Dealing with Family at Christmas


by Kellie Whitehead


Disclaimer: I appreciate that for many reading this, the idea of a holiday season surrounded by your nearest, and sometimes, not so dearest is but a distant dream or memory. I am sure a lot of you have had to rearrange plans even in this past week - thanks for nothing, Omicron. Romanticising the Christmas you have planned for months, only to be scuppered by a never ending global pandemic, again, is rubbish and enough to turn you to popping Irish Cream on your cornflakes, it really is.

But it is classic visitor season, whether that means you opening up your home to seasonal guests or whether you are braving your home countries for a visit yourself, it does mean that you will be spending a significant amount of time, either with family invaders in your own space, or the stress of invading somebody else's.


Families - can’t live with ‘em.. Can’t live .. you know the rest.


December is a fractious month. Not only for spending time with those we don’t see often in our day to day lives, but also the disruption of your own family routine. We all lead busy lives and just like a summer break, it’s not that often we get to spend 24 hours even with our partners, without the structure of work or school timetables.

And it’s a lot.

It really is.

It’s understandable that tensions rise and arguments ensue. Having visitors in your home in Dubai brings with it a whole host of extra expenses, even without the pressure of the season ‘to be jolly’. What if you don't feel jolly? What if your father-in-law drives you potty with demands or your own mother leaves you tearing your hair out - not to mention a room full of over excited kids off their trolleys on e-numbers.


Even the closest of families spend time apart for good reason. Holed up together for extended periods of time, with the pressure of everything being ‘perfect’ because ‘it’s Christmas’ is pretty unnatural when you think about it logically.


Pronounced generational divides and ‘off limits’ topics and views can test anyone, and as much as being surrounded by family or friends is one of life's great joys, it can certainly fray the nerves.


With each year, no matter how much your life has moved on or how you’ve changed as people, the family dynamic that descends at festive periods feels frozen in time. How many of us still feel like we should be sitting at the kids table when surrounded by our parents or their peers? If it’s you yourself returning to the family home then this is exaggerated ten fold. If the same issues crop up every year, then it’s time to change the narrative. That ‘time machine’ that only takes you backwards can be reprogrammed - your own December Delorean, and you are Marty McFly.


You can do things differently and start with new, neutral activities or gatherings. Something or somewhere that there are no triggers of Christmas past.


Only we can ‘rise to the bait’ proffered, and whilst that is so much easier said than done, the only thing we can ever control in these situations is our own reactions. Step away from the offending conversations, pause, breathe and to be honest, humour is often the best defence (in the absence of alcohol). Conflict is inevitable, but it’s how you manage it that counts.


Christmas often leads to probing questions and assumptions from relatives, especially if we are not following their own perception of where we should be in our lives, whether it’s the career, the status of your womb, relationship milestones or even what colour your hair is. I’m a big fan of the Anna Wintour approach to social gatherings. Stay no longer than 20 minutes.

Now, this of course isn’t always possible, but we do have choices. Sometimes the choice is to just suck it up until next time, but we are our own masters and can make our own Christmas about us without offending those we love. It’s about give and take, like most family dynamics, but you must not be afraid to change traditions, venues or rituals to ones that suit your mental health.


Remember:

Patience.

Still a virtue, and it’s important to ‘pick your battles’ . Now maybe isn’t the time to try and educate your elderly uncle and his rather archaic views on the new world order. Things will be said that you will not agree with, guaranteed. You can always assert authority and boundaries for sure, but if you choose anything, you can choose not to respond, and I always choose peace.


Stay online.

The total opposite of what I would normally advocate, but in tense situations you might prefer to stay in touch with your chosen family - your regular friends and network- . For either moral support or just a pleasant distraction. Do what you need to do!


Show empathy and goodwill.

Yes, some people are annoying and yes the whole palaver is exhausting. If your family members haven’t seen you and yours for a long time, please indulge them in the right level of fuss, ‘tis the season after all. It may never be your favourite thing to do, but it’s once a year, and certainly for older relatives, time is of the essence.


Share the load.

If you have a partner or older children and even siblings and cousins, make sure the mental load is shared equally. There are no prizes for martyrdom and there is no reason why you have to shoulder all the stress on behalf of a large group of capable people. If you are exhausted or feeling under pressure, this can alter your mood and even make you liable for the tension, an oxymoron we know. We can avoid this by communicating roles and expectations before big events. This also applies to ‘entertaining’ certain relatives or the children as well as the obvious kitchen and hosting duties.


Enjoy the break.

What break? you cry! I do everything! - Well, back to the point about choices and choosing peace. Lean right into the idea of slowing down and taking a break in routine when you can. Over stimulation and scheduling is unnecessary and is bound to end in stress and burn out. Everyone enjoys some down time in December, and it’s needed. The children, or your guests do not need to be entertained, fed or hosted 24/7 whether they demand it or not, they just don’t. Lie in where you can, take the easy route with food and beverage where you can and take ANY offers of help.


If your family festive scenario leaves you with more bad memories than good, a broken bank account and more grey hair than you had before, then it’s time to consider an overhaul for next year. It all comes down to expectations, and only you can manage those.