Several years ago a close friend jokingly told me that her family put the “D” in the word “dysfunctional.” Little did I know that in just a few years I’d feel that my family was also in the running, especially since the holiday season was fast approaching and with great trepidation. It seems more than ever that family tensions go through the roof when planning Thanksgiving and Christmas reunions—especially as kids get older, people move to different areas, and schedules have to be juggled in ways that require an extra dose of patience.
I have such fond memories—simple ones—-of Christmases in Kentucky. Since my Dad was an only child and my mom was blessed with several siblings, we tended to spend more time with my maternal aunts, uncles and a whole host of cousins. We all grew up in the same small town and so naturally, family celebrations were easy to plan. My grandmother’s home was the bee hive and most of us landed there every Thanksgiving and Christmas Day for delicious country feasts. Christmas eve was also met with great anticipation as Granny Mandy stole the show passing out gifts to her children and grandchildren. I can still envision her Christmas tree adorned with bubble lights, old-fashioned tinsel and musical ornaments. It was a toss up in who was the most excited--my grandmother or the grandkids--in plugging up the tree and watching it become animated.
But then life happened. It always does.
Cherished family members went on to be with Jesus, hearts were broken, and the holidays got looked upon with dread rather than excitement. Several family members endured divorce (including yours truly), others moved to different states or cities, and time together seemed more and more scarce. Oh how times change, dear friends. I have a feeling you can relate.
For millions of families, time must get divided, parents must share the children and many are taught a tough lesson in peace-keeping.
Whether it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas, the holiday season is STRESSFUL. Statistics show that cardiac events, suicide rates, and even the occurrence of ulcers increase during November and December. I’m not the least bit surprised. Note, I say this as I pop an antacid into my mouth. Research also shows that women tend to suffer more physical stress than menWe already knew that, didn't we ladies? We tend to shoulder more of the holiday burdens: gift shopping, grocery shopping, meal preparation, holiday decorating and cleaning. Yes, I realize that men have their own To-Do list, but let's face it, it’s usually smaller.
Conversely, young people under the age of 25 were more likely to report a decrease in stress during the holidays. Interesting. Respondents in this group were less likely to have holiday responsibilities weighing on them and considered the time off more of a vacation. There lies the rub for many of us empty nesters. While mothers are often overcome with holiday responsibilities of cooking, cleaning and trying to create experiences nothing short of a Hallmark Christmas movie, our grown up baby birds are interested in eating, sleeping, and reconnecting with old school friends. There lies the rub. But parents, before we start feeling too frustrated, we need to try and put ourselves in our adult children's shoes.
Just when they’ve tested their wings and have proof of flying, our big kids must return home for the holidays and go back to their old nests---nests in which they've completely outgrown. That's not easy for them. We need to think about that a little more, my friends. Not only do they feel pressure with being back under "my house my rules," but they just want a peaceful holiday, searching for those feel good memories on which they've dwelled more than you realize.
Every time Steve and I see our kids, we’re reminded they’re not kids anymore and have their own full plates. Steve’s kids are waist deep in parenthood. They're shuffling kids back and forth to practices, paying bills and juggling job responsibilities. They’re also committed to creating holiday memories with their own nuclear families in their own homes. Quite simply, they're doing grown up stuff. As we flew from New Mexico to KY this year, we realized that life is growing similar for my own daughters. My oldest had to work late due to patients needing to be seen prior to Thanksgiving. A flat tire and insane traffic on the interstate added to her stress. My other daughter endured an eight hour drive with her fiancee, as they traversed from Pennsylvania to KY just to spend a few days with family. Then reality returns and it's back to grad school and PhD work. Yes, that familiar word seems to always rear it's ugly head: STRESS. We old birds need to think about these things and try to be patient—WITH THEM AND OURSELVES.
We tend to totally exhaust ourselves, trying to ensure that everyone is filled to the brim with joy and heart-warming memories. I can’t help but think it’s because we have fond reflections of our own childhood and yearn to recreate those same emotions in our children. Or perhaps we've finally accepted our impending mortality and will do anything necessary to ensure our children remember us fondly. Oh, what a number we parents do on our psyche.
