Thursday, December 20, 2012

Adult Children: Surviving the Holidays With or Without Them

Have you ever planned a festive holiday feast and then few, if any, family showed up?

Do you long to be with family for the holidays -- but they have other plans that don't include you?

Are you are the only person in the family who wants to celebrate Christmas while everyone else around you is in full "Humbug!" mode?

These scenarios, to varying degrees, are played out in households worldwide. It can feel devastating when adult children -- by choice or necessity -- don't come home for Christmas or don't invite you to celebrate with them or are noticeably unenthusiastic this year about getting together for the holidays. What can you do if you're in the holiday spirit but those you love most aren't going along with the plan?

Create a alternate celebration at another time.  Maybe your adult children have other commitments during holidays but are happy to visit before or after. And after the initial disappointment upon hearing this news, try seeing this, not as rejection, but as an opportunity to expand your holiday season.

My friends Mary and John greatly miss seeing their two adult daughters, married with children and both living in different states. John's physical limitations preclude travel and the grandchildren's activities -- school pageants and sports as well as tight family budgets --make traveling during the peak holiday periods difficult. But their daughter Liz delighted them recently with a surprise weekend visit in early December. She and her family flew in from Denver, bearing gifts and holiday cheer. Christmas came early and wonderfully for them this year.

My neighbor Phyllis was initially disappointed that her daughter Kathy would be unable to come for Christmas, but is delighted to welcome her for a visit during the first week of January, when life will be a bit less hectic, with a better chance to talk, relax and simply enjoy each another.

Some young families prefer to have a Christmas alone together with grandparents celebrating with the kids and grandkids at other times during the holidays. Some do the balancing act with both sets of in-laws from holiday to holiday: Thanksgiving at one home, Christmas Eve or Christmas at another. It's important to respect individual commitments and preferences and find ways to celebrate together -- whether this is on the actual holiday or some other time during the season.

If you're tempted to protest or complain, take a deep breath and go back in time. Remember, for a moment, how it was for you when you were a young adult, perhaps newlywed or with a young family, and how delicate the holiday balancing act was for you -- and then extend your empathy and understanding to your adult children who are now engaged in that same delicate balancing of time with all those they love.

Celebrate a new way this year. One long-divorced friend who finds himself alone on many holidays has found pleasure through volunteering at an organization that feeds homeless and low income families on major holidays. He finds renewed joy in giving and says that he now can't imagine spending Thanksgiving and Christmas any other way.

Creating new holiday traditions with friends who are in a similar situation can also chase away those holiday blues. It can be a chance, with this new family of friends, to make completely new and different holiday memories.

If you sense that your adult children are hesitating to get together for the holiday because of economic constraints, you might choose to simplify Christmas this year by suggesting no gifts -- except, perhaps, for young grandchildren -- and a relaxed day together with all the things you enjoy doing as a family -- perhaps church services, perhaps Christmas music and stories, perhaps a delicious meal shared with each other. If adult children live at a distance, can't afford to travel during the holidays and don't want to  accept travel expense money from you, plan a virtual holiday together. One family I know coordinated menus and meal times for an extended holiday family dinner via Skype.

Treat yourself to a holiday trip. Several single women in our community who find themselves alone this time of year are headed to Mexico or other sunny spots for the holidays. One woman we know says that "If I'm home, I'll just be depressed and focused on the fact that I'm alone. By going to Mexico, it's a gift for me -- warm beaches, great food, and a chance to celebrate my way. Last year, I didn't even leave town, but checked into a very nice local hotel for two days of pampering. Instead of slaving over the holiday turkey, I was having breakfast in bed. Although I would have happily cooked a holiday feast if my kids had come to spend the holidays with me, this new way of celebrating worked for me. My gift to myself was relaxation with a touch of luxury. And this year it will be relaxation in an exotic setting."

