“Remember a few years ago, when I spent Christmas Eve at your mom’s house, and my phone didn’t get any of the texts from my sister on Christmas morning that presents were being opened at 7AM, and we, quote, ‘ruined Christmas’?” I asked my husband last night.
“Maddie, that was ten years ago,” he responded.
“Oh,” I paused. “It seemed much more recent than that.”
It’s possible the years of Christmas past have all bled together, because nothing much about the holidays has changed in the fifteen years since Michael and I started dating in high school. We spend them in Maine when we can, and navigate a whirlwind schedule that allows us to spend a tiny bit of time with each segment of our fractured families, lest it ever feel like we’re playing favorites. On Thanksgiving, we start around eight in the morning and hit four or five houses by bedtime. We’ve perfected the art of eating just enough to participate in a Thanksgiving dinner, but not so much you ruin a good time at the next house. On Christmas, the festivities start bright and early on Christmas Eve and extend until long after the sun goes down on Christmas night. Sometimes the days are so packed we only have forty-five minutes to open presents, say thank you, and then bounce to the next house.
An (Over?)Abundance of Love
On the one hand, we are very lucky to have so much family that loves us and wants to spend time with us when we’re home. On the other hand, I’m usually crying by day four, from a combination of physical exhaustion and non-stop extroverting. Because actually, one huge thing has changed since Michael and I were teenagers: we now live three thousand miles away from home. And we have a toddler. And every year we try to maintain standards that were set when the only responsibilities in our lives were homework and getting to school on time.
We finally hit our breaking point earlier this year. We traveled home for my mom’s surprise fiftieth birthday party, which happened to coincide with my son’s first birthday. We went home for five days, and in that time, we managed to squeeze in not one, not two, but three first birthday parties for Lincoln (my dad’s family, my mom’s family, and Michael’s family), plus a surprise birthday party for my mom. I think we may have even changed houses once or twice during that trip too. Did I mention all three of those parties effectively took place on the same street, but somehow couldn’t be combined into one party? Yeah.
By day five, I broke. I spent most of the afternoon sobbing as I packed, feeling like we’d traveled three thousand miles only to half-ass every visit with everyone we care about, without putting our own needs on the calendar at all (and clearly sacrificing my mental health in the process).
Being the Kid… Eternally
It’s so easy to slip into old routines when we’re home. Maybe because it’s really hard to stand your ground when the ground you’re standing on is the shag carpeting of your childhood bedroom. Maybe because “home” is a time and space that hasn’t really existed for us in over a decade. Our adult home is in California. In Maine, we’re perpetual teenagers, trying to get home at a reasonable hour so that we don’t wake our parents.
So this year, when it came time to book our tickets for the holidays, my sister gently reminded me that during my April breakdown I’d made her promise to hold me accountable to my own needs this year. No more musical houses. No more eighteen different celebrations. We’re spending some extra holiday cash to stay in an Airbnb. But I won’t lie, it’s been a challenge setting boundaries.
On the one hand, our families haven’t done much to try and make our schedules easier. (Divorced parents, y’all.) But, honestly that would be easier to ignore if it weren’t for the guilt. It turns out the reason we’ve let fifteen years of crazy scheduling take hold of our holidays is because, for me, it can feel really shitty to set boundaries when people are opening their arms to us. It’s hard to turn down invitations for dinner, even when I know it’s going to completely drain me to split my day seven ways. It’s still a struggle for me to tell my mother-in-law that I’m going to pay for an Airbnb down the street rather than sleep in her bed, while she kicks herself out to the guest room. Heck, when I told my family we were getting an Airbnb, my uncle offered to take my grandmother in for the week so we could have her in-law unit. And finding the energy to say “thanks, but no thanks” to that nearly drove me to tears. (Putting my needs first: not my strong suit.)
But then I think about what our holidays would look like if we didn’t live three thousand miles away from our families of origin. By the time my mom was my age, she had five kids and had firmly established a holiday routine of her own. She set boundaries for her own family and was the matriarch of her family holidays already. As for my grandmother, if I remember correctly, she spent most of those holidays with us. Or with my aunt and uncle. She was only responsible for bringing dessert.
And me? Well, forget being any kind of matriarch. I’m still trying to baby-step past high school.
making the space we need
What I find amusing (in an I’m-crying-in-the-hallway kind of way) is that this is this narrative feels really familiar. It’s what our culture is always saying about Milennials. We’re the generation of perpetual adolescence. We can’t step up and be real adults, like the generations before us. But thinking about our own holidays, I wonder if this is even about us, or if it’s about our parents not being ready and willing to pass the proverbial baton. Is it about our inability to put together a Thanksgiving dinner, or about the fact that unlike generations before us, we’re scattered far away from our hometowns, because that’s where the jobs and good healthcare live? And don’t get me started on what it’s like being the generation that came up with divorced parents. What’s the model for securing your role as head of the family, when your family is basically a hydra? It’s much easier for our families to let us run around like chickens with our heads cut off, than it is for them to take a secondary role in the day and risk the discomfort of each other’s presence for a few hours, or the disappointment of not seeing us at all. And it looks like we’re not even close to alone here. While Baby Boomers are planning one Thanksgiving meal, on average, folks our age are planning nearly three family dinners, plus Friendsgiving to boot. In translation: Baby Boomers are staying nice and comfy at home, while their kids run from dinner to dinner to dinner, trying to keep it all together.
I think part of my problem is I’ve set myself up with a false dichotomy. I can spend the holidays in California with my own baby family, which feels lonely and isolating. Or I can go home to Maine for the holidays, and slip not-so-comfortably into routines that stopped working for us a long time ago. But that’s entirely unfair to myself. The third option is I stop waiting for our families to pass the baton, and instead, create an adulthood that works with the infrastructure that we’ve got. So for us, this year, that’s going to start with giving ourselves a quiet space to wake up on Christmas morning, to enjoy a coffee and some presents with the baby before we go forth into the madness. It’s been fifteen years. That’s the minimum that we owe ourselves and our own little family.
But I’m curious what the rest of you are doing! For those of you who travel for the holidays, how are you creating boundaries to protect yourself and your partner? And for those of you with kids, how do you explain the limitations of toddlers to overeager family members? Asking for a friend.