This will be our family’s fifth holiday to travel with children, and I’m wondering if the fifth time is the charm. Not the charm where everything goes exactly "right," but the charm where I finally accept that it’s not going to go exactly right.
In fact, there is no right way this holiday should go (is what I’m trying to convince myself). It just is what it is.
Maybe we won’t leave the backpack full of toys at the security checkpoint at the beginning of our trip this year. Maybe there won’t be a blizzard that prevents us from driving to see the other half of our family. Maybe the stomach flu won’t travel through our family twice. Maybe I’ll remember that it’s pointless to start a new sleep training or potty training method two weeks before we travel.
You know how they say that women are designed to forget the bad parts of childbirth so that we’re willing to do it again someday? Well, I think the same applies to the holidays. Every year my husband and I look at each other at some point (usually when one of our normally-super-easygoing kids is in the throes of a tantrum, or when one of us is too sick to get out of bed) and say, "How do we keep forgetting that this is part of the holiday process?"
Here are seven tips to help us all get through the holidays with a smile, based on some of the specific situations my family has dealt with over the past few years.
It’s going great right up until it’s going terribly.
Yes, it’s a little after your son’s nap time, but he’s having so much fun with his cousins, and you’re enjoying your eggnog and your aunt’s funny stories. And then it happens. The line for your kid having so much fun to your kid absolutely, inconsolably pissed off has been crossed, and there’s no going back.
Remember to make your exit while things are going well and try to stay on-track for nap and bedtimes to avoid meltdowns.
You can’t control other people.
You’re not going to change your uncle’s political views. You can’t make your sister show up to dinner on time or make your dad stop watching the news. You can’t force your kids’ grandparents to interact with your kids the way you wish they would interact with your kids. Shoot, you can’t even make your own child stop throwing a fit.
But you can probably stay very busy trying to control yourself. For a stress free holiday, accept others exactly as they are.
Your kids are not going to be on their best behavior – and neither are you.
Kids thrive in structure. The holidays are the opposite of structure. Children need a place to release energy. Being stuck inside a house that’s not childproof, or in a plane, or in a car is the opposite of a good release of energy.
If you travel by car or plane, there are different time zones, sleep schedules, and food, and you can’t hold your kids to a higher standard than you hold yourself. You get grumpy, stressed, and tired when traveling too.
You also make bargains and allowances, and desperate plea deals you wouldn’t normally make with your kids, and then your parents judge you for your discipline skills. It’s all part of the holiday flow!
It takes more energy to parent away from home.
During our holiday trips, I pound coffee like it’s water and move around in a haze saying, "Why am I so tired?!" It’s super fun for all of my family members to hear me ponder that question over and over.
Certainly the time change doesn’t help, but the biggest factor in holiday energy deprivation for me is the amount of extra energy expended parenting my kids away from the safety of our house.
Here’s a typical day while visiting family:
Sweep up glass ornaments at least three times.
Find four ways to explain to a two-year-old why he can’t throw a ball in Mom- Mom’s house.
Endlessly herd kids out of the open kitchen with no safety locks on the stove.
Check the gate to the pool in the middle of the night, because of a bad dream.
Listen constantly for the red flag warning of it’s too quiet.
Sweep the house for alcoholic beverages left easily in reach of a toddler’s grasp (this exercise could begin anywhere between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. depending on how one’s sister is feeling that day).
Your kids will get gift indifference by the fourth present.
Every year my generous mother says of my daughter, "Do you think she liked the doll? She didn’t really react to it."
And every year I say, "Mom, I’m sure she’ll love it. It just happened to be the 30th gift she opened, and she was overwhelmed on the fourth one."
Kids become robots opening pretty packages. They don’t see or feel anything after the first few minutes. So I suggest spreading gift giving out over a few days, or just not buying so many presents.
Somebody is getting sick and it’s probably your kid’s fault.
It’s winter weather. It’s flu season and stomach bug season. You’re flying on a germ-filled plane. Your kid is a petri dish. Between my kiddos and my nieces, someone makes my parents sick every year. Often, we’re all sick.
Wash hands frequently. Wipe off the tray table on the plane. Eat your fruits and vegetables. Get your flu shots.
You can’t plan your holiday.
A lot of us live in or travel to places with unpredictable weather. Sometimes gifts don’t arrive on time. Sometimes you work hard all day and do your best and still the turkey is dry (that’s a metaphor for life). What matters?
Last year we did most of the things I mentioned above: left a backpack full of toys at the airport, couldn’t travel to my in-laws because of a blizzard, and took turns sleeping on the bathroom floor between vomits. Still, it was a great holiday.
The year before last, we celebrated Christmas in the hospital with my dad. I’ll take a night on a bath mat over that scenario any day.
Image: Timothy Marsee