How Do I Survive All The Family Togetherness Of Winter Break?

Let’s take a minute to reflect on what holiday joy really is, and for whom.

Originally Published: 
The Spirit Of The Holidays

Here I am facing down another two-week break from school with both of my little kids and dreading it. Sure, it’s the holidays, and we will go do some festive stuff and bake cookies and experience cheer, but that’s like three days, tops. Do you have any advice for someone like me who finds it painful to plan ahead but also feels oppressed and flattened by that big swath of kid time? And not just flattened, but GUILTY on top of it, for not ~enjoying our time together~. I am ready to admit this happens every year and I need a PLAN. To emotionally survive winter break. HELP.

I’ve got to be honest with you, reader. I started writing a response to your truly essential question before Thanksgiving break, and when I returned to my draft, I had to throw most of it out. It’s not that it was full of lies, but it was so, I don’t know, hopeful. I had tips! I had tricks! I even had a cutesy spoof of a popular poem, but about how your weeks at home were going to be fine (Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Winter Break, in the style of Wallace Stevens).

What a dick.

Now, after weathering what my son referred to joyfully as a “nine-day weekend” (this phrase took on more and more menace as the weekend progressed), I am in a very different place. I am here to tell you, with the fresh taste of unstructured-family-time blood in my mouth, that you are right to be afraid. Did we have fun? Sometimes. But having everyone together, all day everyday, was A LOT. I guess you could call me the Ghost of Christmas Break Future, though based on your question you’ve already been visited by the Ghost of Christmas Breaks Past. You remember very vividly how f*cking hard this is, so you don’t need my ominous warnings. But you could probably use my compassion.

Your question butts up against two very powerful phenomena: The holidays are intense, and the pressure on parents to spend magical, connected time with our children is also intense. It didn’t always used to be this way. Parents spend way more time with their kids than they used to, and there’s research to support that it isn’t necessarily a good thing for kids. It often makes parents feel more stressed — having to juggle their own personal needs and work demands with lots and lots of quality kid time, in which they are expected to not just be physically present but also engaged and endlessly responsive. As one writer and single mom put it, “the pressure to spend so much quality time with children stresses moms out so much that it may actually make us worse parents.” At the same time, kids aren’t necessarily doing peachy either. A recent study showed that parents give their kids much less independence than they think. And some researchers believe that this is contributing to the childhood mental health crisis we are finding ourselves in and are urging pediatricians to encourage parents to leave their kids alone more.

Let them slow their roll. Think of this as its own holiday activity.

So here’s my holiday gift to you: Research-supported permission to not curate every aspect of this vacation. Let your kiddos play all day in their pajamas, build weird glue-and-popsicle stick structures unsupervised, and laze about watching movies. Hell, I even give you permission to throw said stick structures away, even though no one in their ivory towers seems interested in doing studies on how this clearly supports parental sanity.

It’s not just the unstructured play, but the down time — down time that won’t be harmful and will likely be a gift to your child. If you feel maxed out this time of year, they are probably getting some echo of that, even if they say they want to go to Dave & Buster’s every day until they pass out. Most kids have been busting their butts at school and in band and with sports balls or whatever since August or September. Let them slow their roll. Think of this as its own holiday activity.

But to do this, you will have to fight many demons. My sister-in-law put it to me like this: “I love Christmas trees and baking. But the logistics of holidays (kids, schools, work) can be so much, it’s not something to enjoy so much as a test you’re very close to failing.” So it’s both a lot to manage literally and a lot to manage emotionally. The guilt, as you say, of not having ugly sweaters for everyone to wear to parties and a plate of chocolate Santa cookies constantly on hand and the general vibes in your home that make passersby stop and gaze longingly into your windows at the perfect, cozy family inside, while snow softly falls on their awestruck face.

So let’s take a minute to reflect on what joy really is, and for whom. Every kid is different, some actually hate all the rigmarole of the holidays and would rather be reading Dog Man and eating gorp in their spot on the couch for two weeks. Others can’t get enough of that party spirit, but usually meltdown at some point. For all of them, though, joy doesn’t have to be nonstop. I remember what the doctor said to me when we worried about our toddler’s nutrition: “Think about what he eats over a week; don’t get lost in packing in every food group every single day.” This was one of the two or three actually helpful things a doctor ever said to me about my child, and I hold it dear. I think you can apply the same reasoning to “holiday magic” or “Christmas spirit” or “seasonal, mostly maternal exertion” or whatever you call it in your home. We are served so much sh*t these days, especially around the holidays, that it’s easy to feel FOMO on behalf of your children for not packing it all in. All the performances, meeting all the Santas, eight nights of Hannukah (EIGHT!), gift guides ad nauseum — a healthy holiday activity diet can be, like, one of these things.

