I screwed up; how to minimize the family drama at Christmas?
December 21, 2007 1:18 PM   Subscribe

I missed my two brothers-in-laws' birthdays, and one of my sisters is mad at me. I'll see everyone at Christmas. Help me make things right and prevent family drama.

My sisters have been with their husbands for ~10 years. Most of that time I was poor and single and living far away, so I wasn't expected to get anything for their husbands birthdays, and I'd usually only get my sisters a card for their birthdays. The older sister always remembers my birthday, but the younger one rarely does. I am not hurt at all by the forgetfulness of the younger sister; that's just how she is. I'm really not very close to either of them, but of the two, I'm closer to the older one.

I've been with my boyfriend for a few years, and the older sister has gotten him something for his birthday each year since we became seriously involved. The younger one forgets his birthday as well as mine, but we've all exchanged Christmas gifts. This year, I forgot the older sister's husband's birthday, which is 2 weeks before mine. Apparently the younger sister also forgot his birthday. Everyone was supposed to come to our parents' house for dinner to celebrate my birthday, but older sister refused because we hadn't acknowledged the husband's birthday. They did send a gift. This was ~6 weeks ago. I am so afraid of confrontation that I've since failed to acknowledge 1) his birthday and 2) their gift to me. She indicated in a passive aggressive email to all of us that she is still upset. I don't know if her husband is actually upset or if she is fueling all of this.

I've also missed the other sister's husband's birthday, ~2 weeks ago. I doubt anyone is upset about this since we don't talk much to begin with, but it wouldn't surprise me if the older sister was upset that I forgot another family birthday. I have the reputation of being somewhat self-centered, which is not the case really - I'm just awkward and forgetful and not naturally a warm, fuzzy person. I live a very different lifestyle than they do and I think she perceives it as arrogance (but I never, ever put down their tastes).

Anyway, I am wondering what to do. Should I give the guys double gifts at Christmas time and tell them that one is for their birthday, and I'm sorry I missed it? Should I talk to the upset sister alone, since she is likely the only one really bothered by this?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total)
Give the guys christmas presents. Include a card that says "sorry I forgot your birthday" and put a gift card in there.

Then, talk to your sister and explain basically what you just explained in this post. I'm sure the gifts are really just a proxy for something else. You're going to have to find out what that something else is, then figure out whether you, or she, needs to change things so that that something else is no longer an issue.
posted by Happydaz at 1:28 PM on December 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm amazed that adults give a shit about birthdays, especially ones that are not theirs. I endorse Happydaz's approach 100%.
posted by tristeza at 1:29 PM on December 21, 2007 [4 favorites]

The simplest solution is just to say "I'm sorry I forgot your husband's birthday," and "I never got a chance to thank you for the , thanks its great."

I would give her husband a belated birthday card with a gift certificate in it. Yyou can go with a normal birthday card or an "Oops, I forgot your birthday" one.

posted by burnmp3s at 1:30 PM on December 21, 2007

My siblings and I don't exchange gifts on birthdays, mostly because we all have kids. My husband and his brothers do exchange gifts and I suppose if someone forgot one year, a nice letter (to all parties involved, I suppose) would go a long way to healing whatever hurt there was. Maybe say just that: I'm just awkward and forgetful and not naturally a warm, fuzzy person. Nothing personal, didn't mean it, please accept my apology, looking forward to seeing everyone at Christmas, etc. I wouldn't necessarily double the gifts but I would go out of my way to make the gift I gave really, really good.
posted by cooker girl at 1:30 PM on December 21, 2007

Bake a birthday cake, or do some other special, thoughtful gesture. And tell them you'll try harder to show you care going forward.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:30 PM on December 21, 2007

I'm amazed that it would be considered necessary for you to remember a brother-in-law's birthday. Seriously. My b-i-l is actually a pretty close friend of mine, and was before he met my sister, and I have no idea when his birthday is. Perhaps after you apologize as per Happydaz you can discuss with your sister the relative importance of this day to you.
posted by OmieWise at 1:37 PM on December 21, 2007

Tell your sisters you really couldn't care less when their spouses' birthdays happen to be.
posted by panamax at 1:39 PM on December 21, 2007 [5 favorites]

And tell them you'll try harder to show you care going forward.

Yeah, and put MORE pressure on for next time they forget, as it (of course) shows that they don't care about the person if they forget birthdays....

Ouch. Don't pander to that possibility for creating tension for yourself.

I think that (as mentioned) trying to explain your different attitudes to birthdays (the not a naturally warm and fuzzy person thing). Explain that you've been afraid of confrontation and realise you've probably made it worse. But certainly don't imply that you have anything other than 'forgotten a birthday' or, as I say, next time you forget (which seems likely) the link to 'quantity of care for person' is explicit by 'telling them you'll try harder next time'.

