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Articles & Interviews
Hanging onto Your Self and Your Sanity at the Holidays
As the holidays approach, keep three principles in mind: get clear about what this season means to you, don't let the holiday hub-bub distract you from building a great marriage, and stay off your stepchildren's backs at a time when you'll be in more contact with them.

What's important to you at the holidays? Kelly, a remarried mother of two and stepmother of three, felt that she was getting twisted up at the holidays by trying to make everyone happy and accommodate everybody’s schedules. She wanted to change her behavior, but didn’t know where to begin. With a little help, she figured out that working with her church’s youth group on the annual Christmas Pageant got her into the mindset she aspired to at the holidays. She gave it her all. And once she determined what was most important to her during the holidays, she was able to allow some of the other seasonal drama – unrealistic gift requests from two of the kids, a new girlfriend coming home to visit with her oldest stepson, complicated travel schedules for the two kids who were at college – go to the wayside.

The holiday season is about something unique for each of us – it may be a time for quiet spiritual reflection, for honoring ethnic traditions, or for celebrating with family and friends. When we can uncover and act on what this special time of year means to us personally, we’ve got a better shot at having a truly happy holiday season. Don’t lose site of your mate. The busyness and chaos of the holidays can lead to distance and strain on our primary relationships. By putting your marriage next (after what’s important to you), and above all else, you’ll increase your odds of maintaining a positive outlook this holiday season.

As a stepmother of three young adults, our home is a hive of activity throughout the holiday season. The kids, their mates, their friends, and our family and friends are constantly flowing in and out. When I am alone with my husband, we’re shopping, wrapping, baking, or decorating. But we’ve figured out a few ways to celebrate on our own during the holidays.

First, we make any time alone together a celebration. If the task is Christmas shopping, the celebration is a late lunch at our favorite restaurant downtown. If the task is decorating the tree, then we pull out all of our holiday music we have, pour some egg nog, and reminisce about childhood holidays while we string lights and hang ornaments.

Second, we take off as soon as we can after New Years Day and go away on our own for at least a few days. A weekend in Santa Barbara, a train ride to Boston, a long drive down the Oregon Coast – it doesn’t matter.

Knowing that I’m going to get my husband all to myself for a few days has changed my perspective on the holidays. “Right now it’s a little crazy,” I tell myself, “but in two weeks I’ll be curled up with my great love and a big pile of new books!”

Give others a choice. In my work with families, I’ve seen over and over again that it’s not just ourselves we expect too much from at the holidays. Jane, 49, tells of learning to lower her expectations of others: After years of frustrating, disappointing holidays as a stepfamily with three busy young adults, Jane and her husband decided to send an itinerary of their holiday schedule to each of their three twenty-something children (two hers, one his).

“We tell them what will be happening and when—the annual extended family Secret Santa party, tree trimming, Dad’s molasses cookie baking, Christmas Eve dinner (including the traditional menu), the reading of The Night Before Christmas, the opening of presents, Christmas morning breakfast at Aunt Sue’s house—all of it. We let them know that they are welcome to join us for any or all of the holiday activities we’ve planned.” She reports that her young family members seem to like the open invitation and appreciate the freedom to choose. “They even invite friends sometimes,” says Jane. “I think that’s a good sign.”

If we want to enjoy our own holiday season, and if we want others to enjoy theirs, then inviting them with freedom and flexibility—rather than duty and pressure—is the way to go. Whether they chose to join you or not, you’ll still be doing what’s important to you.

Expect pushback. You know that taking good care of yourself is ultimately in the best interest of your loved ones too, but they may not see it that way. So you’ll need to be prepared for some reaction to your efforts to act on what’s important to you at the holidays. Becky, a nurse and stepmother to two single adult sons, decided that she was going to focus more on the spiritual side of the holidays and less on the material, so she told her family that she would be doing a lot less at home and more at the hospital last holiday season. Becky describes their reaction: “They all said, ‘No problem, don’t worry about us.’ and, ‘That’s good, Hon. You do too much at the holidays-relax.’”

She says they were good about it leading up to the holiday, but then, “When Christmas Day came and there was no cooking going on – no roast turkey smells, no pumpkin pies being made—my husband and his sons were none too happy. First, they each tried in their own subtle way to talk me into cooking something for them, then my husband cooked spaghetti with jar sauce. It was a little weird, but I’m not sorry I did it this way. I might try something new this year.” Though it’s never comfortable, when we’re clear about what’s important to us, the resistance of others becomes more bearable.
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