Like many of us, my early adulthood holidays were focused entirely on the people around me. My husband and I both have our entire families within two hours of where we live, so we’d ping pong between my parents’ on Christmas Eve, my brother’s on Christmas morning to watch my niece and nephew discover what Santa brought them, my aunt’s for lunch on Christmas Day afternoon, and hosting my in-laws on Christmas Day night. It was a well-choreographed dance that we executed for years without thought.
Then our son was born at the beginning of January two years after we got married. Between his refusal to sleep at night, navigating my return to full-time work after my maternity leave ended, and just managing the general complete life upheaval a new baby brings, it was early December before I gave the first thought to holiday plans.
I promptly panicked.
I had a Baby’s First Christmas to organize! We needed to establish our own family traditions! And oh, sweet heavens, how were we going to manage 24 hours of being dragged from pillar to post with a poorly-sleeping 11 month old in tow?
While I am what might be politely referred to as “tightly strung,” my husband is decidedly more even-keeled. After allowing me roughly 10 minutes to completely spiral about our Christmas commitments, he reached for my hand and gently squeezed.
“Love, it’s going to be fine,” he reassured me. “We’re our own family now, and it’s okay to start doing things a little differently. Everyone else will either understand or maybe they won’t, but that doesn’t matter. We’ve got to do the right thing for us.”
I nodded slowly as I considered his words. I thought about the number of times I’d had to draw a boundary or establish a routine over the past few months on our son’s behalf. I didn’t bring work home in the evenings anymore. I’d asked family to call before just stopping by. After one particularly sleep-deprived week, I’d even threatened the UPS driver within an inch of his life if he ever dared to ring the darn doorbell again. I’d learned how to protect our time with our son and minimize disruptions to our routine.
Obviously I’m not normally a person who struggles settling healthy boundaries, but something about the pressure of a Big Important Holiday left me off-kilter. For our families, Christmas was the end-all, be-all celebration that crowded our calendar, but that’s not the same for all of us. Regardless of which holiday you celebrate though, my guess is we’re all hit with the same sense of overwhelm.
In that very first year as a family of three, after some back and forth about what we wanted and needed, my husband and I came up with a plan. We’d keep our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day night plans, but everything else would be cut. Christmas morning was for our own little family. If grandparents or aunts and uncles wanted to stop in and see what Santa brought, that was fine, but we wouldn’t be going anywhere.
I braced myself for pushback or pressure when we let our families know our plan. Instead, we got acceptance. Once I got past my surprise at how easy it all was, I realized that they knew this was coming. They’d walked this road before, where the creation of their own families meant shifting traditions. They didn’t begrudge us our need to carve out space to celebrate with our own household, and we were able to find a balance between extended family celebrations and a slower pace in our own home.
It’s been 10 years now since the Baby’s First Christmas that sent me spiraling. We still keep the same routine of staying home on Christmas morning, and it’s a relief to slowly sip coffee while our kids tear into presents before dawn. Most years, my husband and I crawl back into bed by mid-morning for a nap while our kids play with their new toys. The day starts slowly, with no demands and no expectations, and that’s ended up being exactly what the four of us need.
I know some people live a plane ride away from one (or both) sides of their families, and holiday balance becomes a more complicated metric. Some families are more tightly wrapped up in traditions and sometimes the relationships are fraught with damage or drama. But regardless of the dynamic, I’m firmly on Team Permission-To-Do-Your-Own-Thing. Cut out the lunch that falls during your baby’s best naptime. Tell your long-distance family you’re staying in town between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, but you can’t wait to see them come spring. Draw the line that saves your sanity and brings a bit of balance.
Leave a little room to make your own brand of holiday magic.