Balancing Family Commitments at the Holidays

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The holidays can be a wonderful time to get together with family that you don’t often see. It can be an enriching opportunity for your children to visit with cousin, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. It can be “the most wonderful time of the year.”

Or, it can be a tad stressful.

Family holidays can bring out the best in us — or the worst, depending on our circumstances, our finances, or our moods. And when we’re parents of young children, it can be really difficult at times to balance family commitments, our desire for tradition, and our need for sanity.

A reader wrote with the following question:

My husband’s family and my family both live locally. My parents are divorced. Each year, for Thanksgiving in particular, we seem to attend and/or host some combination of 3-4 Thanksgiving celebrations between all of the sides of the family. While I would like to think that we could bring everyone together for a large family holiday, this just has not been feasible in the past. What suggestions do you have for keep our sanity in regards to time and efforts during this time? I have come to dread Thanksgiving over the last several years because of all of this.

Wow. I can understand this situation in many ways. Our family has experienced divorce as well and in the early years of our marriage, we did the dance from one turkey dinner to the next. While it was manageable during our pre-children days, we knew that it would get tough once we had kids.

And even if divorce is not an issue, balancing family commitments can be tricky. In-laws’ or parents’ or your own house? Multiply that by your siblings and their respective family/in-law situations, and the mental gymnastics to get all the family in one place at one time can be a death-defying feat!

Some ways to approach it:

Be united – Whatever you do, you and your spouse need to be united about how you will handle holiday get-togethers. I can’t stress this enough. If you’ve got an in-house debate going, it will be hard to handle any outside friction gracefully. Begin the conversation early and not during stressful times.

In fact, you may start talking about next year now, instead of trying to enact change this month. Find a moment that is not “in the heat of the moment” and address your goals for the holidays and other family events.

Be willing to say no and to disappoint – Before you can make decisions about where you’ll be when, you need to be willing to say no — and be okay with the idea that you might disappoint someone. But, if you and your spouse are united, then you can tackle anything! Just season your words with gentleness.

Alternate sides each year – Some extended families tend toward the switch off technique. Spend Thanksgiving with one side of the family, Christmas with the other. Keep New Year’s to yourself! Rotate positions next year. In the case of a third or fourth branch of the family, you may need to do a little fancier footwork or combine groups that get along.

Keep one holiday to yourself and alternate the others – This is the route that we’ve taken since FishBoy13 was one. Our kids have always spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning at home. We don’t. go. anywhere.

While it was probably difficult for our families at first (Sorry, Mom), it has proven to be a very good practice for our kids. It builds traditions for them. And they love the continuity of celebrating Christmas at home.

We have had family come to us at Christmas, but we made it a point early on not to move our kids around on a day when they just want to play.

Invite everyone over to your house – This makes more work for you in some ways, but in other ways, it enables you a little more control over what your family does.

If you don’t think the different branches of the family will blend well, consider hosting an open house. Family can stagger their visits throughout the day; your kids can play in safe and familiar surroundings; and you won’t run yourself ragged all over the place.

There is no “one right answer,” unfortunately. In fact, what works for you this year may feel like a train wreck next year. Such is life as MOM.

Be willing to roll with the punches, love your family despite the demands on your time, and enjoy the season with your peeps.

How do YOU balance family commitments during the holiday season?

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  1. We struggled a bit at the beginning with the sharing of our time during the holidays with extended family. Unfortunately, my mil took it personally (and still does) if we don’t put her first. My dh has gotten better about focusing on what works for his family over what the extended family wants. It also helps that other family members want to stay home on Christmas with their kids. Now we have a day where extended family gets together to visit.

    However, we’ve been thrown into a slightly different issue. My mom and stepfather have been spending time with my stepfather’s brother and his family on Thanksgiving because the brother is sick. The brother has been sick for at least 5 years now. If I don’t make a big deal about getting together, it doesn’t happen, and my dh thinks we’re not welcome at my mom’s house. It’s an issue I need to address after the holidays.

  2. Thanks so much for this post. It addresses the problems so many have during the holidays. I totally agree about solidarity with your spouse. Of course sometimes that’s easier said than done. It’s worth working on though!

  3. Understandably all the responses are from mostly young moms. And admittedly one must have control over their own traditions etc. As an older mother with 2 grown sons who it would seem have become mutes as all decisions regarding holidays (and most everything else) are entirely up to my DIL’s. So for those who have sons, enjoy what you have today while they are young.

  4. We also have the holiday craze…for what it’s worth, here is what we do. We still run around like crazy, but we know what is coming each year!

    Thanksgiving – we go to hubby’s family
    Black Friday – shopping and dinner with my family (and my mom and I go shopping again in the afternoon while Turkey cooks!)
    *We don’t see my father on Thanksgiving – just too many places to be

    Christmas Eve – Church and then my mom’s house for celebration
    Christmas Morning – HOME
    Christmas @ noon – My father’s
    Christmas evening – Dinner with hubby’s family (whole extended)

    We also have a celebration with hubby’s immediate family following Christmas so that we can have a more intimate gathering with them. It is usually the day after Christmas and we do a brunch (even if it is at nighttime) and everyone HAS to wear PJ’s!

    Then the 27th is my twins’ birthday so I switch gears into birthday mode and get ready for the party that follows on the Saturday afterward!

    I wish I had a big house and I would definitely host, but we have a tiny house that can’t accommodate.

    Good luck to everyone! Coordinating can be SO hard!

  5. Thank you so much for this post. What a difference it makes for my hubby and I to be on the same page. We are trying to have our own family traditions, even though it’s just the two of us, while balancing the family traditions of his family (x2) and my family. What a relief to read that lots of other readers feel that same way I do. I have noticed that being upfront about what our plans are this year has been a lot easier and less stressful.

