On this side of being a family of five, it’s hard to imagine what life will be like when the kids are all old enough to be out of diapers, write their own Christmas lists, and express their opinions about how we spend the season. Thankfully, I have a few friends who are further down the road than we are. Keith and Karri are a couple of those friends.
We met Keith and Karri during our time living in Wisconsin. They were transplants like we were, enjoyed cooking and eating good food, and were always up for a game night. It’s no wonder we all bonded so seamlessly. I was catching up with her recently, wondering how I will ever get from this frazzled mother of three littles to where she is, a mother of three “big kids,” and still have my brain intact, especially when it comes to either getting through or enjoying this most glorious time of the year. She had some great and practical insight, and since she is a writer herself, I asked her if she’d be willing to share with all of you.
So, now, I’m delighted to introduce you all to my friend Karri, who’s got a pretty good handle on this “holidays with family” thing…
Surviving the Holidays
“I don’t know what to say, except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.”
~ Ellen Griswold, Christmas Vacation
Holiday. The sheer mention of the word can invoke both excitement and dread in the bravest of us married folk. It’s understandable why the holidays can test even the strongest unions. It’s taken me, personally, 15 years of marriage, three kids and two very different families to figure it out. And it’s always changing as people marry, move, have families, and change careers.
Everyone has his or her quintessential idea of what a holiday should look like, right? Commonly, it’s molded from our own childhood experiences or those portrayed in media and books if your experience wasn’t as idyllic. To sum it up, we all have our holiday baggage. Mine sometimes stays neatly arranged in a cute, matching carry-on that travels well. Other times it looks and smells like a duffle bag after a week at summer camp. (Metaphorically speaking, of course.) I’d like to think my best years as a holiday guest at family functions are yet to come. With three children, a lot of time has been spent tending to their needs. I’ve only been half-present in most conversations as I was busy making sure the toddler didn’t fall down the very steep, very child-unfriendly staircase.
When it comes to spending time with the “other” family during the holidays, a 2012 survey by the online relationship site, theicebreak.com, reveals that women were far more likely than men to specify they had negative feelings, including dread and nervousness. Men, however, were more likely to specify that they were looking forward to the experience. Think about your own upcoming holidays – which category do you fall into: fun family flick or holiday disaster movie? The best-loved holiday movies are always full of family drama, dysfunctional humor, great suffering or loss, and redemption. It’s the holidays that are supposed to remind us how grateful we should be for the other 352 mundane days of the year. It’s a perfect moment in time in which we can reflect upon the many blessings in our life. Or, well, something like that.
Do we all have fonder memories than the realities that occurred? The reason you might have remembered a perfect Christmas could be simply the fact that you were a child. You were blissfully unaware of your father’s lack of sleep because the 40-year old mattress he was forced to sleep on hurt his back or your mother’s daily battle in the kitchen over recipes with Grandma. Or that your uncle kept disappearing randomly for 10 minutes and would come back in a much better mood for unknown reasons. No, you remember the holiday cartoons, presents, family togetherness, board games with cousins, and heaps of sugary delights on every clear surface. It was fast-paced and fun– and somehow always seemed to come together so effortlessly.
We’ve all heard how to “affair-proof” our marriages and now it’s time to “holiday-proof” them as well. Here are our eight strategies for getting through that most wonderful time of the year.
8 (Theoretically) Simple Strategies to Survive The Holidays
8. Nominate the Spokesman
This one is simple – if you are visiting your parents, you represent the family and if you are visiting the in-laws, your spouse gets that job. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t making decisions together or completely avoiding deep conversations with your in-laws. It’s simply a good rule of thumb, in most cases, because you are the expert in communicating well with your family (after all, you’ve had years of practice). And it takes the pressure off of your spouse to play bad cop. Just don’t weirdly announce to the room that all decisions for the next four days will be run through you. This strategy should be invisible to everyone but your spouse.
7. Pre-Select Your Vice
Yes, you heard me correctly. Have a vice – something that is comforting, familiar or stress relieving – accessible no matter where you are. Music calms you down? Pack an iPod (or a Zune for the five of you that bought one) and headphones to listen to at night while in bed. Running boosts your mood? Don’t forget your running shoes. Just keep it classy and legal, people.
My husband’s vice was skillfully done. Pie-making runs in his family’s blood and even the crust is taken seriously. His dad was an excellent pie-maker and could make a mean butternut squash pie. His family is not of the holiday drinking variety and Keith always needed to bring a flask of bourbon in order to make our traditional bourbon pecan pie. He always seems to have at least one measure too much of bourbon for the recipe in his flask and a pie-making cocktail is born. Sometimes, it’s the little things. For Keith, it’s one holiday cocktail.
I used to think my vice was a good book or unread magazine. Turns out, there is never any time or ability for me to read when visiting family because we are too busy catching up and playing games (or it’s late and I’m exhausted). It started to leave me annoyed and frustrated at the end of each trip, so I don’t even pack a book anymore. If I need some downtime or a moment to myself – I can always head to bed early and curl up with a Netflix show on my Kindle before passing out from holiday exhaustion (fun and exhausting for us introverts). I once got through a whole season of Gilmore Girls in four days. That’s a lot of Lorelai.