It's only taken me 27 years of parenthood to realize that our daughters or sons are not clones of ourselves. And praise Jesus, would we really want them to be? After all, we also have negative memories that we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies, let alone our children. Those memories also linger, making us determined to shield them from any emotional harm.
But again, it's time to be raw and real.
Perhaps it’s a lesson in giving up control... Perhaps kids under expect and yet we feel we must over-deliver.
That's the reason the movie, Christmas Vacation, is so popular.
There’s a sliver of familiarity in their family dynamics. Do you recall Clark’s passionate and hilarious speech to the family, insisting they have a fantastic Christmas? (You can check out the exact verbiage on your own:)) No wonder it seems so hilarious to us--it hits way too close to home.
Another wrinkle in the holiday season involves the millions of divorced families struggling with aligning their calendars with their ex-spouses, siblings, married children, etc. Can any of you relate? I’ll be the first to admit that having to share my daughters with my ex-husband for the last 18 years hasn’t always been easy. But it could have been much worse. As a former teacher, I’d watched too many students get totally stressed out due to opposing parents using them as pawns in a childish game of vengeance. My ex and I have tried hard to never criticize one another in front of children. We try. No, it's not always easy, but it's called grace and mercy. After all, I want my daughters to have a healthy relationship with their father and his side of the family. He feels the same about mine.
It's critical that children feel love and security from both sides of their family. It could have easily gone the other route, but we must love our children enough to be unselfish with their time. It’s all part of being a grown up parent.
As Christian parents, we must set the example. They, too, will eventually be required to deal with the pain and stress of juggling family time during the holidays.
We must exhibit as much patience as when we showed them how to wiggle and pull their first tooth.
They anticipated pain but it ended up not being as bad as they'd feared. We parents could say the same as we anticipate the empty test. We spend years dreading this lonely time in our lives, yet we have to "fake it till we make it," acting as life is perfect, 24/7 when our kids aren't with us.
Often, we're required to do an Oscar-worthy performance, covering up the anxiety and depression we've endured during this new stage of life. I'm up for it, as I refuse to require endless pity from my children. That's not fair to them, as they've got enough on their plate. Some of you may be asking, "Okay, Angie, so what happened to you being raw and real? Where did THAT writer go?"
Quite simply, she's still here. But being real also involves being accountable as a parent. I don't want my children to be on a constant guilt trip about wanting to be on their own. That's so not fair--to them or us. I am going to love my children enough to let them figure out adulthood in their own way.
We ALL need to develop our own identities and friendships, proving this new stage can be very freeing to everyone involved.
My grandmother, the anchor of our family, went to be with Jesus on four years ago. Sadly, the big Christmas party became something of the past. Families grew up, grew apart and schedules become too hectic. I miss the days when our big family was more manageable.
Looking back, I’m so thankful my children grew up in a small town, just minutes from family members. They've grown up to be young women that clutch fondly to memories on both sides of their family. I feel confident that whenever I go to be with Jesus, they'll keep some of these traditions alive.
As Christmas calendars are analyzed, let’s try and be more understanding. Yours truly is learning that lesson, as this year we will celebrate Christmas AFTER the actual date. Such is life. Just as we were instructed in kindergarten, "We have to share." Be thankful for Facetime or Skype and just breathe. Pray a prayer of gratitude. Half full or half empty, right? We always have a choice.
This year, when we sit down at the dinner table with whoever show up, let's not feel the need to hide the steak knives (Kidding!) Instead, may I suggest you hold hands and pray? Listen more than talk. Be interested, be there, be all in.
Create new memories that your children will look back on fondly. You might have to create them a week early or a month late, but celebrate nonetheless. You'll be glad you did.
Hopefully, Cousin Eddie doesn’t make a surprise visit in his camper. And sweet friends, if he does, give him a hug. Spread good cheer. And for goodness sake, make sure the lights are plugged in.