  6. This is such a hard thing. I don’t know what’s worse, the guilt trips if you don’t go or the stress of traveling the interstates with a million other crazy people. I feel like it’s a suicide mission every time we do that. We finally stopped traveling for major holidays a few years ago when my son was born. It’s just too much. But, to make up for it, we make sure to travel a lot during other times of the year. The first few holidays alone were weird and kind of sad, but so relaxing. Do you know how awesome it is to not get dressed until 2:30 PM on Christmas day? Over the years we’ve developed our own holiday traditions and I have to admit we would feel pretty put out to miss any of them at this point!

  7. Oh boy … this will be the FIRST Christmas in 25 years that we are going back north for a week … with the two teens. We will stay at my BIL (not an issue) and visit the MIL&FIL, and then visit MY parents and THEN visit my brother and wife. Uggg. I’m already getting anxiety … my parents are exactly outgoing, lets go spend time with those we don’t know well type of people … I think my brother & inlaws would get along fine but my parents will NOT come to anyones home. Which puts me in such a situation 🙁 I’m 46 and still feel guilty if they aren’t participants in happy extended family gatherings. It’s not something I have control of, and I’ve doen everything from extending the invite, offering to drive, etc. to no avail (“why is so and so sending us an invitation in the mail?” “because you won’t answer the phone when they call” “well I wasn’t in the mood to talk” this is the type of drama I get to deal with :)) Then I look at Hubby and the kids and think, heck, its family time in Indiana! There better be snow (sorry for all you midwestern people who had more than your fill last year!)

  8. My parents are divorced and my dad lives out of state. We host Thanksgiving at our home and EVERYBODY comes to us. We do Christmas eve with my husband parents and Christmas day with my mom and stepdad and brothers. My oldest child is 3 this year, so I’m not sure how it’s going to work just yet, but we’ll need to do Christmas morning at our own home. Maybe waiting until early afternoon to go to my mom’s and have dinner there???

  9. I could have written that letter myself! We have struggled with this our whole marriage since the in-laws live 30 min. from my family. We are expected to go see everyone. It’s crazy and of course I just want to stay with my family because that is what the holidays and tradition are to me. Eating two Thanksgiving dinners while 40 weeks pregnant last year was the last straw for me! This year, we put our “feet” down and said we will spend one day with each family. I hope it goes well. Christmas is still up in the air…we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. You’re right though – as long as we are a united front everything goes much better!

  10. My mom lives 3 hours to the north and my in-laws are 6 hours to the south. So hitting both places on the same day has never been an option.

    We switch off Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Those are the three major holidays for us. Since we have no family in the area, going to see family is a priority for us, no matter the distance. We also make a New Years trip to visit the family we miss on Christmas. Yes, that’s three trips in 6 weeks. But I hate holidays with just the three of us. I’m used to big family gatherings. So when it’s just the 4 of us on a holiday, it feels so lonely. We were the first siblings to be married. So we’ve basically put our foot down and said this is the house we’ll be at on this year. So if you want to see us, this is the year we’ll be here or the year we won’t. It’s exhausting by Jan, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Ask me when we have more kids. 🙂

  11. This post is excellent Jessica. We have had to “rethink” our holidays this year and in our hearts we just wanted to spend Thanksgiving with us. My husband was diagnosed with ALS in March, and the holidays are just plain emotionally hard. It took lots of courage, but we finally told our family that we won’t be joining in the Thanksgiving meal this year. They understood, but I know they were dissapointed. I feel so much freedom though after stating what we wanted, and we are all excitedly planning our first Thanksgiving at home. We decided to *gasp* eat dinner out and then come home and decorate for Christmas!

    1. Oh, Stephanie, somehow I missed that ALS diagnosis. God bless you! Praying for you to have a wonderful holiday season! (And I’m so proud of you for going out to eat!)

  12. We don’t really have problems in this area- YET. I know for a fact that is will be much more difficult in a couple years when we start having kids.

    As it is, we are lucky to only live 2 hours from the city where both of our immediate family lives. We go to Thanksgiving lunch with his family, and Thanksgiving dinner with mine. Vice versa for Christmas. Once we move next year though, we’ll be 6-8 hours away and it will get harder fast.

  13. Love this – thanks so much. We are newlyweds with a baby on the way and two sets of parents with their own traditions and expectations of each of us. We decided early on that if we couldn’t meld the two families that we would alternate, with the thought that once the baby comes that the holidays would be held at our house – no questions asked. It’s a relief that this is a real world issue that others experience. Thank you again!

  14. We have two Thanksgivings and that is fine, it is Christmas I want to work on! I love the thanksgiving scene picture above…that must have been a blast to create with the children!

  15. We’ve been struggling with this for the past week since I have divorced parents and grandparents that are still living. We have family anywhere from 2 to 3 1/2 hours away, but none that live near us so we’re always the ones traveling. We always stay home Christmas Eve and Christmas Day but before and after that are crazy. I feel like I’m dragging my kids all over the state, visting someone new every other day. This year I think we’ve decided that we just aren’t going to make every place. It doesn’t help that we have Nutcracker Tickets that throw more trouble in but we should also take time for ourselves as well, right? Thanks for this post.

  16. Thank you so much for this post! My husband and I are just like the person that wrote in. We each have 2 remarried parents so in all we have about 4 sets of families! I love this post since I have wondered how it will be with children since it is already hard to try to get to everyone! Thankfully 3 of the 4 families really don’t care what day they see us, just as long as they see us is what matters.