Bring on the Holidays…Bring on the Boundaries
It’s the most wonderful time of the year …. kind of.
If you’re one of the many mothers who feel extra stressed during the holidays, you’re not alone. This stress is often made so much worse due to difficult family dynamics and obligatory functions that only make us more overwhelmed and decrease the magic for our children.
The key to maintaining your sanity throughout the holiday season?? Boundaries.
Boundaries can be categorized in several ways. There are boundaries with your time commitments, with your physical self, and with your emotional well-being, just to name a few. Unfortunately, the holidays can create a perfect storm that invades all three of those categories, and contrary to what some family members will tell you, setting boundaries is not selfish — it is a necessary component to your mental health.
The first step to implementing healthy boundaries this holiday season: Have an honest and open conversation with your spouse about your goals for the holidays this year.
Is there any flexibility in the dates? Could you visit family earlier or later in the holiday, rather than cramming everything in on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? What are the non-negotiable traditions that cannot be missed? Those of you with older children, involve them in the conversation, too! You may be surprised by their responses.
If driving to three or four separate holiday events adds more stress than joy, consider alternating holiday functions between different sides of the family. It is perfectly okay to decrease the amount of traveling during this time, especially if you have young children. If having everyone come to your house is an option, try that this year and see how it goes! Maybe your stress will be lessened by not having to pack up the kids and travel immediately after opening presents on Christmas morning. If divorced parents or grandparents do not want to be together in your home, that is not your problem. (REPEAT- that is not your problem).
It is so important to keep in mind that obligations do not always reflect what is healthy or right for your family right now. This is especially true if you’re currently dealing with a sensitive family circumstance— the loss of a job, a recent pregnancy loss, or a spouse in rehab (my own personal 2016 holiday experience). Please do not feel guilty for missing a few events in an effort to heal and focus on your immediate family.
If you have a family member who has the tendency to upset you, it is ok to minimize your contact or avoid them altogether. Just because someone is family does not mean they get a free pass for inappropriate comments or unnecessary dramatics, especially if there is substance abuse involved. If a family member makes you feel uncomfortable in any way give yourself permission to walk away from the conversation or leave the gathering altogether if needed. Have some helpful escape or exit strategies prepared ahead of time. “Excuse me, I need to go check on the kids.” Or have neutral topics ready to change the subject. Above all, be unapologetic about taking steps to protect yourself or your children from anyone who is inappropriate, emotionally unstable, or abusing substances. Again, just because someone is family does not necessarily mean they are healthy for you to be around.
Please do not guilt yourself into doing something that adds to your stress level. Pay attention to the “shoulds”: We really should go to his great-uncle’s this year, they’ve never met the baby. I really should make an effort to see everyone this year, especially after missing so many functions the last two years. I should go to my office party even though we have two other events that same day. I should make those four-dozen cupcakes for the preschool Christmas bake sale.
If any of those “shoulds” cross your mind this year, replace them with something more helpful, such as:
I should do what’s best for my immediate family.
I should consider my emotional well-being.
I should consider how overwhelmed I already am right now.
I should consider my husband’s sobriety.
Does that event or activity still feel as important?
If family members give you guilt trips about the choices you make regarding holiday activities, a clear and kind response is all that is needed. “I am sorry you are disappointed, but we have made this choice based on what is best for our family right now.” Remember — you are only responsible for your little family — you are not responsible for the happiness or social events of your parents and siblings and extended relatives. Do your best to make the season count in the ways that are most meaningful to you and your spouse and your children and put the rest aside.
All of this can be a difficult shift in mindset, especially for women who are used to being the peacekeeper of their families, the ones who get everything done, and who worry more about everyone else’s happiness. Part of our responsibility to our children includes being sure that our OWN mental health is in check, that we are surrounding ourselves with healthy people on healthy terms, and not overloading our plates with all the shoulds of the season. It is okay to set boundaries even if a parent or in-law or friend will be upset. We are all doing the best we can to not just survive the holidays, but to make lasting healthy and happy memories for our children.
Happy Holidays to all the mamas out there, and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2023!
About the Author
Leslie Theriot Herhold, MSW, LCSW, PMH-C graduated with a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Louisiana State University in 2006. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 15 years of experience in reproductive and maternal mental health. Her first book, Self-Confidence Strategies for Women, was published in the Summer of 2020. She lives in Gulf Shores, Alabama, with her husband and two children, and spends her free time on the beach planning Disney vacations. Follow her at @leslietherholdlcsw and @leslie_castlesandcruisestravel.