The holidays are approaching, and you are curled up by the fire envisioning a cozy celebration with your fledgling, nuclear family — two toddlers and a baby on the way. The thought of long-distance travel has you exhausted just thinking about it. You would rather visit with family when things are a little less hectic — perhaps a day or two after the holiday, because you have your own low-key celebration in mind, one which centers around toddlers tearing open gifts and you lounging in PJs all afternoon. You’ll snuggle with your children and read classic stories, such as “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Afterward, you’ll dine on a take-out holiday dinner, because you will be too wiped out to deal with meal preparation and a massive cleanup. There will be no dressy outfits to don, no adverse road conditions to navigate, and you’ll have two more days to wrap everyone else’s gifts. Sheer bliss!
Uh-oh. What will they say if you don’t come? Will Nana have a fit and write you out of the will? Will your sisters tell you that you’ve got a lousy temperament, one that rivals Ebenezer Scrooge?
There are diplomatic ways to ensure that your holiday celebration suits your immediate family without alienating the rest of your clan. After all, you love them all dearly and don’t want to put a crimp in everyone else’s plans, or worse yet, cause long-lasting hurt feelings.
Stress on Young Families
The holidays can be a stressful time under normal circumstances. Busy families are already on overload. Add shopping, wrapping, concerts, and travel to the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Of course, you also have the stress of fitting in time with both sides of the family. However, expectations can be the biggest stressor of all. Everyone seeks the Norman Rockwell version, where children are awestruck, and adults are playful and relaxed. In a quest to make the perfect celebration, many families combust under the pressure, and age-old quarrels and tempers take center stage. Mix in several children who haven’t napped, and — bingo — even the adults are in meltdown mode.
Take a deep breath and consider your ultimate goal. Do you want to spend stress-free time surrounded by the ones you love? Generally, low-key celebrations are better for young children who tend to unravel when exposed to long hours, erratic schedules and lots of unfamiliar people. So, racing from Grandma’s to Cousin Jim’s, and then somehow squeezing in Aunt Lucy’s before bedtime, will only cause exhaustion and resentment. Perhaps it’s time to reinvent the holidays.
According to an article posted by the Mayo Clinic — “Stress, Depression and the Holidays: Tips for Coping” — parents should remember that the holidays don’t have to be perfect. “As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones.” If travel is out of the question, “Find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, e-mails, or videos. Saying ‘yes’ when you should say ‘no’ can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed.”
“Don’t give in to guilt,” cautions Christina Hibbert, a clinical psychologist, author of “This is How We Grow” (Oracle Folio Books), and host of Motherhood Radio and TV (www.motherhoodtv.com). “Guilt isn’t a good reason to do anything, unless it is the type of motivational guilt you need after you’ve actually made a mistake. Most guilt is the depressive kind and only drags us down. Remember that saying ‘no’ to something is saying ‘yes’ to something better. Remind yourself of what you’re saying ‘yes’ to, and then let the guilt go.”
Hibbert explains that parents have to remember to prioritize their nuclear family needs, especially in times of major life stress or duress (e.g. after the birth of a baby or during a time of grief). “During a particularly rough season of my family’s life, we had to do this. We told our [extended family], as kindly as possible, that we just needed to be ‘us’ for this one year. Though there was some fallout, it didn’t last. It showed our children that their needs — and ours — are important,” Hibbert shares.
Broaching the subject
Deep down you know that you have to talk to your family about making some changes, but you don’t want to upset anyone. It’s always best to start with the truth and an empathetic attitude.
Hibbert counsels, “Honesty is always the best policy. Too often, we go along with extended family plans simply because we don’t want to hurt any feelings, when all it really does is prolong the inevitable. If we ignore or fail to honestly explain our feelings and desires for our own young family during the holidays, we end up feeling resentful and frustrated.” Hibbert recalls, “I remember traveling with all six of our kids the first year we had our large family and feeling so wiped out I couldn’t even enjoy the holidays. It was a wake-up call for me.” She suggests using “I statements” (e.g. “I feel exhausted and overwhelmed when…”) because then you take ownership of your situation.
