Sunday, November 30, 2008

Great Expectations

Sorry for the slow month, folks.  I've been on the road for work and working long, long days this month.  A few days at home for the holiday week has finally cured me of jetlag and general exhaustion.  It took some time for my brain to switch back to the 'on' position.  

It's the holiday season again.  I love the holidays.  Friends, family, good food, beautiful decorations...I love just about all of it.  But there are a few downsides that appear over the course of the season.   The expense.  The number of commitments that can spring up.  The pressure from those beloved friends and family members to meet their expectations.  It's easy to fall prey to a nice helping of stress and guilt.  So here are some ideas to help navigate the emotional minefields that the holidays can generate.

1. Gifts
We put away money all year long for Christmas gifts in the form of a 'Christmas club' at our credit union.  I strongly recommend this, even if it's just a few dollars a month - takes a huge amount of the sting out.  Still, it can be a big expense for us, especially because when the holiday season wraps up, we're involved in 5 - yes 5 - holiday celebrations (all but one is varying branches of family).  Gift exchanges have just gotten a little out of control for us, so much so that I was thrilled when my great aunt, who typically goes overboard with her generosity, announced she was only giving to children in the family, and my siblings and I decided to use the same approach.  Slowly but surely, both from other's actions and our own, we're trying to pare down the sheer number of gifts we give and receive.  

Instead, we're trying to give the gift of time and energy, by inviting friends over for dinner, doing an activity together, and so on.  The key here is talk early and often....and stand your ground when you make a decision about who and what to give. Change is hard for people, and opting out of a gift giving tradition or scaling it back may take time and gentle persistence to accomplish.  

So if you have always spent $100 a person and want to only spend $25, start talking about it in say, January.  And if there's a negative response, the best answer is "Of course, you must do what you want, but this is what I/we are doing.  I'm sorry you aren't happy about it, but this is the right decision for us".  And remind that person that the $ amount spent doesn't equal the amount of love you have for them.  

2. Time
I know I'm not the only one out there who has shown up for a family holiday function and received a guilt trip about not being around more, or staying longer.  Boy does that make the holidays extra fun, no?  While I typically come up with a fairly pacifying response, what goes through my head is more like "Oh yeah? Really?  Well perhaps you would like to maybe go to work for me for a few weeks, or come clean my bathroom so I have more free time!  Between errands, housework and commitments on our time, I can't even find time most weekends for a nap, or to just sit and veg out for an hour!  So thpppppt!"

Of course, saying things like that is completely nonproductive.  Most of the demands come from the sheer desire for more time with you, which means you matter quite a bit to that person.  So a gentle response of "Look, I know you would love it if we spent more time, but right now we're doing the best we can, and while you probably don't mean to make me/us feel bad about what we can give, that's what is happening, so I/we wish you could just enjoy the time we do have together."  This is one of those 'lather, rinse, repeat' statements that may need saying far more than once.  If that doesn't work, a more pointed conversation about how the guilt trips make you want to actually limit your time with that person and are completely counterproductive may be necessary.  Above all though, try not to feel bad.  Most of us have limited free time - there's nothing to apologize for if you don't have more to give.

3. Commitments
Yeah, so everyone and their grandmother's uncle's next-door-neighbor is having a holiday gathering, party, gift grab or potluck dinner.  Oh yeah, and then there's the work stuff - not mandatory, per se, but sure as heck expected.  The holidays start to seem like a treadmill you can't get off, and in your head runs the thought 'Great, so now I've made everyone happy, except I'm exhausted and miserable.  Bah humbug.'

There's a great response to this one "Sorry, I/we can't make it."  Simple, straightforward, and to the point.  No excuses for someone to poke at.  Pick and choose the activities to attend.  I set the expectations at work that I have a limited number of 'Kitchen Passes' to choose from - so if the after-hours gatherings are too frequent, I go to some, but not all.  After all, my home and husband are important too.  

Same with holiday parties.  This year we were invited to a neighborhood party - we would love to attend and meet some of the neighbors that we haven't met yet, but since it falls on the same day as I've scheduled my annual baking day with  good friend as well as a family dinner, squeezing in a 3rd event is just not possible.  So a polite decline along with 'but we'd love to meet you all, and hope we can find another time!' fits the bill.  It's true, too. 

It's very freeing to learn that you can, in fact, say no.  A holiday where everyone but you gets to be happy is no good holiday at all.  

4. Travel
Whether you live 15 minutes or 15 hours from your family, the travel question gets tricky.  I was 33 years old before I got to spend a Christmas day at my home and stay in one place the whole day (divorced parents and expectations of visits from grandparents and other family).  I remember all too vividly how awful it was to rush from place to place, trying to stuff in yet one more bite of my second Christmas dinner in 4 hours in order to please my parents or someone else.  Quite frankly, it sucked, and for years I hated Christmas - because again, it was about making everyone else happy at my siblings and my expense.  

So a couple years ago, my husband and I created our own tradition.  We'll travel for any other holiday, but Christmas is at home.  Whomever wants to come to us is welcome, be they family or friends.  I cook, we open gifts, all is well.   Is this a hard and fast rule?  Mostly.  We may consider the occasional not-at-home Christmas over the years, but we're not committing to anything, especially now with Baby MoneyPenny on the way.  If we do decide to, it will be the exception, rather than the rule.  I learned it was okay to make the holidays fun for me too.  

That's not to say that making extended family happy isn't important, or that no one should travel on the holidays.  Some people feel it isn't the holiday unless it's spent at Mom's or Grandma's or wherever.  Fine.  But do yourself a favor and limit it to one locale and one holiday dinner, unless you and all the other people in your immediate family (spouse and kids) absolutely and unhesistatingly agrees to do otherwise.  No one will die if you see them on the 26th instead of the 25th, or if you spend most of Chanukah lighting candles and making latkes in your apartment with friends.  Sure, change is hard, and it's important to be fair to everyone.

But that includes you too.  I once read the statement 'traditions are great, everyone should get a chance to make some', and I think it's a good way to look at things.  And if someone is mad at you for changing theirs, ask yourself why it is more honorable for them to be happy, even at your expense, than for you to be?  

I love the holidays - but in many cases that's because I've learned, over time, what I am willing and able to give.  Do I always get it right?  No (see the thing about the 5 holiday gift exchanges above).  But I try - to do it right for family, my spouse, and also myself.  I'll happily meet the expectations I can meet, but I've given up (mostly) on guilt for those I can't meet.    I hope you can do the same.

So enjoy those holidays.  And when someone asks you to bring cookies or an appetizer to a function, it's okay to buy them if you don't feel like baking.  

Or volunteer to bring the wine.  Unless you live in Sonoma, it's unlikely that anyone will expect you to have pressed the grapes yourself.  


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