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Home For The Holidays

I love the holidays, particularly Christmas. I turn into a little kid – Christmas music, movies, decorating my apartment with lights, stocking apple cider in my fridge, and baking far too many sweet things. All in mid-November, no less. I tried to hold out with movies until December this year, but that went out the window.

Not only do I get excited at the holidays, but I get pretty stressed as well. Most people feel a mix of emotions this time of year, for lots of different reasons. As a young adult of divorced and remarried parents, going home for the holidays creates a special mix of feelings.

It also presents practical challenges like planning ahead, asking for time off work, doling out money for gifts, and just generally figuring out how to navigate another year of holidays spent at home. I've been thinking a lot about how this year could and should be, how I hope it goes, and the things that I can do to help it go smoothly (and happily!).

Choosing Which House

The first big choice young adults of divorced and remarried parents face when going home for the holidays is who they're going to stay with. This also depends on if the parents live in close proximity to each other, or if this choice means choosing where you're going to buy your plane ticket to. I'm lucky – my parents live fifteen minutes away from each other, which means that the choice in who I'm going to stay with isn't the same choice as who I'm going to see. Young adults: whether or not you're able to see both parents during your holiday stay, I recommend figuring out ahead of time what your plan is. Make this decision for yourself – it's important that you choose where you'll feel most comfortable, and not let someone else dictate where you stay. By planning ahead, you'll take a lot of the stress out of having to make those decisions once you're home and in front of your parents. Parents and stepparents: try not to take it personally if your young adult child chooses not to stay with you. They're making their decision based on their own needs, and you need to support that. It doesn't mean they love you any less, I promise.

Get Relaxed Ahead of Time

I've been known to have a number of meltdowns over Christmas in previous years, and believe me, it's not fun for anyone. My family gets worried that I'm unhappy, or that something's seriously wrong in my life. I, in turn, get embarrassed about melting down, frustrated for crying for no apparent reason, and annoyed that this happened on yet another Christmas. Last year was different, and I attribute at least part of this improvement to being relaxed. I know that's easier said than done around the holidays. But I have learned things about this over the years, so here's some advice: try and get relaxed before you go home for Christmas. Likewise, parents and stepparents, try and relax before anyone comes to visit. This requires some planning ahead.

Young adults: Don't leave everything to the last minute—that’s stressful! Get your travel plans in order at least a month or 2 in advance (the longer the better), talk with your parents and stepparents about said travel plans, communicate about where you'll be staying, get your shopping done early, and then... take some time for yourself. Spend at least a week before you head home doing things you love: finish your book, go get a pedicure, watch that movie you've been wanting to see, visit with friends, make cookies and listen to your favorite music with your cat. Even if you're working all week (I know I will be), be intentional about what you do after work and on your days off.

Parents and stepparents: get your house how you like it at least a week in advance, go grocery shopping ahead of time, communicate with your young adult about any expectations, plans, etc. during their stay, get your gifts bought and wrapped with time to spare, then... take time some for yourself. Spend the last week you have before any children arrive and go to dinner with your spouse, just the two of you. Watch a holiday movie together, take a walk to your favorite coffee shop, catch up with friends. Do these things while you have a quiet house, while you have all the room you need to breathe. If young adults, parents, and stepparents can get relaxed before the family gatherings begin, everyone will feel a lot better—and less stressed out—during their time together.

Once you're back home, things will happen. Your mom will ask you one too many times how that job hunt of yours is going, your stepmom will badger you about your love life, your dad will keep bringing up your long-ago goal of going back to school. Try not to get mad. I know it can be hard – really, I do – but try and remember that they're only asking because they care and they want the best for you. After a few calming breaths, tell them you would like to talk about it another time. Remind them that you're home to celebrate the holidays, and you would like to focus on rest, rejuvenation, and connecting with your family.

Other things will come up too: parents and stepparents will bicker, disagreements between siblings will occur, and old habits and dynamics will come to the surface. Try to take these things in stride as they happen. The holidays can be stressful and chaotic, but they're also a time to think about all the good things about your family. When you notice yourself feeling frustrated, angry, or overwhelmed, remember to take time for yourself. It's okay to slip out of the house and take a walk, to check in with your friend for moral support, or to take some quiet time alone. In fact, you should do these things. By taking a little time for yourself in the middle of the family gathering, you will feel calmer, more in tune with yourself, and more open to connect with your family.