See a holiday without adult children as a time to reconnect with each other.  With so much holiday activity and attention happily focusing on children and grandchildren, long-time spouses may not have much time for enjoying each other. If the kids can't come for Christmas this year, seize the opportunity to do something you might not do otherwise.

My friends Leslie and Rick decided to create their own holiday traditions with each other -- including attending Midnight Mass, something they hadn't done in years because the kids never wanted to go. They slept in the next morning and then made a leisurely brunch as they opened gifts with Christmas music playing in the background. "Once we got over our disappointment that it wouldn't be a family Christmas this year, we had an absolutely lovely time," Leslie told me.

My friend Kim says that she and her husband Chuck have spent many a Christmas alone quite happily. "We watch old movies, read and enjoy leftover Chinese take-out or cook a simple meal just for us," she says, adding that, while they love seeing their family for the holidays or any time, this time alone together, when it happens, is also a blessing.

A neighbor couple whose children have other plans this year also have created a new tradition for themselves: they hopped in their RV and headed to San Diego, one of their all-time favorite destinations, for a camping holiday. They connect with the kids and grandkids by Skype but otherwise simply enjoy being together in a place that means so much to them.

Realize that adult children may go through cycles of caring and not caring about family holiday celebrations.  Perhaps newly independent adult children are underscoring their status as young adults by celebrating with friends instead of family. Maybe some adult children are in the process of working through and growing past family issues that prevent them from participating in or enjoying family holiday celebrations -- at least for awhile.

For some years, for example, my brother Mike actively avoided getting together for Christmas. There were several reasons, including a punishing work schedule. But a major reason was that he was working through some pain of the past, trying to come to terms with the abuse he had suffered as a child at the hands of our father. "I can't bear to come hear all the old family stories or Aunt Molly talking so wistfully about Father," he told me once. "I just can't stand it. And it isn't a matter of wanting people to change. Father was Aunt Molly's beloved brother. She has a different view of him than I'll ever have and that's great. But right now, I just can't sit around and pretend that I share such sentiments."

With time and growth, Mike found that he treasured just being with Aunt Molly -- during the holidays and throughout the year -- more than he wanted to avoid reminders of a painful past. And his feelings have softened with time, especially since becoming a father himself. Talking with me about a memoir I am writing, he recently expressed the hope that "it won't be all grim. I mean, there really were some good times, some funny, stimulating, exciting times. When I think about it, I wouldn't have wanted to grow up in any other family."

So adult childrens' feelings can change over time and they may come back to you with renewed love and commitment once they have worked through issues of their youth.

Don't force painful choices. It can be especially tough with divorced parents.

Emotions can run high.

In some families, one parent may throw out the challenge that "If you choose to spend Christmas with him (her), then forget about seeing me at all!"

Give your adult children the emotional space to decide how they want to spend the holidays. You might say what you'd like, then be willing to compromise out of respect for their wants and needs.

 One dear friend, in the process of divorce after a long marriage, is spending a festive Christmas Eve with his adult children in his new apartment in the city. They will spend Christmas with their mother in their childhood suburban home. They've made it clear that they love and want to be with both parents and, at least this year, are inclined to spend Christmas with their mother not only to be with her but also to celebrate that special holiday one last time in their childhood home, which will soon go up for sale. They're saying "Goodbye" to the past and embracing their family's changes at the same time.

My friend is fine with his children's wishes and is planning a splendid Christmas Day for himself -- a church service filled with music and celebration and then an afternoon at the movies, starting with "Les Miserables" which he has been eagerly anticipating. He will still be smiling, of course, with memories of his special time with his adult children the day before.

Make your home a welcoming place for your adult children.  Let them know that you love seeing them whenever they can visit, instead of demanding their presence. If they need to split the day between you and in-laws, be gracious and make the most of the time you have together.  Offer pleasure, not grim obligation; loving words, not criticism; open arms, not guilt trips.

