My kids just don't get it.
My stress level rises the closer we get to the holidays. "Chill, mom!" they keep saying, when they call to breezily ask if it would be a hassle to change their flight — on the busiest travel day of the year.
It doesn't seem to matter if I'm hosting 10 or 20, or if I'm the guest. I still fret. Which sweet potato recipe should we use? (Will anyone care if we skip the marshmallow topping this year?) Do we have enough decent towels for everyone staying at our house? Will someone stalk away from the table? (Yes, that's happened at more than one family holiday gathering.) Will one of us spill/break/ruin something at the host's house?
A simple oversight, I've learned, can lead to serious ramifications — like the time we inadvertently left medication my son, only about five at the time, was taking for an ear infection on the bathroom counter and my toddler nephew drank it. My sister and brother-in-law spent the night in the ER and we felt terrible the rest of the weekend.
Over the holidays, we tend to let down our guard and "maybe we don't pay attention as closely because we are catching up with friends and family, and everyone is sleeping less, is more fatigued and, therefore, more accident prone," concedes Dr. Alison Tothy, the pediatric ER medical director at Comer Children's Hospital at the University of Chicago and a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Perhaps that's one reason Dr. Tothy says ER visits for children increase during the holidays.
Her advice: Be extra vigilant away from home. Try to baby proof as much as possible wherever you are visiting. "A handful of outlet covers and a roll of tape in your suitcase can protect fingers from shocks and secure dangling cords," suggests Corinne McDermott, founder of www.havebabywilltravel.com. " A quick scan — and relocation of precious knick knacks can prevent frayed nerves," she adds.
Just as important, if your child is beginning to feel ill, call your pediatrician for advice, urges Dr. Tothy. Too often, pediatric ER doctors see children sicker than is typical because "the last thing parents want to do is bring their kid into the ER, so they often wait until their child is really sick."
AAA projects 42.2 million of us will travel over the Thanksgiving holiday — up 11.4 percent from last year — most to visit family. Many of us will repeat the drill for Christmas. Some travelers have figured out how to successfully de-stress.
Ellen Pober Rittberg, Long Island, N.Y., teen expert and author of "35 Things Your Teen Won't Tell You, So I Will," says she always leaves two or more courses undone and then enlists the guests "to make them as they arrive. ... They know to arrive early, although sometimes it is a test of sorts for new potential wives." The happy buzz of activity, she adds, is as good food-wise as it is emotion-wise and "I'm not as harried as the mega-meal approaches."
No matter how well organized you are, however, holiday gatherings are hard work and fraught with emotion because, let's face it, no matter how hard you try, nothing will go perfectly, especially when young kids or sullen teens are part of the equation.
A recent divorce or death can make the situation even more difficult, conjuring memories of happier holidays. "Don't try to force everyone to act like one big happy family," suggests Dr. David Fassler, a child psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont. "Let the kids adjust and adapt at their own pace. Don't try to force them to like their new relatives. You can expect them to be polite, but you can't make people get along. Either it will happen or it won't."
The solution, I think: Embrace imperfection this holiday season. Leave the emotional baggage at the door. No sniping about anyone's weight, politics or career choice. No disciplining anyone else's kids. (That had years-long repercussions in my family.)
Instead of being hurt, laugh if the kids turn up their noses at the dishes you've slaved over. Remember, the important thing is the conversation around the table, not just what's on the plates — even if the kids rush off as soon as they're finished.
It will help if you can create a kids' hangout area, even just a portion of the den or living room with toys, a TV and a place to keep their "stuff." Have a favorite board game on hand. Sure they might make fun of the "old-fashioned" game, but they might actually enjoy Scrabble, Monopoly or Clue — and the stories you'll tell about your marathon sessions when you were a kid. Ditto for some favorite holiday movies (the sillier the better) or stories.
Get everyone out of the house for a while, too. "Do a little research on what there is to do nearby," suggests Californian Karen Hoxmeier, founder of www.mybargainbuddy.com. Just don't spring for any expensive tickets before checking with everyone. You might discover the little girl who lived for ballet six months ago has given away all her tutus and the boy who begged to go to dinosaur museums is now fixated on NASCAR.
In the end, as my kids suggest, all we can do is "chill." A little attitude adjustment can't hurt either. Rachel Scott, the mother of eight, certainly thinks so. Why not, the Florida mom suggests, "embrace the goodness that is there. ... At least the relative invited us; at least they care for us!" It's quite possible, Scott is convinced, "that if we view the visit from a different perspective we might actually enjoy it."
Let's hope so. And when all else fails, bring on the chocolate turkeys.
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