When my older sister and I were first married (we got married the same year), my father announced that we could spend every other Christmas with our in-laws, but that we would coordinate with one another so he could have everyone home on alternate years. He loved nothing more than gathering all of his children around him—though we joked that he liked it best when we were all gathered around making no noise and no mess.
My father was known for his mandates, so it was no surprise that he didn’t consult with us to find out what we might like to do. And to be perfectly honest, I found it made things easier: my husband and I knew that on even-numbered years we could make our own decisions, and that on odd-numbered years we would be gathering with my parents and my siblings. As the rest of the siblings married, they fell in line with the every-other-year trip home for Christmas.
The family eventually grew to include 17 grandchildren, and the celebrations grew right along with it. Even after my father passed away, Christmas at my parents’ house continued. Now that the grandchildren are getting married and having children, there’s a further layer of conflicting obligations. Still even without being told we have to be there, we almost all make it every other year.
Few new parents today would be open to having their holiday plans dictated the way mine were, but that was a different time. Parents today are comfortable setting boundaries and sticking to what works best for their families.
There are myriad reasons for a new family to want to make their own holiday plans. Some may not want to travel for reasons of health or sanity. Others may want to start their own traditions, in their own home. Some may want to shield their kids from Uncle Jerry’s annual drunken tirades, which the adults have all learned to tune out.
Unfortunately, many grandparents still want to operate like my father. Their expectations for the holidays hinge on what they want, and they become hurt or disappointed when their adult children reveal their own priorities for where and how they celebrate.
If you are disappointed that you won’t be with your grandchildren this holiday season, that’s normal. It’s what you do with those feelings that will set the tone for future holidays.
Disappointment is a result of your own expectations being unmet. It’s not because of what someone else is (or isn’t) doing, it’s because you had hoped they’d do something else. You have no control over what someone else says or does, only what you say and do. To avoid disappointment in the future, you have to share your expectations, and then adjust them if necessary. (See our Grandparent’s Guide to Happy Holidays for help with this.)
Family events are complicated because everyone has expectations, and it’s impossible to meet them all. That’s why it’s vital to share your hopes early on, and find out what everyone else is hoping for, too.
For now, though, here are some do’s and don’ts if you are disappointed about the holidays this year.
My father was very clear with his expectations. Whether they were met or not, he didn’t make me feel responsible for his happiness. While I try not to be the dictator he sometimes was, I owe much of my success as a grandparent to him. Like him, I try to communicate my expectations to the people involved. I also recognize that they aren’t responsible for realizing those expectations.
Most important, I have let my children and grandchildren know there is nothing I love more than having them all gathered around me—and I don’t even mind the noise and mess.
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