Nobody's walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We're all in this together.
November 3, 2011 4:41 PM   Subscribe

How can you "fake it" or "power through it" or "put on a brave face" to make the holidays as normal as possible, when other people depend on it?

Every family has "that year," the year someone died, or got cancer, or ran away from home, or got divorced, or flunked out, or got into drugs, or went to jail, or whatever. So when it comes time for the holidays, how do you summon enough energy to do the cooking and shopping and wrapping and tree-trimming and etc., and also feign enough enthusiasm to allow the people in your care to be comforted by the ritual even in spite of the difficulties?

In our particular case, I'm a single mom of two teenagers, and one of them has had a truly awful, terrible year burdened by mental health issues that have caused him tremendous suffering and also affected the entire family. It's ongoing and will last through the holidays for sure. Although he will likely not want to participate, I think it's important to have the festivities around him continue as normally as possible. Important for him but also for his sibling, my other child, who deserves to have as much normalcy as possible. And although I am exhausted and at this point even apathetic about it all, I know it will probably be good for me to do it too.

If it were just me, or just me and the boyfriend, I might say let's just skip it this year and go away for the weekend. Our relationship has been strained by the difficulties of the year as well, so a weekend away sounds like heaven. But it's not about us, we can go away another time.

I am not looking to put a false front on some picture-perfect hallmark holiday season that doesn't exist in the real world. I just want to put my own exhaustion/apathy/anger/fear/suffering aside and allow my children to be surrounded by the familiarity of their family rituals during a difficult time.

So how can I do that? Please share your stories as well as any advice you might have. But please don't tell me to just shelve it this year. It's not about me, it's about my kids. (And yes there is lots of therapy going on, and I'm getting regular exercise and fresh air and all that good stuff. No meds for me aside from melatonin at bedtime & non-troublesome beer w/the bf on weekends.) Thank you in advance.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Are there holiday rituals that make you happy, that comfort you and make you feel closer with your family? Focus on those, and ditch the ones that are just window dressing. Do the things that allow you all to spend time together. Cook meals together, tell stories and look at family photos, listen to music that you have fond memories of. Hopefully, doing those things will actually make you feel better, so you won't have to fake it quite so much.
posted by decathecting at 4:45 PM on November 3, 2011

Some things that have helped me in the "off" years have been:
  • Making a list of what I actually want and what I can dispense with. For instance, I can do without home-baked gingerbread, I cannot do without a decorated Christmas tree.
  • Figuring out what I actually have to do myself and what can be outsourced, purchased, borrowed, etc. For instance, it's very important to me that mashed potatoes be done the "right way," so they're done by hand. But I'm OK with just buying a ham from Honeybaked.
  • Doing as much prep-work as humanly possible so that any one day involves as little work as I can manage. For instance, all Christmas shopping is done weeks ahead of time, and I never try to wrap more than four or five things on a given day.
  • Keeping a list of things to do that remind me of the spirit I'm trying to engender. For instance, I have Christmas music loaded up on the MP3 player and so when I'm stressing about things I am trying to get done, I can just sit down and start it up and be all "yay Christmas."
  • Having an escape route for when things are stressful. My whole family does this a lot (we're all introverts) - signaling other people that you want to be left alone to try and recover by, e.g., going into the living room apart from everyone else and reading a book.
As for displaying enthusiasm, my number one thing is that you can fake/force yourself for only so many hours at a time. You don't need to, and almost certainly can't, be WOOHOO HOLIDAYS for two months straight. Take breaks where you go to the movies or cry or hide in bed or whatever, and don't feel bad about letting go of the "I am Responsible for Everyone's Happiness" thing for a few hours.

(Also: you're not responsible for anyone's happiness. Ask your son to do specific things if that's how you roll each year, but don't try to make him enjoy it. It's probably a good idea to ask that he be physically present, though - for the most part that's good for people with mental health issues.)
posted by SMPA at 4:51 PM on November 3, 2011 [14 favorites]

Yeah, everybody's worn out, so I would try to keep it simple and the stress level as low as possible. Don't try to fake it, just do a few fun things together. Use the holidays to reinforce the bonds between you.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 4:52 PM on November 3, 2011

You could sit down with your family and have a chat about which bits of Christmas each of you really love, which bits you don't like, and whether there are new traditions you'd like to start.

