TORONTO — Trying to please both sets of parents at Christmas left Annabel Fitzsimmons and her husband stranded on an airport tarmac in Washington, D.C., on Christmas Day 2003, hundreds of kilometres from everyone they wanted to see.
They had spent Christmas morning with Annabel’s parents in Virginia. They were on their way to Tim’s parents in Kitchener, Ont., when a snowstorm grounded their plane.
“We were nowhere near any of our families. We sat in the plane for four hours,” says Annabel, 38, describing the moment they decided they needed a more practical approach to splitting up the holidays.
Christmas is fraught with potential for conflict, especially when it comes to who goes where, and when.
One of the more difficult tasks for young couples is figuring out how to divide Christmas between parents, in-laws and stepfamilies so that no one feels slighted.
“You have to decide together,” says Ellie Tesher, a syndicated advice columnist.
“Everyone talks about setting boundaries, but if all you do is lay down the law, that’s not setting boundaries; it’s a power grab, that’s whoever yells the loudest.”
Tesher says that couples and their parents need to remember that the people they are negotiating with are going to be in their lives for decades.
It will be a much healthier relationship if you don’t lose a lung shouting over where everybody should be on Christmas morning.
“Take the pressure off the day. Make it the season. Make it what it was meant to be: A season of giving,” says Tesher.
That’s what Annabel and Tim did. Now the parents of three-year-old Lizzie and 10-month-old T.J., they spent four days with Annabel’s family in the Finger Lakes region of New York before Christmas. They rented a cottage about halfway between Annabel’s home in Toronto and her brother’s home in Pennsylvania. Her parents will be there, too.
Then it’s home to Toronto for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with their two young children.
Tim’s parents will drop by in the afternoon. In the evening they’ll all go to Christmas supper at Tim’s sister’s house, also in Toronto.
It’s a big improvement over the flying-and-driving marathons of their early life together.
“I wouldn’t say there was conflict. We just needed to iron out the planning. It was trial and error,” says Annabel, who teaches yoga and Pilates, in person and via podcasts at www.clearspaceonline.com.
Amy Gillespie, 33, a communications director at Environics, feels the pull, too. She jokes that Merry Christmas for her is “Merry Migration.”
Before they married, she and her husband, Ian, spent every Christmas apart. He’d go to his family in Portage La Prairie, Man. She’d go to her parents in Cornwall, Ont.
Now they alternate, spending one Christmas with her parents in Cornwall and the next with his parents who, fortunately, have moved to Kingston, Ont.
It’s not always easy for parents to accept that they won’t be spending every Christmas morning with their children anymore.
“The first year it was hard, but it’s hard when they go away and go to university, too. Life changes,” says Amy’s mom, Linda Wood, 57, a teacher.
She and her husband, Jim, 57, a veterinarian, spent the weekend before Christmas with Amy, Ian and their son Dylan, 19 months.
“Even if it’s not Christmas Day, there are lots of Christmas decorations, presents and food. I cooked a turkey,” says Wood.
It’s a sentiment the whole family shares. When Amy’s sister was overseas one year, the family joined her in London, England, in February for a celebration they called “Feb-istmas.”
For now, Amy and Ian are happy to drive to Cornwall or Kingston with Dylan. They want him to know all his grandparents.
But Amy can see a time when Dylan won’t want to leave the house on Christmas Day.
She remembers going from grandparent to grandparent as a child. She loved them dearly, but it was a lot of driving around.
“We’d go to one set of grandparents for lunch, and we’d just get into it and it would be time to leave for the other set of grandparents. As a kid, I remember thinking: ’I want to stay home and play with my toys!”’ says Amy.
The situation becomes even more complex for children of divorced parents who may have remarried and had more kids.
Different families have different rules, norms and customs, and each family tends to think that the way they do things is the right way, says Terri Apter, author of What Do You Want From Me?, a book about relationships with in-laws.
“Questions about whose family matters, needs or deserves more get wrapped up in questions about whose family to visit. It’s important to work this out with your spouse and stick to it. It’s all too easy for in-law tension to spill into marital tension,” says Apter.
Adult children of divorced parents have to decide what they want to do and talk to both their parents about their expectations to create a timetable that works for everyone, says Emily Bouchard, founder of www.blended-families.com. That timetable will look different for every family.
“This is such an emotionally charged time and no matter how long ago the parent’s separation and divorce were, the fact that they are not together is still painful for everyone involved,” says Bouchard.
“By being willing to speak to how the situation is not ideal, and that there are mixed feelings involved, you can then have more freedom to create what will work best for you.”