Staying at relatives’ houses for the holidays when you don’t want to

If you have been divorced within the past 3 years and have a child between the ages of 2-5 who is currently enrolled in preschool, would you be willing to take this survey for a researcher at Yeshiva University who is studying the effects of parental communication on preschooler behavior? 

Now, I’ve had a request to discuss guilt travel and staying at relatives’ houses over the holidays when you don’t really want to. (The flip side of last week’s guilt hosting question.)

I think first you have to decide whether you really actually need to do this or not, and if you’ve been doing it just because you always have. Is it worth it to keep doing it, or is doing it causing more stress than the payoff (in emotional credits with your relatives, or something else, or even actual enjoyment) is worth. This is one of the things in the Christmas workbook (and that we’re talking about in the secret discussion group for people doing the workbook), the idea of reassessing all the things you do and deciding whether they’re worth it to you or not and how to approach them if they’re not.

I think the calculation of whether you should keep doing it or not is affected by whether or not you have kids, how many, and how old they are. That can add a layer of feeling like you owe it to relatives to bring them your kids to experience. Or it can add a layer of not being able to afford it. Or a layer of “this is the final stressor that is going to put me over the edge.” Or it could add a reason that you need to stay in a hotel that won’t offend people (baby wakes up at night, toddlers need a childproofed space, teenagers have such big feet that there isn’t room for everyone in the house anymore, etc.). So think about your kids and what stage they and you are at and how that affects things.

Another element in the calculation is whether it’s worth it to your partner (if you have one) to stay. If it’s your partner’s family, you may be assuming they are really attached to staying, but it could be the case that they’re not and would be happy doing something else. Or you might assume they’re just doing it out of obligation, but in reality they really want to wake up in their childhood home on Christmas morning.

Another element is the complexity of the plan. Are you going to one place and staying there for several says? Or are you going to be moving from place to place to stay with different groups of people? The first can be relaxing or stifling. The second can be a relief or it can be stressful.

The only real way to make the decision and then deal with what you end up doing is for everyone to put their cards on the table as much as possible. Be honest with your partner (if you have one) about your desires. Ask them to be honest with you. If your kids are old enough, involve your kids in the talk (if they really really want to see relatives that might affect your decision). And, if you can, be honest with the relatives you’re considering staying with. Maybe everyone is happy with the way things are. Maybe one or two small changes to the usual plan would make everyone love it. Maybe this year you’re going to see what happens if you don’t go.

Two thoughts:

1. There is nothing wrong with needing to have your needs met at a holiday.

2. There is nothing wrong with sacrificing and doing something you don’t want to do if it makes someone else happy.

Things are both true at the same time. You just need to find a balance between them that works this year. Next year might be different.

Who’s got thoughts about this? How have you Chosen Your Own Adventure with regard to staying with relatives on holidays? What have you made your priorities in making the decision to stay or not, or change the way you stay?

10 thoughts on “Staying at relatives’ houses for the holidays when you don’t want to”

  1. My ILs are in upstate NY while most of "my" family is here in SoCal where we live. Not only do I hate staying in a 12yo’s room in someone else’s house, but I am totally allergic to their cats (and their drama). But I am making the sacrifice for 2 main reasons:
    1. We rarely see these people at all, let alone for the holidays, while we see my side if the family constantly with zero complaints from DH.
    2. I think the downtime – early morning, late night, sneaking into each others’ rooms – is where the bonding magic really happens. I want my kids to be close to their cousins, I want DH to maintain his bond with his sister, so it’s satisfying a need for me too.

    Hope you can all find peace in your holiday commitments.

  2. My parents are divorced, both have remarried (20 years ago), and live within an hour of each other. My husband’s family is overseas and it is basically impossible for us to go there at Christmas as the flight is too long for the amount of time we can spend. So that at least simplifies who we see.

    We made the decision when our son was born (he’s now 2.5) that we would no longer travel before Boxing Day- we want him to have Christmas in his own house, and we were sick of the politics surrounding the division of Christmas in my family. Now we spend Christmas at our house, and we drive on Boxing Day. We are away for a week- two days are basically used up in driving, and the rest we split evenly between the two houses (or as evenly as possible). All travel plans are subject to the weather- we will (and have in the past) refused to drive on a particular day, even if that means one side gets less time.