Get in your body for a minute — don’t roll your eyes — I mean really take a deep breath and put your hand on your heart and everything, and see what happens when you visualize these activities. What fills you with warmth or makes you smile? What fills you with dread? You can give your kids a choice — what holiday mishigas can they not live without, and when can we just be home eating Top Ramen and watching old Buster Keaton films?

What I’m suggesting is to Marie Kondo your holiday plans. And when you are feeling antsy, maybe after three days of baking, or doing absolutely nothing, there are some lighter ways to pass the hours.

OK, actually I’ve regained my confidence talking to you and am going to attempt my list:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Winter Break

I. A cleanout.

Pull all the stuff no one ever plays with off the shelves and put it in a pile. Whatever gets used again stays; give the rest away.

II. Independence training camp

Maybe take the time to make your kid a little more independent about something, to make the next vacation easier. Teach them how to make a quesadilla or use a knife.

III. Solo kid time

If you have multiple kids and a partner, take just one kid somewhere. (I had a campless week this summer and spent a mostly fun 24 hours across the bridge in San Francisco with my 7-year-old, eating dim sum and crashing at a friend’s house.)

IV. Tourist in your own town

See above. Do a double decker bus tour. Look on tourism sites for where you live. You can even find last minute hotel deals if that’s within your means.

V. Double-up days

Invite another family over but don’t do anything fancy. Give the kids a movie and chill with the adults.

VI. Ikea excursion

This is just what it sounds like. You can let everyone spend like $5 and eat hot dogs and soft serve. Everyone can find the furniture item they think is the most stupid and most adorable. If you have little kids, some Ikeas even have child care!

VII. High tea at home

I’m talking a pot, make some little sandwiches, then everyone just reads their own book for like two hours. I have way too many cake stands and like to prove to my husband that I use them on these occasions. Watch the Great British Baking Show to get in the mood.

VIII. A yes day/no day experiment

Go all out one day, letting them do whatever they want. Then spend the next day completely ignoring them. See what happens.

IX. Bring in the professionals

Just so you know, there are winter break camps in many places.

X. Free sh*t

When you opt for free activities, the bar is low, and you don’t have added pressure of making the ticket price count. There is always some street that goes wild with holiday decorations (I’m partial to Oakland’s Picardy Drive), and you can kill an hour walking through it with a thermos of hot cocoa. Recently, I took my 5-year-old into downtown, and we just walked along, counting the Christmas trees in office building lobbies and ogling all the car-sized wreaths. Some stores, like Home Depot, do free holiday crafts for kids. Libraries often host storytimes or craft hours that are no-cost and low-fi. And you can have your kids trash whatever they make on the way out, so you don’t have to even let it in the house. Now that’s my idea of a vacation.

XI. A high-brow excursion

Maybe you’ve been meaning to add a little culture into your kids’ lives, or you just enjoy the permission that having a child as a companion gives you to spend less than an hour inside a museum. Most museums have a free day here and there. And speaking of libraries, many offer free family tickets to museums. And there are all these weird little ones attached to colleges or what have you that are always free. (In Oakland, we have Mills College Art Museum.)

XII. Bus adventure

This is my favorite, trademarked family excursion that wastes hours and keeps the budget low. Go to the nearest bus stop (you can drive and park if you don’t live in a city) and let your kid pick the direction you’ll take. Get on, look out the window at all of the beauty and grotesqueness of the world, and let your kid request a stop when they see something interesting. Explore and get back on the bus; this time, it’s your turn to decide where you disembark. My ADHD never feels calmer than on a bus heading nowhere in particular, gazing out at passing visions, a kiddo snuggling into my lap.

XIII. Planned family marathon watch

Might I recommend an entire season of Project Runway: Junior? How about the new season of Hilda? Pop some popcorn, pull the blankets off the beds, and lean the eff in. I hate to invoke the term “branding,” but if you declare it, give it a name even, it counts as an activity.

Like all things parenting, if you add some intention in, it feels juicier and less frantic. Then, of course, your plans may fall apart. But if they do, remember that the Keaton film where the entire house falls on him is amazing and free on YouTube, and while some things seem to get more and more complicated and expensive every year, ramen is two bucks, and you can probably teach your kids how to make it their damn selves.

The Good Enough Parent is an advice column for parents who are sick of parenting advice. Let Sarah answer your questions about the messy realities of parenting! Send her your questions via this anonymous form or by emailing her at goodenoughparentcolumn@gmail.com.

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