Now that we’re officially in the thick of the holiday season (how was everyone’s Thanksgiving?), this week seemed like the perfect time to talk about the tricky beast that is navigating families, both new and old, around the holidays. Because no matter how much time passes in my relationship, the holidays are when forming a baby family feels like the most work. (Seriously, how are we still going to four or five Christmases each year?) And yet, as I’ve written before, there is no time of year I love more. So this week we’re talking about the mess and the joy that comes from blending baby family and family of origin around the holiday table, starting with a post from KB that sums up this time of year with a kind of transitional grace I can only hope to muster one of these days myself.
–Maddie for Maternity Leave
There comes a time in every relationship where you need to have The Talk. Actually, depending on where you are in the relationship, there can be several Talks. The DTR Talk (aka, Defining the Relationship). The Sex Talk (Tested? Birth control? Whips and chains?). The Marriage Talk (Ooh, shiny!). And—The Holiday Talk. Otherwise known as opening negotiations on whether you will spend the holidays with your family or your partner’s. In one conversation, you can potentially establish a pattern for years of shuttling back and forth between families, whether it’s across the street, state, country, or the world.
So far, I have managed to avoid The Talk. My strategy has always been, simply—it’s not happening. We’re not engaged, we’re not married, so you spend the holidays with your family, I will spend the holidays with mine. No drama. No hauling gifts back and forth. No running madly through airports. No strange holiday rituals involving sauerkraut and charades. And, most importantly, no whining from any family member.
Sure, your parents might say, “Oh, so we won’t be seeing your girl/boyfriend for Christmas? That’s such a shame.” Yet you know that the real guilt-trip would rain down if you were the one missing the festivities. As in, “But this could be Grandpa’s last holiday…” And, despite the fact that Grandpa can do more one-armed push-ups than John Cena, you capitulate. However, with his-and-hers holidays, I avoided all that and spent my Oh Holy Nights happily eating Moose Munch on my parents’ couch. Yes, it was lonely at times—but more Moose Munch for me!
It wasn’t until September, roughly six months after my fiancé and I got engaged that I realized that my strategy had now officially expired. We were sitting on the couch and I was watching Ghost Hunters on TV while my fiancé slaughtered dragons (or vampires? elves? I don’t know) on his laptop. Without looking up from his screen, he casually said, “Hey, we should probably get plane tickets soon—I mean, assuming we’re going to Michigan for Christmas.”
Crap. I hummed something non-committal.
As he pumped another magical creature full of lead, he glanced at me out of the corner of his eye and quietly said, “You know, we’re going to have to do it sometime.”
Crap—no, sh*t. He was right. I mean, I could put it off another year, make some noise that we shouldn’t do the holiday-splitting thing until we were married. But that wasn’t fair.
So we engaged in a negotiation that resembled what I imagine organizing a professional baseball team’s game calendar must be like. We played mix-and-match, debating how many days we should spend at home and how many away. I suggested that we should just do our own Christmas in the Caribbean or something like that, which was vetoed quickly as another (warmer, coconut-scented) version of putting off this decision yet again. We hopscotched around work calendars and personal obligations. After a while, we agreed that his parents would get the “Engaged Christmas” and, next year, mine would get the “First Married Christmas.” Thereafter, we would trade holidays on an annual basis unless and until extenuating circumstances prompted a renewed negotiation.
Done and done. Right?
Not quite. Because now I had to actually break it to my parents that I would, in fact, be spending the holidays away from them for the very first time. Crap—no, sh*t. (Again.)
I had no idea how this could go. Would there be tears? Would there be anger? Would there be disownment? It was this uncertainty (ok, cowardice) that made me avoid this issue with every single boyfriend before my fiancé.
I put it off for weeks and weeks, until I realized that if I put it off any longer, there weren’t going to be any plane tickets left that cost less than one billion dollars. “Hey, that would make the decision for us!” I brightly said to my fiancé, who responded, with full-throated exasperation, “JUST CALL THEM!”
So I finally called my mom.
As I dialed, I mentally listed the ways in which I could bring up our travel plans. Gentle, subtle ways. But when she answered, I did the verbal equivalent of ripping off the band-aid:
I braced myself, holding the phone slightly away from my ear. Silence.
“Oh,” she said. “Will you be doing Thanksgiving with us, then?”
“Uh-huh.” I winced.
“Well,” she sighed. “That’s ok, I guess.”
“Yes—we’ll miss you, of course.”
I exhaled audibly. This apparently annoyed my mother because she then asked, “What did you think I was going to say?”
“I don’t know,” I stuttered, “Just—okay, then.”
I wish I could tell her the truth. That I’m afraid of hurting feelings. That I know that she’s sad I won’t be there. That it makes me sad, too, the thought of Mom going to Midnight Mass without me or Dad snoring in his chair while Die Hard blares at volume eleven in the background. That I wish I wasn’t an only child so that I could call up a brother or sister and strategize so that one of us would at least be there. That I’m not “picking” his family over anybody and that I wish that they lived down the street so we could make everybody happy. That I love this man who has a family that he loves. That I love her and Dad.
But I didn’t say any of those things. Instead, I asked whether we should try a turducken this year for Thanksgiving.
So that was The Talk. Definitely better than I thought it would go. I know that this may not be the case forever, that when the actual holidays themselves come around, there might be some drama. There will be hauling gifts back and forth, probably while dashing through an airport (and a train station). There will be unfamiliar religious rites and weird holiday food staples, like stroopwaffel and anise-flavored licorice. And there will be some sadness.
But I hope that, in the end, there is also more love and more happiness to spread from the East Coast to the Midwest. And I hope that we look back fondly on this first holiday season together as a charmed time, when we added one more link in the connection between his family and my family—making it our family.
Photo by: Kelly Benvenuto Photography