend's parents if he could bring his mum along too.

Yes, of course Christmas is just another day and some people argue that there's no real reason to feel specially lonely on Christmas Day if there's nowhere to go, but loneliness and misery do not, sadly, listen to reason. Max is a big boy now and has to lead his own life. But if he can be sweet, kind and considerate to his mum even though he's at an age when most children are not their most caring, he'll be a very special son indeed.

Few men are capable of sacrifice

Max, who has faint stirrings of conscience over preferring to be with his girlfriend than his mother at Christmas, should face up to the reality of loving himself more than he loves his mother. The only test of love is what one will sacrifice for the loved one. If he spends Christmas with his mother he will be sullen and resentful and spoil the festivities. He should accept that few men are capable of sacrifice and tell his mother that now, and in his future, he intends simply to - as the moderns say - "live his own life" and please himself.

I stayed at home until both my parents died. I didn't think of it as sacrifice; I loved them too much and wanted to support them financially and in every other way. I had refused several offers of marriage - the first when I was only 17. But after they had gone I made an unexpected and extremely happy marriage in my middle age.

Mrs Rodgers, West Sussex

Been there, survived that

Max has shown how concerned he is for his mother's feelings, and is clearly cognitive to her wishes. Max needs to be steered towards the realisation that it is time for him to begin his independent adult life and she should be proud of his concern.

Can Max make a special point of staying with her for her birthday or for New Year? If his mother can stand back and enjoy watching her son make reasonable decisions about these emotionally dangerous moments, she can be confident that he will certainly choose to spend other Christmases with her. We have been through this in my own family and, as my children were going through student years and into their twenties, it was discussed comfortably between us.

I made it clear that I would love to have them with me but would not be offended if they wished to stay with their partner's family, or even on their own - just as I can enjoy Christmas on my own if that is what suits us all. We do all get together from time to time "instead of Christmas", and that has great value too - we do it because we want to and it suits our varied lives, not just because it's expected or to keep Mum company.

Helen McPhail, Shrewsbury

Don't become mum's surrogate partner

Growing up involves growing away from our parents, to some extent. You're already well into that process having been away at college. I don't think that you should spend Christmas with your mum if you desire to be elsewhere with your girlfriend. Later, when you are settled, and probably married, you could share Christmas with your mother again but under different circumstances. It's important that you don't become your mother's surrogate partner. She needs to face up to the fact that you have left home: your need for your mother has changed. It is not easy for a single parent to accept this particular change as it is a kind of inevitable and unwelcome rejection, unless the adult child has relinquished his or her desire for independence.

Tell your mum, as soon as possible, of your intentions and don't weaken your resolve by her possible negative emotional response. She'll need time to get used to the idea but friends, relatives or you might suggest that a complete break from the habitual Christmas routine could be pleasurable. Of course, your mother might be just waiting for the day when you leave for good: she may have other plans!

Martin Lloyd, Woodbridge, Suffolk

Keep your options open

Regarding Max's dilemma, I know the problem. Try one of the following:

1 Tell your mum you'll spend New Year with her.

2 Promise your mum that it will be her turn next Christmas.

3 Ask your girlfriend's parents to invite your mum for Christmas too.

4 Host Christmas yourself, and invite your girlfriend, her parents and your mum.

5 Have Christmas lunch with your mum and drive to your girlfriend's parents for dinner.

Option four is my personal favourite. Option five can be hard to digest.

Martin Harris, Vienna

NEXT WEEK'S PROBLEM: SHOULD I STAND UP TO HER EVEN THOUGH SHE IS DISABLED?

Dear Virginia,

I'm a mature student and I'm in a class which includes a disabled woman called Dorothy. Everyone's made allowances for her, being courteous and helpful without being patronising. But she seems to wallow in her various disabilities ensuring everyone knows she is disabled and that they have to take care of her. When she was ill I offered to take notes for her, but now she expects it and if I don't, she gets vicious and abusive. Recently she's been spreading rumours about the other students and members of staff - their only crime being that they don't pander to her disabilities.

How can I prevent her concocting stories about other students? Should I stand up to her despite her problems? What do other disabled people think?

Yours sincerely,

Peter

Comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate.

Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293-2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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