Adults really shouldn't find birthdays this important. There must be some other reason for the upset, I think, and the birthday is just the trigger.
posted by Brockles at 1:40 PM on December 21, 2007

oh, that would maximize not minimize the drama. Your older sister is very strange, but you can either conform to her wishes, ignore them, or attempt to change them.

I'd go with the middle course, but that's probably my Asperger's talking.
posted by panamax at 1:42 PM on December 21, 2007

Everyone was supposed to come to our parents' house for dinner to celebrate my birthday, but older sister refused because we hadn't acknowledged the husband's birthday.

See, that's a load of shit. Adults don't play these games.

Just relax and do normal Christmas stuff. If they're weird, they're weird. If they're mean about things, put coal in their stockings and laugh about it.
posted by pracowity at 1:44 PM on December 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Is there any chance of getting together with your sisters and their spouses a day or two ahead of Christmas? It might be nice to have a good dinner or something with them, and present your BIL(s) with a simple present afterwards, so you can smooth things over before the big day.
posted by EatTheWeak at 1:46 PM on December 21, 2007

It is in fact a load of shit, this is your sisters husband, not your's. I don't expect a gift from my brother's significant other, and I am only vaguely aware of her birthday because its around his, and that is fine with all parties involved. It is nice that your sister sends your boyfriend something on his birthday, but its not like she can set rules for the whole family.

She needs to grow up, if she makes a big deal about it at Christmas then tell her to stop acting like a child.
posted by BobbyDigital at 1:51 PM on December 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

It sounds like there are quite a few birthdays around the same time. Why not suggest for future years (and perhaps you can start this now) having a "birthday" party when you all do meet for the holidays. Just get a big cake and sing Happy Birthday to every one. And then at that time exchange small gifts (if the parties involved agree to gifts, otherwise just be happy eating cake together as a family).

You could introduce the idea this year with, "I wish we could have celebrated our birthdays together, but since we couldn't, let's celebrate now." You could even supply the cake as a peace offering.

My aunt and I do this whenever we get together - usually around once a year. We go out to eat and then we sing Happy Birthday to each other, her partner, my husband and my children, since we're never together on said birthdays.
posted by Sassyfras at 1:52 PM on December 21, 2007

It sounds as though even though you think your older sister is being a little bit silly for caring so much about all these birthdays, you care about the fact that she cares and want to remember these occasions for her just because it means a lot to her. And I think that's nice.

Call your older sister and apologize for any hurt that the past few months may have caused her. Confess that you have trouble remembering dates and ask her for her help. Tell her that since she is so good at remembering these things and you are so terrible at it, you would love it if from now on, she would help you to remember by calling you two weeks or so before each of these important family events to remind you that they're coming up. That way, you'll have plenty of time to pick out thoughtful cards and little gifts for people.

She will respond in one of two ways. The best case scenario is that she will appreciate that you are trying and agree to this plan, which will put the onus on her to remember and make it her responsibility to remind you, rendering you blameless in the future if she forgets to do so. You will be able to send out cards and presents on time to those who expect them from now on, plus you'll be able to bond with your sister over discussions about what to get for people and maybe going in on joint gifts for your other sister and catch up on news when she calls, bringing you closer together and breaking down some of the barrier between you.

The worst case scenario is that she will respond with outrage, telling you that this is your job and she shouldn't have to help you and how dare you suggest that she should have to remind you of your own brother-in-law's birthday when you should remember it on your own because it's such an important day! If the latter happens, remain calm. Tell her that you understand how important birthdays are to her and her husband but that you're having a hard time remembering the exact dates because they're far away; that's why you're asking for her help. Don't make this about personality clashes or past hurts or lifestyle choices. Tell her that you can't do it without her help, that you don't want this to come between you. Tell her how sad all of this has made you feel and ask for her help in making sure this doesn't happen again.

I'm a big sister, and (even though I think this particular disagreement is a bit silly) I would never be able to resist an earnest plea for assistance from my little sister to help her solve a problem that was important to both of us.
posted by decathecting at 2:00 PM on December 21, 2007

happydaz has the right answer. for the sake of peace, acknowledge the missed birthdays by amping up the christmas gifts, if for no other reason than to placate your sister. sometimes this is the better part of honor in these situations.

i'm also surprised that your sister suddenly has gotten so irritated over this. it doesn't sound like she's cared in the past, so it's not a case of immaturity. is she depressed? unhappy with you about something else? the holidays are a lousy time to confront anyone about anything like this, but pay attention to her, and maybe bring it up with your mom or other sister and see if something else is going on here.
posted by thinkingwoman at 2:23 PM on December 21, 2007

er, better part of valor, not honor. i really need to get my cliches straight.
posted by thinkingwoman at 2:24 PM on December 21, 2007

It sounds like you're looking for a short term answer here. Just based on what you've told us about your older sister, there will be drama at Christmas if she wants drama, and there is probably nothing you can do about it. It's not likely she will openly express her displeasure (at least the reason for it) in front of anyone but you, 'cause odds are she would be embarrassed to admit to her birthday obsession in the presence of any other potentially rational adults in your family. So, you've got that going for you (maybe)!