Celebrating Together vs Apart

If your divorced and remarried parents live in the same town/city, there may be a question of whether to celebrate the holidays together as a whole family, or have separate celebrations. This may be a decision made each year, or a decision that was made when you, the young adults, were young. I've lived it both ways. When my parents split up when I was seven, we did a few years celebrating as a whole family – myself, my older sister, my mom, my dad, and after the first year, my stepmom. As a child, I loved it. I wanted Christmas morning preserved as I'd always known it, with my whole family together. And this worked for my family… for a while.

But, after a few years, and as my sister and I got older, the idea of needing to keep that childhood tradition changed. We weren't little kids anymore – we understood that our parents were divorced, our dad had remarried, and we'd gotten used to having two separate households. Our tradition changed: we alternated which house we'd spend Christmas morning at from one year to the next. Last year we spent Christmas morning at my dad's house, and Christmas evening at my mom's. This year, Christmas morning is at my mom and stepdad's, and Christmas afternoon and evening will be at my dad and stepmom's. This works great for us. But each family is different, and what works for mine may not work for yours.

The good thing about spending the holidays together is that it brings everyone together in a happy (hopefully) and celebratory environment. If there are younger children, it provides them with a sense of stability and normality. But, it can also bring up old issues and wounds. Maybe your parents’ divorce was brutal, maybe your stepparents don't get along with the exes.

As young adults, we want to see our parents happy. We want to see that it's possible for people to find happiness with a partner, whether it's a first marriage or second. If both sets of parents/stepparents get along, I think it can work to celebrate the holidays together. But, if all the parents and stepparents don’t get along, it's better to keep the celebrations separate.

Please, parents and stepparents, do not get everyone together just “for the kids.” We don't want to have everyone together if there is arguing, old issues brought up, or meanness directed from one parent/stepparent to another. We also don’t want you to be pretending to like one another for our sake, just to go home and badmouth the other parent, stepparent, or couple. In hurting each other, you hurt us. If there are issues between parents, I believe that keeping holiday celebrations separate is better. It allows each family unit to have their own traditions, it enables each set of parents/stepparents to have more individual time with the kids, and is a clear way to keep old relationship issues from resurfacing in front of the whole family.

Feeling Presentable

One of the biggest challenges I face when going home for Christmas is the feeling that I need to be on my best behavior. I feel like I need to always be offering to help with things, always be available for a catching-up talk, and always getting along with everybody. Let’s be honest: these are not all realistic expectations. And yet, each year I feel like I'm a letdown if I don't present myself perfectly.

In talking with my friends who are young adults with divorced and remarried parents, I've found that I'm not alone in feeling this way. Part of it is that when it comes to celebrating the holidays, there is this sense that everyone is supposed to be happy all the time. And that is not how life works. You may be dealing with financial issues that have you stressed out, maybe you're in between jobs or you've just broken up with your partner, or maybe you're just feeling a little blue. Whatever it is, it's important to remember that you're not the only one feeling this way – and it's perfectly okay that you're having these feelings during the holidays.

Difficult feelings and emotions don't take a break during the holidays – wouldn't that be nice! - and you can't make yourself suddenly feel happy and jubilant just because you think you need to look that way to your family. Over the years I've realized that a key part to helping with all of this stuff is to first acknowledge it. Once I wrapped my head around the fact that life doesn't stop for the holidays, it became easier for me to figure out ways to manage the annual stress I felt.

The other really important thing I've started doing, which I urge everyone to do, young adults and parents alike, is to be in touch with your family before the holidays and let them know what's going on in your life. If your loved ones know that you're having a hard time with your partner, or stressed about an issue at work (or whatever else is hard), you won't feel like there's all this stuff you have to hide when you're home visiting. I'm not saying you need to share everything – I'll be the first to admit that I don't – but by sharing some of the stresses you’re struggling with ahead of time, you won't feel like there's so much pressure to come across as Susie Sunshine.

The holidays aren't always perfect; life can be messy, and it doesn't clean itself up just because “It’s A Wonderful Life” is on television 24/7. Acknowledge your feelings, and know that it's okay – and normal, I might add – for things to feel extra intense around the holidays. Remember to relax ahead of time and prepare for your visit, but don't neglect to take time for yourself in the middle of all the excitement, too. If you listen to yourself, and if you are realistic about what you need, it will make your holiday visit home feel calmer, happier, and maybe—most important of all—you will develop stronger, healthier connections with your family. 

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