6. Establish A Game Plan on Traditions
We ran into this problem quickly after having children. My Catholic family did Santa and Keith’s Protestant family did not. Together, we decided to carry on the Santa tradition with our own children but because our families live so far away, many of our holidays now involve long distance travel. It’s hard to establish traditions when you are usually staying in someone else’s home. Figure out what traditions are important to both of you and find a way to honor them no matter where you choose to spend it. Santa learned to leave our stockings early on the morning of the road trip. Candies and toys to enjoy on the mundane 8-hour road trip were brilliant on his part. Thanks, Santa!
Also make peace with the traditions you can’t enjoy this year and ADJUST YOUR EXPECTATIONS. Embrace the possibilities for new traditions and memories that may not have been planned. And if you are the one hosting, don’t forget to make others feel comfortable to honor their traditions in your home as well. I like to encourage guests to contribute to the meal by bringing a recipe that was traditional on their own holiday tables.
5. Use Caution When Discussing Religion and Politics
This one is hard for me. I love debating both religion and politics but quickly learned that not everyone can. Or should. Or wants to. Debate is an art – as the goal is not to insult or judge your opponent but rather engage in healthy dialogue while lobbying thoughts and ideas back and forth, while both parties are working together to mold them.
Or this is how I envisioned it in my head and what I told myself. And it’s harder than you think, even with the best intentions. I will dip my toe in the pond, given the opening, though I’ve learned to harness my thoughts and opinions before the discussion becomes negative. But mostly, we just shut our mouths and everyone just stays clear of the conversation. It’s taken me years to accept this (and I still have a hard time and have actually caused blood by literally biting my tongue) – but it works and keeps holidays focused on positive time together.
4. Be a Good Guest (and Host)
No matter what the emotional temperature may be in your holiday that year, a helpful guest is always appreciated. It’s the little things that a hostess will notice: helping with meals, offering to run a small errand or keeping coats, shoes, phones and purses neatly out of the way. With my family, it’s paying extra attention to the kitchen’s cleanliness and making sure the dozen pairs of shoes stay in the basement where they belong. Another idea is bringing a small token of gratitude when you arrive. The traditional Danish pastry famous from Racine, Wisconsin is a welcomed sight in homes across Ohio. That, and a large bottle of wine or fresh flowers and holiday greens makes most people happy to see us… at least initially.
As a hostess, I try to make sure each guest has a clean, soft place to crash. Create space for their suitcases and find out ahead of time if there are any special grocery requests or food allergies and aversions. A new, soft pillow can make all of the difference and is not expensive (READ: No one wants to sleep on your flat, makeup stained, college dorm-era pillow). We also always try to have basic over-the-counter medications stocked – Benadryl, Ibuprofen, antacid tablets, eye drops and throat lozenges come in handy and are common requests. Trust me, we run an unofficial Bed & Breakfast for invited guests in the summer months. I have become a most proficient hostess.
3. Separation Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Depending on the length of the visit, plan a few periods of time to give your hosts, or your house guests, time away from you and your family. Even the best quality family time can only be enhanced with mini-breaks. Thinking that most people wouldn’t want a break from your delightful family? This tip is for especially for you. Escape to the grocery store and pick up some treats for everyone, take the kids to the park for a few hours and let your mother catch up on tasks. My delightful family is a handful. One year, after a fun but lengthy visit, I felt like the room erupted in silent applause when Keith and I announced we were taking the children out to dinner…. alone.
Admit it, you’re among friends here. You wouldn’t mind the break, either.
2. Establish and Maintain Healthy Boundaries
We always wanted to maximize our time spent with family since we don’t see them very often and would arrive home on the very last day possible. Sunday night, our family would be worn out from the full day’s drive and facing early morning wake up times for school and work (and always without a single piece of bread in the house for packing lunches). It was a hard start to the week and later, after my son was diagnosed with Autism, it became a necessary healthy family transition for us to always have a full day at home after traveling or hosting during the holiday to get our sh*t together. We were a hot mess. Whatever helps your marriage function properly are the things to seriously discuss when thinking of your needs. And it’s always disappointing to others when you make adjustments in expectations, but stick to it. It’s worth the effort in the long haul to walk away from your time together with your wits about you. Trust me, wits are important.
1. Suck It Up
You said ‘I Do’ and your spot on the family tree was forever etched. If you are newly married, they may not feel like family yet but it will come, trust me. You may still find them funny, irritating, and loud in twenty years but they’ll be YOUR funny, irritating, and loud family. The history between you may still be developing, or maybe old hurts keep resurfacing and you go into each visit with anxiety and stress. Out of respect for your spouse, respect his family at the very least. Make it the number one goal above all else. Modeling this behavior for children is also important, as it gives them a blueprint for navigating their own adult holiday experiences. Let someone else provide their dysfunctional experience.
Trying to go into each holiday with as little baggage, emotional and actual, and expectation as possible is a good start. Whatever the issues may be, you owe it to yourself and to your spouse to try hard to make the most of it and not become a stumbling block to happy memories for everyone. It’s a day/weekend/week. Not forever.
And if nothing else helps, there’s always next Christmas and a whole bottle of bourbon waiting at home.
“As we struggle with shopping lists and invitations, compounded by December’s bad weather, it is good to be reminded that there are people in our lives who are worth this aggravation, and people to whom we are worth the same.”
~ Donald E. Westlake
Karri is a displaced southerner and freelance writer living in Wisconsin in a very old, very drafty house with her husband Keith and three children. With a background in nonprofit marketing and communications, she currently works with several local organizations, co-leads a Dining For Women chapter and enjoys historical research and writing on architecture. You can find Karri on Twitter as @SimplySpent.
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