If Teenager is a massive fan of turkey and trimmings, how does Teenager feel about taking on some of the responsibility for that? If nobody is a fan of turkey and trimmings, how would everyone feel about having something quick but still special, like a really good steak, or some meal they remember with fondness from childhood?

If you can get people to all buy in to making Christmas something low key and special, maybe that will take the pressure off you a bit.

For me, Christmas got so much easier once we ditched the bits everyone secretly hated anyway.
posted by emilyw at 4:55 PM on November 3, 2011 [8 favorites]

Christmas can suck. I think because it's supposed to be "perfect". One year (my last 'childhood' Christmas before I moved away) I was a little grumpy, my mum wanted me to not be grumpy and have a good time, and we all burst into tears.

So yeah, the key is ditching expectations. Do Christmas, but don't expect it to be magical. Just kind of go with the flow and chill, and be ok with that. Do Christmassy stuff, but all the old traditions might not happen/be enjoyable this year, and that's ok.

Feeling for you.
posted by titanium_geek at 5:06 PM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nthing bring it back to family and making it simpler.

Maybe take the family out to cut a tree, or do some little, nostalgic things with family, even/especially if it's silly or something you did with kids. Ridiculous things can help break the tension and lighten the mood. But if no one really wants to do it, don't push too hard (and it sounds like you're trying to do that now).

If food is always a hassle, you can do something simple with take-out. Heck, eat out, if you want to and have the money. We did that for Thanksgiving one year, and many of the adults who were usually involved with food prep (but weren't really fans of cooking and baking in most situations) really enjoyed a break from the kitchen.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:06 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just pick the rituals that actually mean something to your family, don't just do them because you've always done them. Talk to them and find out what things are important to them, so if you've always made cookies but no one actually really minds about doing that anymore just buy some nice ones and save the strain. Instead of decorating the house like mad, let everyone pick out a few decorations that mean something (say the kids made them when they were little) and just put those ones up.

Do you have to cook Christmas Dinner, or this year would everyone be happy enough if you order a dinner to pick up from a restaurant or even go out to a restaurant. I don't know if they do it in the US, but in Australia lots of restaurants do the full Christmas Lunch with turkey and the works. It's a lot easier to just book a table then to try and cook.
posted by wwax at 5:07 PM on November 3, 2011

I had a Christmas like this a couple of years ago, when a family member was experiencing some health problems, and the rest of us were trying to cheer him up with a really good Christmas, where he could just put his feet up, relax, and heal. I would say accept that you are going to muscle through the holidays, that you may even not enjoy them, and then allow yourself some room to seriously crash in January. Maybe take some time now to schedule that weekend away for mid-January and have that to look forward to.
posted by fairfax at 5:40 PM on November 3, 2011

I would talk to the teenagers, and totally second the idea of creating new traditions. Why can't you all go away for a few days together? Ideally somewhere sunny? Faking it doesn't work and there is such an undercurrent of stress. I just gave up and now do what I want...but I don't have my own family to take care of! Ask them- maybe one wants to help with cooking, maybe both want something totally different. If it's not going to be 'normal' (and what is normal?) then at least have it be something you wall want/choose. Take it down about 8 levels, tell them it's going to be a very low key year and you want their input on how to make it work out for everyone.
posted by bquarters at 5:56 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Activity cures melancholy. The universe rewards action.
Don't trim the tree or pull taffy thinking "I must make this normal for kids.". Do all that stuff as mindfully as you can "I'm placing tinsel with the precision of a master artisan" or "Taffy is sticky."
Kids need to be involved. You don't have to put on a lavish Dickensian HAPPYFUN event---listen to Marilyn Manson while making cookies. My husband's family made gingerbread constructions that included Women's House of Detention and Soviet-Era Orphanage.
Don't want to cook? Order Chinese and have Kung Pow Christmas. It's doing the stuff together that matters. I find being slightly silly can help. You don't have to be a Martha Stewart perfectionist, but most teens like the stability and traditions more than they would rather die to admit.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:18 PM on November 3, 2011 [9 favorites]

Ask for help. If other family members or friends ask what you want for Christmas, say It's been a tough year. To be completely honest, the absolutely best gift would be if you could come over and help us get the tree up. and then ask somebody else if they'd come over and help you wrap gifts one evening. and so on. Decorating a tree, putting up lights, etc., when you're exhausted, stressed, and maybe depressed, is kind of miserable. But if you have company, it's easier.

