Do you long to be with family for the holidays -- but they have other plans that don't include you?
Are you are the only person in the family who wants to celebrate Christmas while everyone else around you is in full "Humbug!" mode?
These scenarios, to varying degrees, are played out in households worldwide. It can feel devastating when adult children -- by choice or necessity -- don't come home for Christmas or don't invite you to celebrate with them or are noticeably unenthusiastic this year about getting together for the holidays. What can you do if you're in the holiday spirit but those you love most aren't going along with the plan?
Create a alternate celebration at another time. Maybe your adult children have other commitments during holidays but are happy to visit before or after. And after the initial disappointment upon hearing this news, try seeing this, not as rejection, but as an opportunity to expand your holiday season.
My friends Mary and John greatly miss seeing their two adult daughters, married with children and both living in different states. John's physical limitations preclude travel and the grandchildren's activities -- school pageants and sports as well as tight family budgets --make traveling during the peak holiday periods difficult. But their daughter Liz delighted them recently with a surprise weekend visit in early December. She and her family flew in from Denver, bearing gifts and holiday cheer. Christmas came early and wonderfully for them this year.
My neighbor Phyllis was initially disappointed that her daughter Kathy would be unable to come for Christmas, but is delighted to welcome her for a visit during the first week of January, when life will be a bit less hectic, with a better chance to talk, relax and simply enjoy each another.
Some young families prefer to have a Christmas alone together with grandparents celebrating with the kids and grandkids at other times during the holidays. Some do the balancing act with both sets of in-laws from holiday to holiday: Thanksgiving at one home, Christmas Eve or Christmas at another. It's important to respect individual commitments and preferences and find ways to celebrate together -- whether this is on the actual holiday or some other time during the season.
If you're tempted to protest or complain, take a deep breath and go back in time. Remember, for a moment, how it was for you when you were a young adult, perhaps newlywed or with a young family, and how delicate the holiday balancing act was for you -- and then extend your empathy and understanding to your adult children who are now engaged in that same delicate balancing of time with all those they love.
Celebrate a new way this year. One long-divorced friend who finds himself alone on many holidays has found pleasure through volunteering at an organization that feeds homeless and low income families on major holidays. He finds renewed joy in giving and says that he now can't imagine spending Thanksgiving and Christmas any other way.
Creating new holiday traditions with friends who are in a similar situation can also chase away those holiday blues. It can be a chance, with this new family of friends, to make completely new and different holiday memories.
If you sense that your adult children are hesitating to get together for the holiday because of economic constraints, you might choose to simplify Christmas this year by suggesting no gifts -- except, perhaps, for young grandchildren -- and a relaxed day together with all the things you enjoy doing as a family -- perhaps church services, perhaps Christmas music and stories, perhaps a delicious meal shared with each other. If adult children live at a distance, can't afford to travel during the holidays and don't want to accept travel expense money from you, plan a virtual holiday together. One family I know coordinated menus and meal times for an extended holiday family dinner via Skype.
Treat yourself to a holiday trip. Several single women in our community who find themselves alone this time of year are headed to Mexico or other sunny spots for the holidays. One woman we know says that "If I'm home, I'll just be depressed and focused on the fact that I'm alone. By going to Mexico, it's a gift for me -- warm beaches, great food, and a chance to celebrate my way. Last year, I didn't even leave town, but checked into a very nice local hotel for two days of pampering. Instead of slaving over the holiday turkey, I was having breakfast in bed. Although I would have happily cooked a holiday feast if my kids had come to spend the holidays with me, this new way of celebrating worked for me. My gift to myself was relaxation with a touch of luxury. And this year it will be relaxation in an exotic setting."
See a holiday without adult children as a time to reconnect with each other. With so much holiday activity and attention happily focusing on children and grandchildren, long-time spouses may not have much time for enjoying each other. If the kids can't come for Christmas this year, seize the opportunity to do something you might not do otherwise.
My friends Leslie and Rick decided to create their own holiday traditions with each other -- including attending Midnight Mass, something they hadn't done in years because the kids never wanted to go. They slept in the next morning and then made a leisurely brunch as they opened gifts with Christmas music playing in the background. "Once we got over our disappointment that it wouldn't be a family Christmas this year, we had an absolutely lovely time," Leslie told me.
A neighbor couple whose children have other plans this year also have created a new tradition for themselves: they hopped in their RV and headed to San Diego, one of their all-time favorite destinations, for a camping holiday. They connect with the kids and grandkids by Skype but otherwise simply enjoy being together in a place that means so much to them.
Realize that adult children may go through cycles of caring and not caring about family holiday celebrations. Perhaps newly independent adult children are underscoring their status as young adults by celebrating with friends instead of family. Maybe some adult children are in the process of working through and growing past family issues that prevent them from participating in or enjoying family holiday celebrations -- at least for awhile.
For some years, for example, my brother Mike actively avoided getting together for Christmas. There were several reasons, including a punishing work schedule. But a major reason was that he was working through some pain of the past, trying to come to terms with the abuse he had suffered as a child at the hands of our father. "I can't bear to come hear all the old family stories or Aunt Molly talking so wistfully about Father," he told me once. "I just can't stand it. And it isn't a matter of wanting people to change. Father was Aunt Molly's beloved brother. She has a different view of him than I'll ever have and that's great. But right now, I just can't sit around and pretend that I share such sentiments."
With time and growth, Mike found that he treasured just being with Aunt Molly -- during the holidays and throughout the year -- more than he wanted to avoid reminders of a painful past. And his feelings have softened with time, especially since becoming a father himself. Talking with me about a memoir I am writing, he recently expressed the hope that "it won't be all grim. I mean, there really were some good times, some funny, stimulating, exciting times. When I think about it, I wouldn't have wanted to grow up in any other family."
So adult childrens' feelings can change over time and they may come back to you with renewed love and commitment once they have worked through issues of their youth.
Don't force painful choices. It can be especially tough with divorced parents.
Emotions can run high.
In some families, one parent may throw out the challenge that "If you choose to spend Christmas with him (her), then forget about seeing me at all!"
Give your adult children the emotional space to decide how they want to spend the holidays. You might say what you'd like, then be willing to compromise out of respect for their wants and needs.
One dear friend, in the process of divorce after a long marriage, is spending a festive Christmas Eve with his adult children in his new apartment in the city. They will spend Christmas with their mother in their childhood suburban home. They've made it clear that they love and want to be with both parents and, at least this year, are inclined to spend Christmas with their mother not only to be with her but also to celebrate that special holiday one last time in their childhood home, which will soon go up for sale. They're saying "Goodbye" to the past and embracing their family's changes at the same time.
My friend is fine with his children's wishes and is planning a splendid Christmas Day for himself -- a church service filled with music and celebration and then an afternoon at the movies, starting with "Les Miserables" which he has been eagerly anticipating. He will still be smiling, of course, with memories of his special time with his adult children the day before.
Make your home a welcoming place for your adult children. Let them know that you love seeing them whenever they can visit, instead of demanding their presence. If they need to split the day between you and in-laws, be gracious and make the most of the time you have together. Offer pleasure, not grim obligation; loving words, not criticism; open arms, not guilt trips.
The time we all have with those we love never seems to be enough and never ceases to be precious. Instead of grieving dashed expectations, savor those moments you do share together, however brief or imperfect they may be.