    It is not particularly relaxing, but it is important that we travel to see the family, and as long as we get actual Christmas Day at home, it doesn’t really matter that we’re away for the stretch between Boxing Day and New Year’s. As E. gets older we might want to rethink things to be home for New Year’s Eve, but we’ll play it by ear.

  3. We made the decision that we would not travel at Christmas once we had children. (Daughter is 2 now.) However, my MIL died suddenly this summer, so we are flying clear across the continent to spend Christmas with what’s left of my husband’s family. I don’t want to, we can’t really afford it, but my mantra throughout has been that my mother is alive and well and my needs are paltry this year.

    Normally the travel is too much. I want my kids to know their cousins, but I don’t want them to compete with Santa. So we go visiting in the summer, when there’s more time for actual hanging out.

  4. I dislike visiting my in-laws during Thanksgiving and Christmas because they come from a culture that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. My MIL makes an effort on Thanksgiving and I appreciate her for it, but I really miss having Thanksgiving the way I would do it. HOWEVER, we don’t see my in-laws that often, it’s really important to my husband that our kids see them whenever we can, we do Thanksgiving and Christmas on our own plenty as well and, although I sometimes think I have nothing in common with my in-laws except their son, they are really very sweet people who would do anything for their kids and grandchildren. So. Here we are for the week of Thanksgiving. Here are my coping strategies:

    1) I go out for a run or go to the local community center gym pretty much every day (blowing off steam + me time). My in-laws don’t understand (a) why any mother would ever want to spend 5 minutes away from her precious babies and (b) why anyone would ever voluntarily exercise. This used to make me feel guilty for slipping away for a work out, but then I realized workouts are a way to stay sane on these visits. So, no guilt.
    2) Sometimes I say I’m going to take a nap, but then I really just go into the bedroom, close the door and read or do e-mail. Because sometimes I just need to decompress from all the enforced togetherness.
    3) I let my husband deal with his parents. It partially helps that, although I understand their native language, I can just tune out. Basically, I don’t get involved in family discussions and let him run interference.
    4) When things are really bad and I feel like, "My GOD what is WRONG with these people!!!!" I make an entry into my iPhone journal. I imagine that I am an anthropologist observing an alien culture. I describe the features of the scenario that I find different/other/disturbing and make note of my own reaction. Doing this is almost as good as getting to vent to someone (my husband is completely unavailable for venting about his family–(a) he loves them and (b) he is ultra-loyal and is constitutionally incapable of complaining about his parents, even when he admits that they are doing something nuts). Also, I can do this while sitting in the living room with the family and it just looks like I’m e-mailing a friend. Yes, my phone is password protected.

    Yes, there are things about visiting that drive me crazy. But a little unapologetic self-care in these situations goes a long way. I still feel like a "bad daughter-in-law" pretty much the whole time we’re here and I feel sad I don’t get to have the Thanksgiving I want, but I know I’ll have it next year. Also: my kids love visiting their grandparents. So, it’s manageable.

  5. We solved this problem by announcing that Christmas would be at our house, always, since having kids. It helps that we moved to a street that turns into "Christmas Tree Lane" for the month of December, so it is the most festive place to be and would be strange to leave our house during that time. Thanksgiving is usually at our house, but I’m not so tied to that one and have travelled in the past.

    Our problem now is hosting three sets of grandparents, whom all get along well enough, but have different feelings about sharing their time with us. So far our policy is that everyone is invited for Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve/Day. If someone wants some special time on their own, they have to get it the day before or after. So far it is working for us. My parents are usually too busy tying up loose ends on Christmas Eve to come over, which gives the in-laws some quality time.

  6. Ugh – this one hits home for me this year. Usually we go to DHs family for Thanksgiving (same town) and go to my mother’s for Solstice (8 hours). I feel obligated to her, DH feels obligated to me, but we don’t really like doing it. Him especially. And he’s not very gracious about it, given that we only do it once a year, and we visit his family all the freaking time (of course, they’re local and I love them). This year we have a baby, animals, new house, and my mother has been here several times visiting the baby (as an unwanted houseguest). I gently suggested that we host Solstice this year as we have the space and everyone else involved is single-no-kids. And she shot it down, no discussion. I told her we couldn’t afford it, she said she’d pay. She is very used to getting her way by throwing money around. And I have enabled it by accepting the money because when she offers, we really need the help. I just hate help with strings.