I had some similar pretty bad times with my son. Reading your question got me teary. It's really hard; your beloved, cherished child is in trouble, and you want to take care of him, and you simultaneously want to throttle him because he's not just an adolescent, he's an adolescent to the nth degree, and he makes you crazy. It's so easy to get isolated because people say Oh yeah, teenagers, ours was a pain, but they have no idea that you're dealing with agencies who are supposed to help but are wildly disorganized, there's no guide to this, so you spend every lunch hour making calls and hoping maybe you'll get a call back this week. The school acts like you're a defective parent, etc. I used to say to myself I'm glad he got me as a parent, because another Mom might have been unable to keep being there for him. Find a way to credit yourself for doing all you've done for him.

You can buy cookies and pies at a bake sale or bakery, and you can probably get most of Christmas dinner cooked by the grocery store. My sister taught me about pre-made mashed potatoes - delicious, easy, yay! Do the easy versions of the required traditions and save your energy for the serious family traditions, whether it's sweet potato pie or secret recipe stuffing.

Make sure you have your favorite holiday movies and music available to supply holiday spirit and tradition.

Get some really silly gifts, joke books, groucho glasses, and a few dvds of really great comedy. I grew up in a family where the holidays were an opportunity to get crazy-stressed, tired, and have huge blowups, so I got in the habit of getting games, puzzles and fun stuff for gifts, so we could have some distractions. Go out to the movies, go out to look at christmas lights, etc.

Buy yourself something special - new flannel sheets, the really nice face lotion, whatever, and wrap it up. When the kids ask who it's from just say That's so sweet; Santa thought I deserved a treat. You deserve a medal, preferably awarded on a fabulous cruise, but that might not happen, so you should at least have something a little special.
posted by theora55 at 6:22 PM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Definitely take the pressure off as much as possible. You might even try to prioritize low-key special occasions that aren't Christmas-related but are more about unwinding together - depending on your kids' personalities and likes/dislikes, something like a family movie or games night with snacks, or building a snowman (or bonfiring leaves or making a sand castle - whatever your climate's about).
But skip the stuff that's about reaching out to people outside the family and performing, if you and the kids want. Send Easter cards or whatever if you're missing it by then, but there's so much stimulation at this time of year nobody's going to miss your Christmas cards/special cookies/singalong party if your little family needs a break. (Oh, okay, don't feel unloved, of course they'll miss them. But they'll be fine and your family needs to look after itself first.)
posted by gingerest at 6:23 PM on November 3, 2011

My father died over the Christmas holiday (we buried him on Boxing Day) when I was a junior in college. I'm 43 and I've never really picked the Christmas spirit back up. If your family feels that way, that's OK. Don't beat yourself up to have "the perfect Christmas". My ex-husband's family tried to have "the perfect Christmas" after his parents separated and it was just stressful and nasty.

The two key things are figuring out what you want to do and outsourcing/abandoning the rest. Cooking big family dinners was a source of stress when I was a kid (due to questions about which relatives would show up vs which ones announced they were coming) so we abandoned that practice completely and now we eat out. But present exchanges are still important so we still do them. My mother decorates some; I can't be bothered. Different strokes, etc. Only you know what's important; other people's perceptions of Christmas aren't worth worrying about.

Asking other people for help with the things you want to do is a great idea. Your friends can help put up the tree and the lights and so on and so forth. But the best thing at all, if either of you has family that can host, is to go and visit and let someone else do the cooking, decoration, etc. and you and BF and kids just let it happen.
posted by immlass at 7:49 PM on November 3, 2011

Ask what matters to other people, what rituals matter? IS it the closeness, the meal, the gift giving? Is it the tree or watching a holiday special? It shouldn't be work for the sake of work, it should matter to someone. Talk about it.
It isn't fun to put up a tree if no one cares or has the energy or interest. But if it really matters to someone, that can be reason enough.
posted by provoliminal at 8:19 PM on November 3, 2011

If it helps you to think about it like this, I think Child With Issues may thank you in future for making the effort, as will Other Child. For reasons that are not relevant here, I hated Christmas as a child, was impossible to make a happy day for, and sobbed my way through more than one Yule tide at near-suicidal levels of despair.

