When Susan moved house, she never realised it would mean planning for a family Christmas without one of her children. Her daughter lives near her in a town where Covid rates are low. But her son Toby lives in London where Covid rates are soaring. Toby wants to travel to Susan’s for Christmas. While Susan loves him and wants to see him, she’s not comfortable putting herself or her other child at risk. Susan knows Toby has friends in London he can spend the day with. But she also knows he will be heartbroken about spending Christmas without his family.
Families across the globe are facing heart-wrenching decisions this Christmas. Families celebrating other religious and non-religious holidays in 2020 have of course already gone through this. It can be so easy to get caught up in family politics anyway at this time of year. With Covid in the mix, it’s pretty clear that Christmas 2020 is ripe for disappointment, resentment, upset and a host of mismatched expectations. How to negotiate family Christmas plans this year without doing permanent damage?
Listen with love
In our own tight-knit family, we’re used to family gatherings which span three or four full days. This year we’re stepping carefully through the problem. Listening, talking. Remembering we all love each other and want everyone else to be okay. Trying to understand and balance everyone’s feelings, worries, wants and concerns to make a plan that leaves everyone feeling safe and heard. We’ve just about agreed how Christmas Day and Boxing Day will go, with some details still to iron out. The 27th is my aunt’s 60th birthday, and we haven’t sorted that out yet. We’ll just keep going, approaching it pragmatically and with as much love as we can.
Respect others’ boundaries
In dealing with difficult, emotional conversations, it can help to remember that disappointment is never triggered by what actually happens – only when our expectations aren’t met. If you feel let down by someone close to you this year, it’s worth asking yourself whether your expectations of that person are really reasonable. We all have different levels of risk appetite, different comfort zones, and different views on how far we’re prepared to go to safeguard our own and others’ health. There are times in our lives when it’s helpful to have someone close to us push us to do the things we’re scared to do. This isn’t one of them. It doesn’t matter what your views are. Forcing others to bend to your will when they don’t want to is never healthy, and just leads to resentment. None of us want to spend Christmas surrounded by people who don’t really want to be there. Respecting others’ boundaries – even if it means you don’t get the family Christmas you want – is crucial if you want your relationships to be left intact.
The way we talk about what’s happening is also going to be really important this year. There’s one version of Susan’s story where she’s a terrible mother and a horrible person. In another version she’s doing what she needs to, to protect her own and her children’s health. And where her decision is brave, despite being incredibly difficult. There’s a version of Toby’s story where he’s being selfish. Another where he is a devoted son making every effort to be home for a family Christmas. The way Susan and Toby tell their stories will affect how they feel about the situation and each other. It will also affect how others perceive them too. Could you tell your own and your loved ones’ stories in a more forgiving, compassionate way? What would that look like? What might the impact of this be on your relationships – both now and over the longer term?
Finally, kindness never goes out of fashion, and kindness at Christmas extends in two directions. Firstly towards other people, in accepting where they’re at, reframing their actions more positively, and looking after those we care about. But it also extends to ourselves. Many of us feel a strong sense of duty not to let others down at this time of year – and that can mean pushing ourselves to do things that we’re not comfortable with. None of us are at our best when we are fearful, fraught with anxiety, or just generally stressed out. Take time to be honest with yourself about where your own boundaries lie, and try to acknowledge them. It really is okay to ask for things to happen differently this year, even if you know it won’t go down well. Pacing ourselves, and the usual self-care steps we know are good for us, are also going to be important.
Family Christmas this year will be different to usual, and in many cases fraught with sensitivity. So listen with love, respect others’ views and boundaries, tell positive stories and always be kind. That way, we can leave everyone feeling okay, and start the New Year peacefully and well.
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