The time we all have with those we love never seems to be enough and never ceases to be precious. Instead of grieving dashed expectations, savor those moments you do share together,  however brief or imperfect they may be.


  1. As always a post full of wisdom and insioght, Kathy. I think DH and I are very lucky that our adult children always want us to spend the festive season with them. In our small country it's easy for us to visit one for Christmas and the other for New Year, always alternating year by year. Sometimes I thin DH would enjoy a Christmas with just the two of us, but we don't see as much of the grandchildren as we would like and this is the perfect opportunity.

    Have a wonderful Christmas in your own special way, dear Kathy.

  2. You are so right. If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with.
    So many people out there wouldn't mind a friend this time of year and there are many ways to make it special.
    Have a good one.
    Yey! We are still here today, the 21st.

  3. Wonderful post and you covered all the bases. And yes, people can enjoy the holidays if not in the most traditional "Norman Rockwell" way.
    Wishing you a wonderful Christmas enjoyed in your own style and may 2013 bring you happiness and good health.

  4. Great post and one that so many, many of us need to read... Life changes when our kids grow up and become adults.... When I was single --I could spend the holidays with one of my sons or another... Once George and I got married, things changed... I did make some mistakes like not buying a home large enough to make the kids/families seem welcome... I never thought of that when we bought our home...

    Being long distance is hard --but we all have worked things out pretty well. My youngest son and his new bride have invited us to their home on Saturday. That will work out fine, so I do like your idea of celebrating at other times.

    George and I are so happy together --so being JUST with each other on holidays is fine with us.. We both love our children/grandchildren --but we also just enjoy each other.

    A holiday trip is a good thing I think --especially for families who are upset about not seeing the children. I personally prefer to be home for the holidays --especially Christmas.

    Thanks for such a great post... Wish more people could read it---since so many seem to melancholy this time of year without the children around...

    Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  5. We're going through this right now -- our first Christmas when the family isn't all together. Two are working; one is off skiing with friends. It's very disconcerting, and making us restless and uneasy. So, as you suggest, we're talking about some alternatives -- maybe next year we'll try to get everyone together early in December and have our "Christmas" celebration then; or maybe we'll avoid all the anxiety, and just go on a trip.

  6. What a timely and perfect post, Kathy. I think there is a scenario or idea for all and if you don't mind, I'll share it on my FB page.

    We are lucky in that the family of Kevin's fiancee is here in town and while we adjust to do Christmas Eve in 23rd/morning 24th, we know someday if Greg settles in, we may be in that same boat. And of course, there is sharing them with their mom. Somehow we've made it work and fingers are crossed it will continue -- but this is a good reference no matter what!

  7. Christmas at times is very stressful. Luckily for me my children are still young. We always have my family over to our house for Christmas for the past 10 years. Mom isn't able to do all the cooking and stuff so I do it. This will be the first year without Granny. Things keep changing and we just have to accept it.

  8. Many times Christmas was just not a very happy time for me because I didn't have my children with me. Many times we traveled to make sure we were the children for Christmas. Many of the times of travel were not that fun for us. We missed our home. The weather was terrible. We had storms that were scary to drive through.

    This year, we will celebrate quietly with a daughter and her children on Christmas Eve. We must deliver the children to their father by noon on Christmas Day. That is the way it is in today's world.

    I am looking forward to staying home and celebrating in our new home. I invited the other children(step) over. They felt they needed to celebrate with their mom. Last year we included her in our celebration at our home. I guess this year she did not want to do that. Again, that is just the way it is.

    Your post is invaluable advice. Acceptance of the way things are rather than how we wish they were is key to surviving the holidays.

  9. So much good advice here. Our grown, single children still come home for Christmas, and we also have our mothers join us. It must be difficult to be without close family members, but your advice will help those who want to make the best of it.