As an adult, while I know that all took place, when I look back what I remember is the tree in our living room towering over the Hudson River view, the decorations, the ornaments, and the PJ-clad present opening. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing and I have cherished mental postcard pictures of what was also a terrible, terrible time for me. I am grateful to my mother for persisting with the pageantry and allowing no Christmas to be The Christmas Depression Ate.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:24 PM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

like everyone's been saying, make it a nice low-key christmas. Lounge christmas. Buy the dinner, watch movies together, hell wear pyjamas all day! hang out together wrapped in blankets, eat cookies and play videogames together. Let them know ahead of time that everyone has the day off to relax in whatever way they like best, and arrange that the games, shows, movies, art supplies or whatever are on hand. Just spend the day as you feel like. Instead of formal christmas dinner, you can get a bunch of pre-made things that get heated up in the oven (chicken wings, pizza rolls, garlic bread) bake and serve buffet-style whenever people feel hungry. It could be a lot of fun.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 8:55 PM on November 3, 2011

Maybe this isn't exactly what you're asking for and perhaps against the grain, but can you all go on a vacation? A screw-it-we-all-know-stuff-isn't-normal-so-let's-just-get-out-of-here vacation? A reckless hurrah send off to a sucky year, if you will.

I know on my family's off years, especially the long-ago one that involved me, I would have LOVED for my mom to have said, "This year sucked. We can do a real Christmas, but I'd also like to throw out the idea of Vegas. Or the Keys? Let's go nuts."

I would toss that over to them as an option. They're old enough. If nobody feels like the Bahamas, don't make them do that either. But don't assume they really need a White Christmas to feel normal. Because when things aren't normal, sometimes you just want your family to acknowledge and be not-normal with you. Just a thought.

Good luck!
posted by functionequalsform at 9:33 PM on November 3, 2011

PS- what I just wrote I wouldn't consider "shelving" Christmas. It's just a different one. :)
posted by functionequalsform at 9:34 PM on November 3, 2011

but can you all go on a vacation? A screw-it-we-all-know-stuff-isn't-normal-so-let's-just-get-out-of-here vacation?

This. One stressful year when I was about 13 my parents took us skiing for Christmas. We'd never skied and had hardly even seen snow. It was understood that there weren't going to be presents- skiing cost too much. Apart from the novelty, it was exercise we wouldn't have gotten at home in the rain and mud. It was new. It was in a safe ski resort so we kids could just wander freely, more or less, so we weren't always under each other's feet. It was a great Christmas.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:37 PM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

As someone who WAS the Other Child, thank you so much for thinking about him as well. We had a tendency, because we seem fine, to get shoved off to the side and although a lot of times the Other Child -- the one without issues -- doesn't mind and is actually happy to put on a brave face, and be The One That's Okay it's really REALLY easy to resent your sibling who you love, but whose psychological situation makes Christmas shitty for everyone. It's very very stressful, sometimes, to be The Other Child. So my only suggestion would be to talk, also, to THAT kid, one-on-one, about what HE wants to do this Christmas. There were years when I would have been STOKED if we'd just gone to Hawaii and read books for three days. It would have been amazing, and I think it would have helped my brother, too.

FWIW, I think you're awesome to even be thinking about it right now, and if it makes you feel better, my brother -- who had some SERIOUSLY tough teenage years -- is doing so amazingly well now. You will have great Christmases on the other end of this.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 11:59 PM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

My family has also had a really rough year this year, so we're just going to scale down the level of expectation for Christmas and Thanksgiving. More nuclear family hangout time, less entertaining of relatives and family friends.

Remember that the important part of this time of year is hanging out with your family. It does not matter what kind of food you're eating, parties you're throwing, or presents you're unwrapping while this happens. Your friends and non-nuclear family should by definition understand that you've had a rough 12 months and want to take it a little easier this holiday season; if they don't, that's their problem, not yours.

For your "other" kid, don't put too much pressure on yourself for "normalcy." As a kid (<15, I'm guessing) your sample size of Christmases is small, so whatever you guys do this year should be fun for him.
posted by Aizkolari at 4:26 AM on November 4, 2011

If your goal is to have as normal and typical a christmas as possible so nothing feels, tastes, or sounds like "we're doing it his way this year because of The Cloud of Doom," then SMPA's advice is spot on.