To minimize the drama, I'm thinking your only option is to get gifts (one each for birthdays and one each for Christmas) for BOTH your brothers-in-law (you can't gift one without gifiting the other at this singular event; otherwise you risk starting drama with your little sister). Give the birthday gifts to them as soon as you see them, and apologize for forgetting. Give each of your sisters a hug (see above note about gifting) and ask them "have you lost weight?", compliment their hair, sweater, shoes, etc.

Long term (AFTER Christmas), get another family member (little sister, mother, cousin) on your side, and, using a combination of emails and phone calls over the course of say 1 year, convince your old sister how childish it is for her to get upset by this.
posted by Brocktoon at 2:32 PM on December 21, 2007

I dunno, I think your sister is being thoughtful in remembering and acknowledging everyone's birthdays. Birthdays probably really aren't such a big deal but when my friends make a note of my birthday and remember to get me a card even though I never mention that my birthday is coming, it makes me feel good. I then make an effort to remember their birthdays and get them a card as well, even though I'm normally not good at being organised enough to remember these things. I do it because it's obviously something that's important to them and they've made the effort for me, so I will likewise make the same effort for them. It may be a silly little gesture, but friendship, and family, are built on these small kindnesses. It's not as much about the thing you do, but the spirit in which it is done. Just my opinion.

Maybe her anger is indicitive of a bigger problem as people have suggested, who knows? You'll only find out by talking to her about it. But I think decathecting's idea about asking her to remind you a few weeks beforehand is a good one. And make an effort to remember her birthday as well. It is obviously something very important to her and will really require only a small amount of effort on your part. It seems a small price to pay to keep peace in your family.
posted by triggerfinger at 2:33 PM on December 21, 2007

+1 to the "your older sister is full of shit" proposition. Seriously, she needs to grow up. I hope you can re-orient your thinking to understand that she is the one in the wrong, not you. Try not to be nervous about the holidays; any confrontation she stirs up is going to be ridiculous, because no reasonable adult really thinks it is necessary to remember a sibling-in-law's birthday.
posted by jayder at 3:00 PM on December 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Man. I think Happydaz had a good suggestion, and I think a mild apology to the sister would be appropriate.

Some responses suggest that the older sister is full of shit and needs to grow up, because no reasonable person thinks it's appropriate to recognize a brother-in-law's (or maybe any adult's) birthday. I think that reaction, if it's supposed to inform how the OP behaves, is nearly as unreasonable as the older sister's behavior. It's not like there's some objective truth, or iron-clad norm, about this; people often expect that others will behave as they do, and it sounds like the older sister is very painstaking about this. It sounds like the OP inadvertently overlooked it, and hoped to have others attend a celebration of her birthday (rather than, say, asking in advance that there may a detente on birthdays); behaved inappropriately by failing to acknowledge her error or acknowledge the gift; and wants to maintain a good relationship with the older sister. Family members often have their eccentricities, and older sister reacted unreasonably, but it's appropriate to forgive some of that.

Perhaps when you talk to her you can explain that your oversight wasn't personal to her husband, and that it was just bad luck that the other sister forgot too; that maybe there should be a detente; or barring that, maybe she could remind you when his birthday is approaching.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 3:47 PM on December 21, 2007

If you plug everyone's birthdays into Amazon, they will send you a reminder every year. Then you can send the present. (Warning: the default is to send the reminder the day of the event, which means all you can do is email an amazon gift certificate. But you can change it to have as much advanced notice as you like.) Do this and the problem is solved for all future years.

For this year, go to a party store and go all out with birthday banners, giant silver balloons that say 'Happy Birthday', party hats, noisemakers... the whole works. Call the bakery and order a cake. Wrap all the Christmas presents with birthday paper. Fill a pinata. Play pin the tail on the donkey. Basically, make it a time for everyone in the family to be silly and have fun. They'll be talking about it for years.
posted by happyturtle at 4:23 PM on December 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Sorry, forgot the link and amazon is a big place. What you want is the Gift Organizer. It's brilliant.
posted by happyturtle at 4:29 PM on December 21, 2007

Nth-ing all the people who said that your sister is out of line with the pouty routine in regards to her husband's birthday (I'm sure if he knows about this that he's mortified). However, you did neglect to thank her for your gift so make sure you mention it at the family gathering -- get everyone a nice Christmas gift and put the whole thing behind you. If she brings it up again, she's trying to make drama.
posted by amanda at 10:09 PM on December 21, 2007

Funny thing is, I bet the brother-in-law didn't give a shit.
posted by KogeLiz at 6:22 AM on December 28, 2007

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