Virginia Ironside Dilemmas: 'How can I put my parents off joining me on my gap year?'

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Dear Virginia, I'm on my gap year. I've been travelling around different countries – I'm in India at the moment – and I love the feeling of not knowing where I'll be from one week to the next. The problem is my parents. They have emailed me saying they want to visit me for a fortnight in October. But I don't know where I'll be! I like it that way and want to keep my options open. And, although I love my parents, I don't want to have them hanging around. We'd have to spend two weeks living in hotels and going to museums and seeing sights... How can I put them off without hurting them? Yours sincerely, Leonie

When you're young it's extremely difficult to understand how much other people love and care for you. As a child, youfeel you have so little power, it's often difficult to realise how quite how central you are to other people, particularly your parents. The truth is that they miss you desperately when you're away. They're so busy trying to give you your freedom and help you stretch your wings and fly the nest, that when you do, they aren't prepared just for how hollow and empty their nest can be. This idea of them coming to join you, which from your point of view is, understandably, a nightmare, is probably only a fragment of what they'd like to do.

Imagine your mother saying to your father: "Why don't we join our daughter backpacking! That would be fun, wouldn't it?" And he might have said: "Hold on – she's got to learn to be independent!" Then your mother might have said: "Well let's go out for a month. We could give her a really good time and we could see that she's eating properly and it would be lovely to see her..." and then your father might have said: "Well, to be honest, I don't think we should go at all. I think she's trying to be independent," whereupon your mum might have burst into tears and he replied: "OK, let's go for a couple of weeks."

What I mean is: you think a fortnight is ages; they probably think it's an incredibly slimmed and pared-down version of the amount of time they'd really like to spend with you.

I don't think, to be fair, you can put them off altogether. No doubt they've helped financially with your gap year, even if only a small contribution. They've also presumably given you huge emotional support. Now they're gibbering, lonely jellies back at home, who need something to live for, just to get them through the difficult time of adapting to your leaving, eventually, for good.

If you really can't bear a fortnight, and at your age I'm sure I'd feel the same as you, however much I loved my parents, why don't you suggest a week... and suggest they stay somewhere else in India, say, and have a good time on their own for the other week. You could say your life's so hectic and full of surprises at the moment that you don't want to let them down by disappearing half-way through their stay.

You're old enough to go exploring the world on your own. So surely you're old enough to realise that you have a little bit of responsibility to your grieving parents.

A week with them isn't going to ruin your trip. And I can't tell you what it'll mean to them. You never know – when it happens you might just enjoy it, too.

They'll understand

I, too, was that mother. Our only child went to China on his gap year and I felt terrible. I desperately wanted to see him and suggested a fortnight's visit. He felt as you do...

The thing is, you don't feel the same way about your parents as they feel about you; generally children feel a sort of irritated affection and parents feel a visceral connection. I think it does you credit that you are concerned not to hurt their feelings. Our son replied carefully and thoughtfully that he didn't think it would work, for various reasons, and said explicitly that he was sorry and didn't want to hurt us and that he appreciated all our love and support.

Of course, I was hurt and upset, but I respected his way of dealing with it and took it on board. Our relationship has survived fine! Don't feel you have to see them because they need to see you; it's the parent's job to bear these things and it goes with the territory.

Jan Hepburn, By email

Be adult about it

You lucky, lucky person. Here is your chance to give your parents the holiday of a lifetime. It can bring you closer to them and help them to accept you as an independent adult. On the other hand, whatever form of words you use to put them off, it WILL hurt them a lot. It may even handicap your relationship with them for many years to come.

Bite the bullet but take control. Decide where to take them, possibly even returning to somewhere you've already visited so you can show them round – I expect they will pay the cost of you travelling there from wherever you happen to be at the time. Work out an itinerary based on what they will enjoy. And you can enjoy the act of giving, because yours will be the ultimate gift: the gift of time. Your gap year is not just for laugh-out-loud fun; it's also for learning about yourself and part of becoming an adult. This fortnight may be really important for that process. If you approach it with this in mind, you may also find that it can be fun.

David Smith, By email

Don't miss out

I would suggest you compromise on this. Don't meet them for two weeks – that's too long given how you feel. As an alternative, plan a long weekend (or even a week) to enjoy their company and perhaps some more luxurious accommodation. That way you are not allowing yourself to be controlled by your parents or treated like a child, but nor are you being selfish.

In my early twenties my mother asked me to go on holiday to Italy with her but, like you, I didn't fancy a holiday with a parent at that age so I didn't go. She died a few years later and now, 20 years later, I wish that I had the memory of that holiday.

Alison Carroll, By email

Next week’s dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I've been in a relationship with a younger man for the last year. It's been on-off, and from the start he said that he wanted a younger woman who could give him children. He's even confided with me about suitable candidates. But he always said that he loves me best of all and that if I weren't too old to have children, he'd marry me. Now he's found someone who he says is the perfect woman for him and they're going to get married. He's said that he wants me to be at the wedding. Part of me wants to go and cheer him on, because he's become almost like a son to me. But part of me wants to go and create a scene, because I do love him. And part of me doesn't want to go because it hurts too much. Which part do you think I should listen to? Yours sincerely, Catherine

What would you advise Catherine to do?Email your dilemmas and comments to Anyone whose advice is quoted will receive a £25 voucer from the wine website Fine Wine Sellers (