I get that you don't want to change it up much and I agree. Get the kids' input and ask for their help and good luck.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:31 AM on November 4, 2011

It is entirely possible for our family that this will be "that year" for us, and so I am reading these answers with interest. I will be following SMPA's advice.

But, considering what had to change for us for Halloween, which for us is right hard up there under Christmas in terms of favourite holidays, I would say that our daughter, who's only seven, really appreciated being included in adult decisions such as forgoing pumpkins; going without the creepy meatloaf grave with a Barbie hand reaching out for dinner as usual; and understanding that if we decided put up all that fake spiderwebby crap, she had to take it down. She was okay with it, because it was her decision too.

So, I'm agreeing with everyone that is saying it's time for a meeting. It's possible you might want to hang on to being the superhero mommy, and maybe this is an attempt to have the familiarity of their family rituals during a difficult time to preserve some of the sweetness of childhood and the comforting parts of normalcy, for even one last time, that you might need - and if they want it, sure, go for it - but it's also an opportunity to have your first adult Christmas together. They ought to be knowing you as a person too, even as "an exhausted and at this point even apathetic" person. My daughter looked at me with the big eyes, but it felt like she really saw me when I simply explained "I am tired - the trips to and from the hospital to see your grandma mean a lot of driving for me, and the extra cooking and cleaning for your papa are something I need to save energy for. There will be weeks of this, and we need to pace ourselves. We can give up a few things, still have a perfectly nice Halloween, and I will be a nicer person for not being so stressed. What do you say?" It was a huge leap in growing for her, as empathy is an issue - and being proud of her for it is a gift for both of us.
posted by peagood at 7:49 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

I interpreted the question a little different than how everyone is answering it. What I got from the question is that you don't want to skip the usual traditions, and you want to make Christmas normal for your kids, yes? but it is hard for you to go through the motions of preparing a nice meal and wrapping nice gifts because you feel exhausted and suffering and angry, etc?

If I read your question right, then here is what I do when all I want to do is break down and cry in a corner for a day, but I have to put on a brave face for others so I don't make THEIR experience worse: I think about horrible things that other people have had to live through - more recently when I was having a hard time, I thought about people losing loved ones in 9/11, or starving to death in Kenya, and being grateful that whatever I am going through is not as bad as that. This is all a little extreme, and doesn't apply to a situation if someone actually *did* lose a loved one and they are having a hard time facing the holidays because of that, but I think in your situation, be grateful that you *can* give your kids a Christmas, and that you *do* have the ability to go away for the weekend (even if it's another weekend). When it gets extremely hard for you, take deep slow breaths and remind yourself that in the grand scheme of things, this isn't as bad as it can be, even though it feels like it's crushing you now. Be grateful that you do have your kids and your boyfriend.
posted by at 7:50 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

My family has had some really tough holidays to get through, too. We're a family who loves our holidays, though, so it's always been important to us that we try to celebrate them no matter what. And we've learned from our mistakes in doing so. The really big one is this: don't overplan! Sure, in previous years you may have blinged your house out holiday-style, hosted dinner on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, made cookies for everyone you know, and decorated gingerbread houses for all your kids' teachers, but this year you might not have the time and energy to handle all that. Pick the few things that are really important to you--for my family it's stuff like one nice holiday meal (even if it's scaled-down), decorating a tree (even if it's a fake one because we didn't have time to go to a tree lot for a real one) and hanging stockings, and decorating cookies (even if they're just for us). Trying to do everything just like previous years taxes your reserves of cope, which are probably already low, and leads to disappointment when you don't get to everything and feel like a failure at Christmas. Er, if you're me, that is.

The other big thing, which is closely related, is this: accept that things aren't going to be perfect. There may be drama. A batch of cookies may burn while you're dealing with that drama. The fake tree isn't going to look just like last year's 6-ft Noble Fir. It's okay! You can still celebrate and have fun and make it great for the kids even despite all that.
posted by rhiannonstone at 8:06 AM on November 4, 2011

Whatever you do, take a day for yourself before or during the holidays. Rest, relax, do whatever recharges you physically, mentally, and spiritually.
posted by thatdawnperson at 6:20 AM on November 5, 2011

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