When my son was growing up, I used to start worrying about the holidays long before we turned back the clocks or figured out his Halloween costume. Clay's father and I separated when our son was two, so our competition for Most Favored Holiday Time Slot went on for years. Although I nabbed Thanksgiving early on and maintained my advantage, Christmas was another matter.
My ex is a semi-practicing Christian and I'm Jewish. But while my parents paid scant attention to Chanukah, they went crazy at Christmas. (According to my mother, this was because everyone in the family was in retail.) Of course, Christmas was Clay's father's holiday of choice, too. And as unpleasant as the annual tug-of-war was for the two of us, it was much worse for our son. If I could undo the knots it caused him, I would do so in a heartbeat.
Such holiday sweepstakes seemed to be the norm among my divorced friends. It was as if all the pent-up anger and disappointment that had been on a low simmer the rest of the year heated to a boil as soon as September rolled around.
The Less Things Change
Fast-forward to grandparenthood, factor in a whole new cast of adult children, grandchildren, siblings, in-laws, grandparents — including steps and exes, and a great-grandparent or two, and you'd need a joint Ph.D. in mathematics and psychology to figure out how to manage these high-stakes occasions that are supposed to be joyful.
"I call them the horrordays," despairs my friend Sophie, the divorced grandmother of 6-year-old Emma. "Not only do my son and daughter-in-law spend all their vacations with her parents in Arizona, the other grandparents are present at every single birthday and holiday celebration. I've hinted that it might be nice for me to spend at least one holiday a year alone without them there, but so far my son and his wife haven't gotten the message." Or, more likely, she adds, "They've gotten the message, but choose to ignore it. Maybe I should try for Columbus Day."
"There's nothing more painful for a grandparent than feeling left out," says Dr. Julie Bondanza, a psychotherapist and grandmother in Washington, D.C. "I know many people who are sad and frustrated because they don't get to spend much time with their grandchildren, except in the company of the other grandparents. Holidays have a way of ratcheting up those hurt feelings," she says.
There's only so much a grandparent can say or do, however. In Bondanza's family, as in many others, she says her daughter calls the shots. She decides what holiday to celebrate with which set of grandparents, whether separately or together with the whole clan. "I've learned that at this stage I have to accommodate, whereas once, as the mother, I was in charge." Taking a backseat can be tough, she notes, but it's also inevitable and easier on everyone if grandparents accept the fact that they're no longer the ones setting the agenda. On the other hand, if they feel squeezed out, they should let their adult children know, respectfully — and well before plans are nailed.
The holiday season offers everybody — grandparents, adult children, in-laws, outlaws, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, the whole mishpocheh — a once-a-year golden opportunity to let go of old rivalries, petty jealousies, possessiveness and other dysfunctions and grow up.
Of course, some families are models of good behavior. Their holiday routines are unchanged from year to year, so there's no jockeying for slots. What's more, many of these peaceful merrymakers seem to have learned that separate celebrations are the most satisfying way around the holiday conundrum — even if it means two turkeys at Thanksgiving, or Christmas Eve with one set of grandparents and Christmas dinner with the other set. Others are perfectly content to celebrate Christmas on December 28 or Thanksgiving in early December.
Judith Viorst, author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, says her family has their rituals down. "Everybody comes to our house for Thanksgiving and Passover," she says. "And, since two of our three sons and their families live out of town, we always celebrate Chanukah on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, no matter how much later Chanukah actually falls on the calendar. Christmas and Easter are never an issue for us," she adds, "which is one advantage of intermarriage."
In other families, the politics are as loaded as they are in Congress. Claire Roberts, a pseudonym for the paternal grandmother who wrote the daughter-in-law-from-Hell story in Eye of My Heart, continues to feel very tentative around her son's wife, especially during the holidays. "My tendency is to jump in and offer to help, but this only backfires and incites even more defensiveness and bad will on her part," she says. "I'm realizing that if I'm ever going to have a decent relationship with this woman, it will be because I do less, not more. I wouldn't care so much, except she stands between me and my grandchildren."
Location, Location, Location
Geography, of course, is key in determining who celebrates which holiday where and with whom. Since my first granddaughter, Isabelle, was born three years ago, my son and daughter-in-law made their annual pilgrimage to the U.S. from Europe, where they were living, each Christmas. They'd spend a couple of weeks in San Francisco, visiting both my daughter-in-law's parents and my son's father and stepmother. Then, around New Year's Day, they'd fly to Washington and spend another couple of weeks with my husband and me before heading back overseas. This arrangement worked nicely; no grandparents felt shortchanged or left out of the loop.
Then this past summer, my son and his family moved to San Francisco. Now, suddenly, I'm the one who's out of the loop. My two granddaughters see their Bay Area grandparents constantly — sometimes every day. My higher self believes that this is swell for all concerned and tries to maintain a good attitude. Alas, my lower self is periodically consumed by dark, jealous, junior-high school thoughts — and now the holidays are coming!
As of now, my husband and I are planning to fly to California on Christmas Day, but that is all I know. The only other thing I'm sure of is that I will do whatever my son and daughter-in-law want — either separate celebrations or one large gathering en famille. What I will not do is negotiate for Most Favored Holiday Time Slot, the way I did when Clay was a kid — even if secretly I hate the plan he and his wife come up with, even though I live 3,000 miles away and don't get to see the kids as often as the grandparents who live three minutes away, even if I end up feeling dissed and lost in the shuffle.
This holiday season seems to be my golden opportunity to make up — in tiny measure — for the awful jockeying that went on during my son's childhood, as well as to follow my own sage advice and, er, grow up.
Keep the converstion going in Barbara Graham's group, Grandparents Unplugged
Barbara Graham, a Grandparents.com columnist, is the editor of the anthology, Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother (Harper), which tells "the whole crazy, complicated truth about being a grandmother in today's world."
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.