Family: A Holiday Balancing Act

A friend and I were recently discussing our plans for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. I mentioned that in years past, we would typically spend it at home, with an open invite to my husband’s extended family (mother, sister, brother in law, niece, nephew), as we usually did for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Wow,” she replied.  “Offering to host both holidays, every year? Isn’t that exhausting?”

Actually, what had been exhausting was driving over an hour to my mother-in-law’s country club every Thanksgiving. The food wasn’t great, it was expensive, and the stuffy, upscale environment could not have been a worse place to mix a toddler with a plate of mashed potatoes. We managed to keep up the country club tradition until my second child was born, at which point we told my husband’s family that holidays were easiest for us in our own home.  They were always welcome to join us, but we would never be upset if they chose not to.  We made a decision based on what was best for our family and we invited them to do the same.

For us, this is how we respect extended family while still giving priority to our immediate family.  This is important to us not only for the success of our marriage but also biblically – God’s intention being that the first level of responsibility beyond one’s self is one’s immediate family (1 Timothy 5:8).

But finding a balance between extended and immediate family isn’t always easy, particularly during the holiday season.  Here are some questions to ask yourself that can help you make the best decision for your family as well.

What will reduce my stress and allow me to best enjoy the holiday?

This could look like bringing bakery pies to the family potluck Thanksgiving dinner if you don’t enjoy cooking.  It could be letting extending family know ahead of time that certain topics – the election or when you’ll have another baby – are off limits for the day.

It could mean allowing your teenagers to use their tablets at their grandparents’ house while waiting for dinner to be served, or agreeing on a departure time with your spouse before you arrive. Being proactive in managing potentially taxing scenarios means that you can take control of your own experience;  your enjoyment of the holiday depends on you (Romans 12:18).

What are realistic expectations?

If your father-in-law has a tendency to spend Thanksgiving in front of the television watching football, it may not be the best time to expect a meaningful conversation with him. If your mother tends to be critical of your cooking, don’t slave over trying new recipes you hope she’ll like, expecting this to be the year when she realizes you actually are a great chef.

One of the nice parts about holidays is that they are regular occurrences each year.  Chances are, we have a frame of reference of how these events usually go before the big day.  Use this experience to your advantage and manage your expectations based on what is likely and not likely to happen before it does.

What am I willing and not willing to sacrifice?

A friend once told me that she spent two hours in a dark room during Christmas at her in-laws’ home to ensure that her infant son stayed on his nap schedule.

“I didn’t mind reheating my meal after it had grown cold or missing out on watching the gift exchange, but I did mind bedtime with a cranky overtired and overstimulated baby,” she said.  To this end, she made a decision based on what she could stand to miss and what she couldn’t.

Many of us already make sacrifices during the holidays, deviating from traditions we grew up with so that we can share in those of our spouse. The key to avoiding resentment when compromising is making sure that the sacrifices hold equal value.  What you gain (for example, harmony with your spouse) should be worth more or equal to what you give up (for example, certain holiday traditions).

What is really important about the holiday?

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that holidays are a time for families to come together in celebration and love.  What we eat and where we gather often take center stage in holiday planning, allowing us to forget that these things are not the reason we are celebrating at all.  Colossians 2:17 notes that these things are “a shadow of things to come” and not the “substance”.

Focusing on the real reasons we celebrate can help reduce stress in managing the details that aren’t as important.

Ultimately, we please God when we invest in relationships with our extended family (1 Timothy 5:4).  But these investments don’t cancel out our responsibility to our immediate families.  Both of these goals can be achieved if we take time to consider and communicate our needs and the needs of those we love.