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Family Gatherings: The Dark Side of the Holidays?

When my husband and I met twenty years ago, he was a widower with five grown children. I had three. Within a few months, we were head-over-heels in love and blissfully happy. We got married a year later. Eager to share our joy with our children and to create one big, happy family, we started inviting all of them to join us for every major holiday.

Two years ago, after seven of our eight kids and their families were with us for Christmas, my husband plopped down in his chair after the last one left and announced, “I’ve had it! Next year I’m going on a cruise to someplace warm for the holidays. You are welcome to join me if you’d like.”

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When I asked why he thought the holidays were such a hassle, he said, “It’s you! You just make such a big deal out of everything!”

Resisting an overwhelming urge to strangle him, I said, “Okay, dear. Why don’t you tell me how it’s possible to NOT make a big deal out of serving Christmas dinner to 25 people while hosting house guests for ten days straight!”

He shrugged.

Exasperated, I asked, “Do you think I enjoy this?”

He said, “You must. You do it every year.” I said, “I don’t operate this little B&B at the holidays because it’s fun! I do it for you!”

Then he said, “Well stop it. I don’t like it!”

I couldn’t believe it! Instead of praising me for all the effort I put into making Christmas special for everyone else, he was actually criticizing me!

I thought to myself, “Okay, sweetheart! You don’t want me to make a big deal out of Christmas? Then you are going to pay . . . BIG TIME! I will book us on a very long, very luxurious, very expensive cruise.”

Handling the Holidays

As winter turned to spring, memories of our holiday stress started to fade. It’s possible we might have continued our tradition of mayhem, but in June a vertebrae slipped in Alex’s spine and he experienced intense and unrelenting pain. He had back surgery in August, and as the weeks passed and his recovery inched forward, I realized he was not going to have the stamina he needed to endure, let alone enjoy a houseful of company at Thanksgiving. I was wondering how I was going to handle it, and then I experienced my very own little holiday miracle. I got invited to deliver the opening keynote at an aging conference in Tucson, Arizona on November 20th. I gleefully accepted the offer, picked up the phone immediately and booked a timeshare for the entire week of Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving morning, after sleeping in, we went for a long walk. We had a leisurely soak in the hot tub, and then we reheated the Thanksgiving pizza that we had purchased at Whole Foods the night before. We sat barefoot on the deck, soaked up the unique beauty of the Sonoran Desert against the backdrop of the Tucson Mountain Range, and popped open a couple ice cold beers. It was glorious!

This year, Alex is stronger. Although he still has some pain, it isn’t debilitating. A few weeks ago, our kids started asking about our holiday plans and that old familiar feeling of conflict started twisting in my gut. I would really like to be with our kids and grandkids at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I would also really like to enjoy the holidays myself.

Is It Possible to Have a Peaceful Holiday Dinner?

Alex and I came to the conclusion that we love all of our children and their spouses. We adore our grandchildren. We just don’t like being with them all together at the same time. It seems that once we get more than a dozen people in our home, it becomes all about the logistics. By the time I’ve served the meal and I’m finally in a position where I can sit down and have a real conversation, everyone else is ready to go home! So, I decided that rather than having one large gathering, we should consider getting together with our offspring in smaller groups.

I thought it might make sense to divide people into groups by their food preferences, but here’s the challenge: One son hates onions. Another one detests mushrooms. We have a granddaughter who won’t eat peppers, and a daughter-in-law who is gluten intolerant. Two daughters won’t eat fish, one won’t eat meat, and my 88 year-old Aunt Jean absolutely refuses to eat anything with cheese, sauce, or gravy. I quickly discounted the food group idea and thought maybe it would reduce stress if we divided the kids into small groups that didn’t have any unresolved sibling rivalry issues or weren’t currently hacked off at one of their brothers or sisters. Turns out, everyone is still pretty fed up with Doug*, so that didn’t work.

Next, I thought about the football fans in our family. I realized a football Thanksgiving might actually work. The guys would be happy with a bucket full of deep fried turkey legs and a cooler filled with beer. The only problem is that Alex and I detest the blaring noise from the television. We don’t relish the shouts of joy from our sons and grandsons when their teams are doing well, and we absolutely despise the cries of anguish and cussing that accompany a bad call, a dropped pass, or God forbid, an interception.

Political affiliations are out of the question. We have family members who support Bernie Sanders and some who love Donald Trump. So, what do you do?

I came to the conclusion that our family is big and it’s messy. Alex and I love each and every one of them, but every person has his/her own ideas, values, and priorities. All of our experiences and relationships have shaped us in very different ways, and we do not all fit neatly together like pieces of a puzzle. Our family is more like a shape-shifting, fluid organism. It expands and contracts with marriages and births, divorces and death. It’s gotten stretched out of shape a couple times when holiday stress sparked some unpleasant family arguments. Feelings have been hurt and relationships have been strained, and a few of our kids have held grudges way too long.

Forget Norman Rockwell: Portrait of a Real Family

As Alex and I prepare for our 20th year of celebrating the holidays with our combined families, we realize that regardless of how much time, money, and energy we invest in these get-togethers, our holidays are never going to resemble a Norman Rockwell painting. I have finally accepted the fact that those portraits are fantasies and do not represent a real family. Although all of our kids have acted like jerks at one time or another, they have also amazed and impressed us and made us proud. We will continue to love them through the periods when they aren’t lovable, and we hope and pray that they will be as forgiving and generous with us as we try to be with them. I know that in the blink of an eye, my husband and I will be old. There will come a point where we will no longer be capable of gathering all our family together under our roof. I don’t think I will mind passing the spatula. I actually think I’ll be thrilled to let someone else have the excitement of planning, preparing, and hosting all of these gatherings. When that time comes, I hope the kids and grandkids will remember that our goal was to keep them connected, and no that no matter what happens, they will always be loved, they will always be welcome, and they will always belong. I also hope they won’t forget to send a car to pick up Grandma and Papa so we can partake in whatever crazy, chaotic, and complex holiday events they will hosting in their homes in the years to come. And finally, I hope they will take us home after dessert and just before it’s time to do the dishes!

Wishing you and your family a very happy holiday season! Resource Box

Elaine K Sanchez is a caregiver speaker, aging humorist, and co-founder ofCaregiverHelp.com. She is the author of the unflinchingly honest and hilariously funny book, “Letters from Madelyn, Chronicles of a Caregiver”. She writes the blog, “Caregiver Help Word of the Day”, and has developed a number of online continuing education courses for nurses, long-term care administrators and mental health professionals. Contact her at elaine@EKSanchez.com about having her speak at your next conference.

*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

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