Self-Care and Survival


Dear Ellie:

I’m looking for some advice on handling the holidays. In contrast to the letter a few weeks ago, my family is not close. I’m an only child, and while my parents are here in town, our relationship is strained (at least from my perspective).

My husband is not close with his family and they live in another state, so we do not spend holidays with them. My parents come over for the day, but it’s always a disappointment because I have visions of “the perfect family Christmas,” which of course never happens.

It always feels tense and uncomfortable, and I can’t even enjoy my children because I’m so busy worrying about my parents and my husband and trying to ease the tension and make sure the kids and I appropriately thank the gift givers for each gift (because if we don’t, sometimes feelings get hurt which makes things even worse). It makes me want to cry just thinking about it.

Last Christmas was an absolute disaster, and I’ve honestly been dreading this one all year long. How can I save our holiday and find some joy?

Yours Truly,

Wake Me Up When December Ends

Dear Wake Me Up When December Ends,

Family dynamics are tough no matter how great your family relationships are. I have what I believe to be strong relationships with every member of my family of origin, and I still have a really hard time saying no and discussing sensitive topics with the people I love so much.

I think most people have that same problem (if you’re reading this and you don’t, I want to know your secret!), but the good news is that there are things we can do to make things easier, especially on special days like Christmas.

The description you give of how Christmas Day usually goes at your house makes me want to cry just thinking about it, too. That sounds exhausting and maddening and heartbreaking all at once. And while I know you are trying to create a special holiday experience for everyone, I’m sure your children and husband (if not your parents, too) sense your stress and anxiety.

I wonder, WMUWDE, what the “perfect family Christmas” actually looks like for you. I’m sure it does not include you running yourself ragged trying to make everyone happy the entire time. The fact that you are writing me tells me that you know your Christmas Day plan is not working. And that’s an important place to start.

I think you should sit down and literally write out what you want Christmas Day to look like for your family. And then bring your husband in on the conversation. Ask him what he would change about the holidays and share your perspective with him. In order for you to have a restful, peaceful day, you both need to be on the same page.

Instead of trying to drag your family up the hill that is what you perceive their “perfect family Christmas” to be, why not put your heads together and decide how you want the festivities to go? I’m not sure how old your children are, but they could even be part of the conversation, too. Building discussions like this into your own family creates healthy communication and helps your children feel like their voices are heard. You don’t have to do everything they want, of course, but it gives your children an opportunity to think about Christmas and tell you and your husband what they value about family time during the holidays.

The issue of your parents is weighty, I know. Strained family relationships burden us and heavy our hearts. I don’t know if you’ve tried to discuss the tension you feel with them, but that’s an important thing to do. It will be uncomfortable and you will probably cry (maybe even a lot like I did when I have had to initiate similar conversations), but being honest about the struggle between you and your parents will empower you to cultivate a more healthy family dynamic. And in time, it could very well make family gatherings far more enjoyable for you, your husband, and your children.

Once your family decides on the new and improved holiday agenda, I think that you should talk with your parents about how you’re going to be making some changes this year. Instead of having them come over for the entire day, they could come over in the afternoon and stay through dinner time. Or you all could open presents together that morning and have brunch but then go your separate ways. Whatever you decide, the goal should be to create a peaceful Christmas for everyone – yourself included.

If your parents aren’t on board with the new plan, then they will be making the choice not to join you and your family for Christmas at all. I know it’s difficult to put it that way, but the health and happiness of you, your husband, and your children is more important than making sure your parents get their way.

At the heart of all of this, Wake Me Up, is that you are modeling for your children how to live intentionally. You are teaching them how to set boundaries and create a life for themselves that is what they want, not what someone else decides is good for them. As your children get older, they will have to make difficult decisions about friendships and family time and what they value in life. Letting them in on this process now will help them grow into self-sufficient, purposeful adults who are emotionally healthy and know how to set limits. If your children think Christmas is about just making everyone else happy at one’s own expense, they will do the same thing when they’re adults. And I’m sure that’s not what you want.

The one thing I want to leave with you is this: you have a say in your life. As daughters and wives and mothers, we are taught by society to relinquish what we want and make sure that everyone else is happy first. I say that is complete garbage.

Years ago, my friend Bess* shared with me the oxygen mask analogy, and it’s a picture I intentionally bring to mind often when I find myself succumbing to others’ expectations or needs to my own detriment. When you fly on a plane, the flight attendants direct you to first put on your oxygen mask in the event of a possible crash or severe turbulence in the cabin. This is because you would not be able to help the people around you if you were deprived of oxygen. Self-care is the same way. If you’re not making steps to care for yourself and set healthy boundaries, you won’t be any good to the people in your life.

WMUWDE, you have everything you need within you at this very moment to make these changes. But it starts with looking at the love and care you so beautifully give to others and extending it to yourself as well. Once you do that, the fullness and depth of your joyful presence will be the greatest gift you could possibly give your family this Christmas. Step into the light of that and watch it change you from the inside out.



*name changed to protect privacy

If you want to reach out to Ellie, you can contact her here.

Published by

Ellie Talley

Ellie is a writer and teacher. She lives in Tennessee with her husband and children.

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