The holidays, in all their glory, are also notoriously exhausting. Gone are the simple days when you would make something involving an excessive amount of glitter and then lie on your stomach under the tree for two weeks straight, sizing up presents and hoping that one of them was a puppy. Now you’re expected to do stuff and spend money and help maintain the sanity of others.
The holidays can be a tall order for anyone already running on empty. If you’ve been working overtime seemingly forever and you can’t remember the last time you could crack the spine on a magazine, spending your entire week off – if you’re lucky enough to get a week off – surrounded by family and friends and parties and expectations isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. So can you skip Christmas and stay home or hit a beach in the Caribbean or do your owe it to your family to make it home for the holidays?
“Because we have so little holiday time in our culture, it ups the ante when it comes to being there for families,” says Joan Sinclair, a family therapist and mediator in Toronto. “But it also ups the ante of self-care.” Sinclair says that there are legitimate reasons to not go home for the holidays: if the environment is stressful; if you have the opportunity to spend time with someone who’s important to you and who you get to see less often than your family; if you have your own family and want to make different plans for them; if you’re extremely introverted and can’t handle the crowds that amass; and if you’re exhausted and this is your only opportunity for downtime.
Family dysfunction is an issue for many during the holidays. A friend of mine was recently scrambling to make holiday plans: “Who wants to go to Mexico?” she offered. It’s not that she doesn’t have family to spend the holidays with; in fact, she might have too much family. The daughter of divorced parents who have both remarried and added several half-siblings, she faces the unenviable task of trying to balance her time at multiple households in order to keep everyone happy, all the while feeling slightly out of place. On the years that I’ve been away for the holidays, the only excuse that seems to pass muster for me is if I’m actually out of the country. When this happens, my parents are wonderfully understanding but pained. The message to me is clear: the holidays are a time when family should be together and I will be missed. And, like most good daughters, the idea of disappointing my family leads to a gnawing guilt that can put the kibosh on even the most glorious of beach vacations.
“Guilt is such an unhelpful emotion,” says Sinclair. “If you’re respectful and honest and caring, and you know that your interest in arranging time to get together with your family is sincere, then the likelihood of feeling guilt is lessened.” Still, when you’re in a relationship there are certain accommodations you make. (E.g., I watch football, and he goes to the ballet and doesn’t make up lies about severe intestinal disruption during the first intermission.) And if there’s any time that brings out a sense of family obligation, it’s the holidays. “The limited resources and time you have might supersede the notion of obligation,” says Sinclair. “Our obligations are to take care of our own mental health first – and to ensure quality time, not necessarily a physical presence.”
Five tips on how to opt out of the holidays
1. Take care of yourself first. “You don’t want to run around like a chicken with its head cut off and get driven crazy by obligations,” says Sinclair. As long as you remain kind and caring, you shouldn’t feel guilty about what you need.
2. Break the news kindly, honestly and without feeling like you need to share more than you want to.
3. Set up another occasion to spend with your family, when your personal resources aren’t depleted and you feel like the time will be more quality than quantity.
4. If you do want to see your immediate family – but don’t have the energy to be dragged around the neighbourhood or to the houses of extended family – then set some ground rules in advance. Explain that you don’t want what little time you have with your family to be diluted with the presence of strangers or just people who are less important to you.