For Janessa Mangi, 33, a stay-at-home mom in Brooklyn, planning for the season of good cheer is one big mission impossible. She was determined that her children spend time with all her relatives around the holidays, especially as she had never become close to her paternal relatives because of a family rift. Unfortunately, family drama seems to be repeating itself.
"We've never had everyone together for a holiday gathering," says Mangi, who has a toddler and a newborn. Both her parents and her husband's parents are divorced, and get-togethers can be tense. Parents, stepparents and siblings all want to have a big family celebration at their respective homes, forcing Mangi to choose sides. "Holidays are a nightmare," she says, "and the first battle begins at Thanksgiving."
Mangi's dilemma is not uncommon. With more than half of American marriages ending in divorce, families scattered across the country and the budget-busting expense of holiday travel, many families find that bringing everybody together is a scheduling and emotional nightmare. And predictably, it's the children who end up losing when parents can't find a practical solution. The daunting task of trying to give equal face time to all the relatives—not to mention the subtle guilt trip laid on us when we don't—is enough to make any well-meaning parent cry "Bah, humbug!"
FOSTERING FAMILY TIES
Where we decide to spend holiday celebrations can have a great impact on family unity. (If Grandma on Mama's side gets Thanksgiving, does Great Aunt Nonie get Christmas?) "As African-Americans, getting together with our families is such a huge part of our cultural tradition," says Hilary Johnson, a psychotherapist based in New York City. "This is something we take very seriously." Moreover, Johnson adds, "when we gather for the holidays, we are modeling these traditions for our children to carry on in the future."
In an effort to satisfy everyone, however, the holidays can become an endless series of drive-by visits and meaningless Kodak moments. In the past Mangi says she and her husband did their best to accommodate everyone by squeezing in quickie stops throughout the holiday season. Now they've had enough. "We shouldn't have to drag our children around because their grandparents are the ones who got divorced." The couple decided to boycott Thanksgiving and Christmas last year and celebrated winter solstice instead. Will that work going forward? "We're still negotiating it," she admits.
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AVOIDING HOLIDAY DRAMA
"Trying to see everyone can become a disastrous situation in which nobody feels connected," cautions Betsy Taylor, author of What Kids Really Want That Money Can't Buy (Warner Books). "We need to slow down and consider how to make the holidays magical." It really is all about family. "The kids are saying loudly they want more time with their relatives," says Taylor. "They want to nurture the important relationships in their lives."
The truth is, there are no easy solutions when it comes to these issues. But you can navigate better if you keep the following suggestions in mind:
•REMEMBER THE REASON FOR THE SEASON Whether you're celebrating Christmas or Kwanzaa, the spiritual core of the holidays should not be forgotten. By taking a moment to reconnect with their original meaning, you may gain clarity as to where and how to spend them. "Stop and write down memories from your own childhood," Taylor suggests. "What would make the holiday special for you and your children?" If it feels right to stay home rather than travel across the country to be with grandparents, Taylor says, "stay home, and don't feel guilty."
•PLAN AHEAD "Sit down with your significant other early on and decide what makes sense financially and emotionally," says Johnson. Also make sure that your children are part of the discussion so they understand why they won't get to see Grandma this holiday. Once you've made a decision, let the rest of the family know as soon as possible to give them plenty of time to get used to the idea that you may not put in an appearance. If possible, try to offer relatives an alternative time during the year—the kids' spring break, for example—when you'll pay a visit.
•GET THE KIDS INVOLVED Help your children stay connected with the relatives you won't get to see over the holidays. There are many ways to make your extended family part of your holiday celebration, from phone calls and E-mail photos to videos of Christmas-morning festivities.
Continue to the next page to read personal stories from families
WINNING THE HOLIDAY TUG-OF-WAR
Here's how some families manage the madness:
"I negotiated with my ex's new wife." "When I broke up with my children's father in 1986, I didn't want them to miss out on seeing him during the holidays, even though he had remarried and had another daughter. It always had to be about the kids. So I approached my ex's new wife and we soon became friends. I call her my stepwife. We started spending holidays together, and as a result the children never had to choose a parent to be with for Christmas, Thanksgiving and other holidays. —STEPHANIE WILLIAMS, PHILADELPHIA MOTHER OF AYANA AND TAJ
"We started a new tradition." "My husband, Bob, already had two grown children when we married. We decided to start our own traditions when we had our daughter, Danielle. Because all my extended family live in Atlanta, Dani is closer to them than to her father's people, who live in Connecticut. So we spend the holidays with my family. We don't ignore my husband's side. We make it a point to see them once a year—just not on the holidays." —YVONNE MAYES-MOALES, ATLANTA MOTHER OF DANIELLE
"We just stay home." "We live in California. My mother lives in Detroit, and my wife's family is scattered around the Washington, D.C., Maryland and New York areas. Ever since our first daughter was born, our holiday traditions have been carved in stone. We spend Thanksgiving in Detroit, and we stay home at Christmas. The financial reality of flying two children across the country was a big influence. But mainly my wife wanted the girls to wake up and open presents in our home on Christmas morning." —DAVID CANADY, PASADENA, CALIFORNIA FATHER OF ZOLA AND MAYA