    I am not quite tough enough yet to put my foot down, but in my head I know we will not do this again. I’ll tell her that this is the last time and let it percolate for a year.

    Now I just have to make it through this year with a grumpy husband, needy baby, and bill for animal-sitting (or further strings attatched to mom’s money).

  7. We are staying at my dad’s and commuting to my mom’s on precisely half the days. An hour in the car each way, but it’s easier than getting toddlers accustomed to sleeping in an additional new location. Maybe it will change when the kids are older, I dunno. Unhappy married parents would be a lot more convenient than unhappy divorced parents, but that ship has sailed.

    My parents are very defensive about their divorce, so if I so much as hint at any burdens involved in schlepping toddlers from house to house, I get a big lecture about how I’m "stuck in the past" for pointing out that their divorce affects us all in the present, and how "children are resilient." The divorce cheerleaders’ favorite cliche– then any problems can be blamed on the children for not being resilient enough. Newsflash: it’s an hour in the car no matter how resilient we are.

    The icing on the cake is that I have to listen to them complain about their financial problems and not getting enough time with their grandchildren, both of which are problems partially caused by their divorce. I’m not allowed to complain about it, but they can! They genuinely did not realize that divorce means splitting up time with grandkids– is this normal or are my parents unusually short-sighted? It makes me feel that my DNA is of morons. I really don’t care about their whining, but it is sad that my children don’t get as much grandparent time, because they actually are pretty good grandparents.

  8. We are staying with my in-laws’ (4-hour drive) this weekend and both my husband and I are dreading it. I’ve always dreaded it; even though they’re very nice people, I wouldn’t choose them for friends necessarily. I think DH is just realizing how depressing the place is, in the last year or so. But we feel extremely obligated; DH’s father isn’t well, they’re quite broke and their car isn’t reliable enough for them to travel to see us. Otherwise I would MUCH rather host Thanksgiving at my house. I try to feel better that with all their troubles, seeing the grandkids (9 and 5) is a nice distraction and happiness booster for them. But it’s never fun for me in any way. DH gets depressed and shuts down from me a bit, we are stifled in the house (which they keep very dark for some reason), and we don’t have the foods I love from the holiday. (What was that about being Thankful?)

    On the off-years we’re with my parents so I guess I get what I "need" re: Thanksgiving then… but still.

  9. Both sets of parents have made it easy for us in the past couple of years. My parents travel full time, so they are usually at my sister’s where it’s warm. My in-laws have spent the last couple of Christmases south as well. I love it because before we either had to get up early to do farm chores and then drive anywhere from 1.5 to 3 hours to DH’s family or 17 hours to mine (and have an extended visit). DH was always gracious when I wanted to see my family, but I’m realizing that I love seeing my family any time, and that I love being home with just my kids on Christmas even more. The only problem is I get forced into family celebrations whenever suits my in-laws because they want to leave (That’s my biggest in-law complaint. They don’t know how to ask for a time that works for everyone. They just announce they are visiting. (Once they had to turn around and go home because they called us to say they were coming on the way to our house while we were out of town)).

  10. We live in the same area as my in-laws (they live in our town now – the farthest apart we’ve been from them is 30 minutes) and my parents live in my hometown in IL, 6 hours away.

    I have an older brother who was married with two kids by the time I married, and seeing what he went through with regard to spending time with our family made me vow that my husband and I would make the rules early and stick with them. So, we alternate. This year, we’re all in Illinois for Christmas, last year we were all there for Thanksgiving. When our kids were little, we all stayed with my parents, but now my family stays with my younger brother and his wife (who still in live in our hometown). My older brother and his family are loud and messy and they trigger my anxiety and OCD like whoa, so this has worked out very well, even though my mom gets all passive-aggressive about "Why don’t you let all the kids stay at R’s house and you and your spouses stay with meeee?" (My SIL, R’s wife, doesn’t want a house full of teenagers and 20-somethings, is what I want to say but won’t.)

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