  10. I have no companion and for many years I have celebrated holidays alone because my children live out of town and never comes to visit me for holidays. I do not have many friends because I have been busy studying on my computer obtaining college degrees. I was a nurse and now I am disabled and cannot do nursing anymore. I receive disability from social security but I want to work, so I am rehabilitating my self into another career. I am 59 years old. I am tired of buying my children love. They know what position I am in with loneliness so they take advantage of this situation. Whenever they do call I am desperate to talk to them. This year I would like to change all of this. I want my own life but I do not know how to go about meeting people who would make good friends. I have a heart condition but the doctor says I have improved tremendously. I can even go back to work if I feel well enough. I been on disability since 2008. I also live in building for people over 50 and those that are disabled. These people are not good candidates for friends because those that are not disabled does not want to go any where or do anything. If I do ask them to go places, they look to me to pay for it. Can someone give me some advice on which direction I should go. It would be very much appreciated. Thank you!

    1. I'm so glad that you are better! It's also a good sign that you feel like getting out. Have you tried to join a club, attend a local church, or volunteer? These are excellent ways to meet new friends and get back out into the world. Good luck to you.

  11. Seek the courage and confidence ├Čn facing the life.Miracles happen in life everyday! Have faith in God and in yourself.Don't worry about the past.Seek guidance of God it will reach you.

  12. This post was very uplifting and helpful to a mother and father who are having difficulty accepting the fact that holidays will never be the same since our youngest son married someone who prefers to spend every holiday with her family, and our middle son has recently divorced. My husband and I did not have good extended family ties...always some problem with someone in the family wanting to boycott our invitations, etc. We always held our three sons close and experienced many years of wonderful holiday memories while they were growing up. I have been having great difficulty adjusting to the changes in our family and accepting the fact that we will not be spending time together celebrating as we have in the past. It is good to see that we are not alone, and that others are finding ways to compensate for their loss during the holiday season. I am going to being planning a creative alternative to the holidays this year and start enjoying the people who choose to celebrate along with us. Thank you!

  13. My husband's parents divorced when he was younger, so he has a lot of experience from the child's perspective. His parents were civil and kept the children a priority during the divorce, and it's so important to keep that in mind. Both his parents are nice to each other, but the children are the most important thing to them. Thanks for sharing your tips on going about the holidays.

  14. Every year since the day he was born in 1989, my son has spent Christmas with his family. Son was married in June and informed me last night his wife scheduled them a two-week trip to Europe December 16 through 29 and I am very upset. I am divorced and don't have a partner in my life and my only family is my daughter and son and I think it's mean and selfish for my daughter in law to do this and son to agree. She's from a different culture and could care less about the holidays. My son in medical school and has a two week breather and said they would go away day after Christmas but wife wants him all to herself. How do I deal with this. She's been this way since she met my son and now they are married. It's their first Christmas together and it's all about them traveling. My daughter is going to be so upset as well . My parents and family are deceased and I only have my two kids. The holidays have always been a really big deal in the family - no more. Our family was always so close. I welcomed wife into family 3 years ago but she's not interested and makes no effort as she wants son all to herself and her mother and grandmother. I'm heartbroken I miss my son so much - rarely see him anymore and he lives 1.5 hours away.

    1. I have one son who married a girl who does not want to celebrate anything with my husband and me. She plans trips or does things only with her family. This means we do not get to see our son or grandson at all. We have extended invites to other family members, so we can still be festive and enjoy the holidays. It is really sad, since our son is an only child. Apparently, he really enjoys his new wife's lively family and does not even feel the need to call us on a holiday. As long as his wife is happy spending time with her family, our son is content to go along with her plans.

  15. My motto has always been, if your here we will have a good time, if your not here you will be missed but we will still have a good time

  16. what do you do when the husband commits suicide and all adult children are fighting with each other. this has gone on now for over 9 years. I am left alone, because they can't get along.

    1. I am so sorry for your loss. I don't know where you live but if there is a way to get in contact with you-to uplift your spirits and know you don't have to be alone on the holidays. I wish the best for you. (a female who read your note)