Nicki Nance, a licensed psychotherapist and assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla., advises parents to help family members understand their predicament while making it clear that extended family relationships are important. She suggests bringing up the topic by saying, “We want our visits with you to be special, but this year the kiddies are just too little for that to happen. We want to be part of the holiday, though, and hope you will be willing to use Skype so we can still share in real time.” If you explain your concerns in detail, but suggest another way of connecting, the discussion may go more smoothly than you imagined.
Be sure to tell your loved ones how much you cherish your own childhood memories and that you want your kids to have special memories of the holidays, too — both new traditions and those that are shared by visiting grandparents and other relatives.
Alternatives and solutions
Make an effort to spend time with your relatives, even if it differs from what you’ve done in the past. This will go a long way toward keeping the peace.
If location is not an issue, plan ahead to ensure both a peaceful morning with just your spouse and kids, followed by a road trip to Grandma’s later in the day. However, pack ahead of time and load gifts in the car the day before to avoid a frantic exit.
Some families choose to spend the evening before the holiday with their nuclear family, so they can start their own traditions, such as making festive popcorn balls and watching classic holiday movies or caroling at the local firehouse.
“Very young children have no expectations,” Nance explains. “Make ornaments, sing songs, open gifts and call it a celebration.” Then, the next day’s focus is on the rest of the family.
Hibbert recalls, “Several years ago, I wanted a more meaningful Christmas Eve for my nuclear family, and we started a ‘Christmas Jar’ tradition. All year, we collect money in our Christmas Jar, and on Christmas Eve, we pile in the car to find a person in need to receive the jar. My parents and siblings heard about this and wanted to join in.” Hibbert’s extended family now gathers each year to deliver their jars on Christmas Eve and share a traditional breakfast the next morning. Afterward, all families head home for their individual celebrations.
Having a “special date” for your family celebration can also work (e.g. the weekend before the holiday every year). Be sure to make a big deal about it to all of those involved. A visit before the holiday could involve going to a special concert together or attending a tree lighting ceremony before spending some quality time. Some families opt to bring in the New Year together as an alternative.
Nance suggests a holiday-go-to theme. “Meet somewhere in-between at a theme park, resort, or campsite. Fees to attend can be given as gifts.”
“Remain open to changing needs as your family grows. You may find that, a few years down the road, what worked for your young family doesn’t work so well for your not-so-young family. If you speak your needs kindly and honestly and are willing to keep others’ perspectives in mind, you will find that you can reinvent the holidays as often as needed, and everyone will benefit,” Hibbert says.
Traveling with young children
Whether a trip to grandma Mary’s is a long drive or a flight away, traveling with young children can produce myriad stressors if parents aren’t prepared. Here are some tips for a safe and stress-free journey:
• Avoid busiest travel dates and times
• Leave extra time for mishaps and weather-related delays
• When possible, plan to travel during hours your child sleeps
• Pack healthy snacks and water
• Bring toys and reading materials (add something new — activities with magnetic pieces are convenient while traveling)
• Pack medications (infant Tylenol, inhaler, etc.) and first aid kit in accessible bag
• Don’t forget your child’s comforter (Teddy bear or blanket)
• Stick to children’s meal schedules
• Check tires, oil, etc. Inspection up to date?
• Safety equipment: flashlight, reflector warning triangles, blanket, jumper cables, water, etc.
• Bring USB charger for cellphone
• Check ahead of time for rest stop locations — stretch, use bathroom, throw a ball
• Take turns driving to avoid fatigue
• Explain airport security to little ones ahead of time
• Check latest rules on banned items and carry-on restrictions
• If possible, book a non-stop flight — less chance for delays, loss of luggage, etc.
• Check bag weights and size restrictions — particularly for carry-ons
• Dress in layers: plane temperatures vary in the air and on the ground
• Pack essentials in carry-on (diapers, bottles, extra clothing, etc.)
• It’s safer for children under 2 to fly in a car seat. Check the Federal Aviation Administration website for approved car seats and harness-type restraints: www.faa.gov/travelers/fly_children//