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Don’t Worry About Perfect Family Time Over the Holidays

The myth of holiday family time

Family time can be crippling for a number of reasons. The myth of the perfect holiday family … dressed in matching pajamas in a perfectly white living room, with a golden retriever and a 15′ Christmas tree … is, well, a myth. THANK GOODNESS! (Who wants to clean up all that dog hair in an all white house?!)

The really interesting thing to consider about that mythical family, though, is that the image (magazine, internet, catalogue, or commercial) is just supposed to be a snapshot of a perfect moment. We don’t catch a glimpse of them sitting around the table after dinner, exhausted from a long day of cooking yet somehow full of vigor from a few glasses of spiked eggnog and too much pie.

What would they be saying if we could overhear?

Would Uncle Jerry provoke the table with political antagonism?

Would Grandma backhandedly compliment your turkey that was “as least, better than last year.”

Maybe the kids, so souped-up from the Karo in the pecan pie, would just run around that 15′ tree like dogs chasing squirrels until someone slips on tinsel and the whole thing goes down.

And with all of this going down, would you be, perhaps, hiding in the bathroom? Or “doing dishes” in the kitchen? 

Don’t worry. It’s not just you. It’s them, too.

Overcoming the pressure for perfection

The hardest part of the holidays, for many, is the aspirational yet unattainable bar for all things to look perfect, all people to behave, and all surfaces to be dust-free. That’s just a recipe for disaster because (less a professional team of chefs, decorators, cleaners, and therapists) it’s not gonna happen! Grandma remembers what it was like to host. She won’t be offended if you didn’t prepare her famous Christmas clafouti. No one under 35 will notice that the baseboards aren’t clean. No one over 35 will admonish you. Your responsibility is to do what you can to prepare and then let it go. Don’t be frustrated with your guests that arrived when you asked, and you still didn’t feel ready. It’s all OK.

Beyond just Christmas Day, many people travel great distances for the holidays, so there’s somehow a burden put on the trip that these five days will bring everyone together the way living a block apart would. But that burden is unfair for all parties. People on different time zones and children’s schedules, plus their innate ability to find everything wobbly and sharp in a house that maybe hasn’t had kids in it for 30 years, leads to missed connections and certainly differing expectations.

The constant questioning of relatives and neighbors you haven’t seen in a year or two (or more) can make a person feel always “on” and without downtime in their own home.

If you can be a facilitator of quiet family time, you may find visitors more relaxed and generally willing to come back.

Joyous family time is in the nooks and crannies

The truth about holiday family time is that it’s not in the magazine, internet, catalogue, or commercially beautiful moments that memories are made. It’s in the small, shared experiences that make you laugh till you cry (e.g., having 10 pies and no potatoes) or make you weep with joy (e.g., Great-Grandma teaching the littlest ones to knit).

As we grow up, move out, and move away, our common understanding with our family members changes. That means everyone’s perspective changes, and opinions and behaviors evolve to reflect who we are currently. And sometimes that evolution may put us at odds with people we used to see eye to eye with. That’s disconcerting and can make us feel extremely uncomfortable with those we used to trust and love implicitly. It’s OK.

Assume the best

You’ve got to give one another the benefit of the doubt. Probably no one changed into being a hateful, foulmouthed, deranged lunatic … so you might consider starting from the place of implicit trust and love and acknowledging that certain behaviors and patterns you see now are different than what you once knew about them. Ask them why. Ask if you’re reading the situation correctly. Be respectful. Assume love.

There’s not a lot of opportunity to engage directly anymore. So much of our interactions are mediated through a device—texting, emails, or apps that usually direct us to look right up the nose of the person we’re talking to. When you have the opportunity this season to sit across from someone, engage slowly and process what comes back generously.

You can forgive yourself the dusty baseboards and the lack of clafouti, but the time spent angry about something a loved one said will never come back.

Family time is about how you engage, not how it photographs. 

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