By Gregory Keer
I always think I’m going to enjoy the holidays more than I do. I imagine the days off as time that will allow me to reduce my stress, live in the moment, and enjoy family and friends. Oh, those carefree hours to play basketball in the yard with the kids, go to a few movies together, laugh, eat and share stories around the holiday table.
Instead, stress seems to escalate — mostly because of all these hopes. My kids don’t like playing basketball (not with me, and certainly not together). My adolescent boys see all the good movies with their friends. And meals are spent with Wendy and me running around serving people, asking the kids not to talk over each other, and usually ending with someone crying or yelling or pouting.
Often, that someone is me.
Whereas most people like to reference A Christmas Carol around the holidays, I relate more, at least in terms of the title, to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. I set my bar impossibly high, imagining all my thirst for the joys of family life will be quenched in a mere two-week period.
This year, I aim to change all that. I’m planning to clear up all my holiday problems in one fell swoop. A lot to expect? Perhaps. So, let me rephrase — I’m going to make the winter festival season a little better by lowering my expectations.
First, I need more me-time. One of my mistakes as a parent, especially during the holidays, is believing that I have to be engaged with the children at every possible moment. When they were little, I needed to be guiding them and playing with them. Now, they don’t want to spend that much time with me, not because they don’t love me, but because they are individuating and hanging out with people who are helping define them beyond my reach. And, to a large degree, that’s the way it should be.
So, instead of licking my wounds about being irrelevant, I need to take more private hours to read one of those neglected novels, sleep in or take naps, and go to the good movies with my wife or even by my lonesome if no one will go to the cineplex with me. These are gifts I will give to myself, but they will also teach my sons that we are all better people to our loved ones when we are first good to ourselves.
Second, I need to play sports differently. So what if my kids don’t like basketball and won’t play sports together as I always envisioned they would? I’ll hit the field or court with them separately for whatever sport they wish — even if it’s just for 10 minutes each, one time each over the entire course of the two weeks. When they say they’re done playing, I’ll stop and consider the session a success. Usually, I run into problems because I nag them to play a little longer so I can teach them a few things. I have this grand idea they will learn a couple of tips from the old man. Not during these holidays, not this time. The point will just be to have fun.
Third, I will not try to turn meals into some version of The Waltons’ holiday dinners with everyone politely sitting ‘round the table, delighting in their togetherness. My children don’t even know who The Waltons were, which may be part of the problem. In fact, I kind of hate The Waltons now because they corrupted my sense of what holiday meals are supposed to be. Instead, I will allow our dinners to be as chaotic as my kids want since that’s my family’s way. In my house, the kids eat turkey stuffing with their fingers, my younger ones jump up from the table at random to sing Bruno Mars tunes, and my eldest goes on philosophical political rants with his unsuspecting grandparents. I will just sit back and enjoy the always-delicious food, restraining myself from trying to control the situation, and realizing that I’m lucky enough to have family to share the mayhem.
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure this will work out, but I have to try. After 15 years of expecting my holidays to be as perfect as the ending to It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s time to prepare a bit more for the unexpected and just bask in it.
It may be that, upon stepping back from my role as a wannabe winter-season patriarch, my kids will take up the reigns and drive the sleigh of fun and togetherness activities. Perhaps they’ll look at me and say, “Dad, we love how hard you work at family holidays so we’re going to reward you with family basketball and a dinner of toasts to the greatness of you and mom.”
But that’s a hope, not an expectation.