Kirsten’s recent tip on “just saying no” to holiday stress raised this question for me: why is it so hard to say no, especially to extended family, especially around the holidays? When J and I first married, we had to figure out how to share holidays with two families (we had it easy – some people are pulled between more than four due to divorce, remarriage and grandparents), who lived in different parts of the country with their own unique customs. With the approval of both sides, we agreed to alternate years, Thanksgiving with one family, Christmas with the other. Both sides were very gracious about this, but I always sensed their sadness/disappointment whenever it wasn’t “their” holiday with us. This intensified when we had kids, because of the renewed magic babies bring to holiday traditions.
The Stress. Many people will say that traveling with babies shouldn’t be a “big deal” – but the car seats, gear, snacks, diapers, holiday traffic and melt-downs can make even a short trip feel like an eternity. Then, add all the overeating, gifts, expectations, family dynamics and lack of sleep. Even when things went amazingly well, we always felt exhausted, needing a few days to get back on track physically and emotionally. One year after a particularly difficult holiday, J sat me down and made a request. “Can we please do our own thing next year? Start our own traditions with our own kids in our own home?” I remember my immediate, visceral response. “There’s no way. We would hurt too many peoples’ feelings.”
When J and I divorced, it was just before Thanksgiving. That first year, we tried to keep up the traditions, visiting both sides of the family, who were also struggling with grief over the loss of our marriage. It was very painful for all of us, and wound up causing more damage than healing or comfort to everyone involved. The experience spurred long talks about the “holiday future” we want for our kids – one that does NOT include them feeling pulled between multiple homes, stuffed with rich foods, timelines and the expectations of others.
We especially don’t want them to be concerned with being “FAIR”. Oh, how I hate that word. What does it even mean? In the end, it’s not about fair. No amount of fairness or compromise will please everyone, because everyone brings so many complicated hopes and expectations to the holidays, usually based on crap that was missing for them when they were kids. If your goal is to make a bunch of people happy, you are setting yourself up to fail. Often at the expense of your own sanity (and the sanity of your kids).
What would happen if you focused instead on pleasing yourself, and your little nuclear family? I have floated this idea to a few couples in my therapy practice, and they usually exchange a stunned look, which when silent-movie-dubbed says, “Could we actually DO that???” The Sipkowski Formula (loosely based on the best traditions of friends we’ve watched who know how to enjoy life): we declared a stay-at-home, move slowly policy. We have an open invitation to extended family, but the 4 of us stay in town and keep it simple. Our tree and decorations go up a little at a time. Christmas dinner is relaxed and decadent, served on Christmas Eve. Christmas morning is coffee, a big brunch, music and opening gifts at a relaxed pace. Christmas night is my favorite part. Friends, neighbors and “orphans” come over for tacos, margaritas, and to vent about the crazy holiday they’ve just experienced, while we squeezed limes in anticipation of their
arrival. I highly, highly recommend this plan.
When you go through a major change, good or bad, every shred of available strength becomes necessary. Anything elective that drains your reserves is forced into inspection. This is possibly never more true than when you add a new life to your family. The holidays are an excellent time to practice weighing the immediate pain/anxiety of saying “no” to someone you care about against the long term relief that could come with a positive change, and the reclamation of your own time and resources. If you find yourself pulled in a million directions during the holidays, consider letting this be the first year you stop that (since you’re the only one who can).
Here’s To Sanity and Fresh Limes,