Holidays with children: a survival guide
December! Parties! Family gatherings! Treats! Fun!
Except when you have a baby or young kids, it might be more like: We're late! The baby spit up on his outfit as we are walking in to get photos taken! My toddler was traumatized by Santa! My in-laws keep criticizing my parenting! I want to have the kind of holidays I remember having as a kid but I'm trapped in a dark room trying to get my baby to sleep while everyone else is out there drinking wine and laughing!
The bad news is that the holidays with young kids aren’t 100% magical. The good news is that they can be plenty magical if you are willing to accept a fair amount of chaos sprinkled in there. Here are some ideas to help you and your little ones feel calm, healthy, and balanced this holiday season.
- Stay connected to your baby - to a baby, you're the center of the universe. You're the calm in the storm, you're the wind beneath their wings, you're...you get it. You're the main person they look to for comfort, joy, and all the different needs they have throughout each day. When you walk into the party and everyone wants to play "pass the baby", it can be hard to find the balance that makes everyone happy. By all means, let your great aunt hold the baby, and sit down to drink a glass of wine or eat some appetizers while having an actual adult conversation. But if your instincts tell you that your baby just needs you right now, or you are biting your tongue and inwardly squirming while a grandparent walks your fussing baby into another room, it's more than ok to keep them close. It's your baby, after all, and you are the worldwide expert on what your baby needs. It can help to have phrases ready - "It looks like she needs to eat right now" or "I just don't feel right without my baby close by." A comfortable baby carrier can help with this - it's hard for someone to grab the baby when they're literally strapped to your body! But no matter how you do it, staying connected to your baby can help you both feel that all is right with the world.
- Reconnect with bigger kids - toddlers, preschoolers, and older kids may be more enthusiastic about heading off with cousins, friends, or grandparents (and if they aren't, that's okay - see #1!), but they still need you to help smooth out the bumps - the physical ones and the emotional ones. Talking about potential tricky spots in advance can help - like reminding them that the older cousins can get a little wild and they can use words to ask for help. So can taking short breaks for a snuggle and a check in to talk about what's been going on. My husband's favourite parenting strategy is essential when days are full - regular feeding with a focus on protein! If you have a picky kid who loves hummus but hates turkey, bring along whatever they need to keep them fuelled with good stuff. I also like to incorporate little rituals to help my child and I stay connected in the midst of a lot of activity - one I have used for many years is to say "I love you" in ASL because it's easy and inconspicuous (and now that he's 8 and sensitive to embarrassing maternal displays of affection, it flies under the radar but he still gets the message.)
- Stay flexible - if you're travelling or you have company, it can be hard to keep up with naps, meals, and bedtimes. Depending on your and your baby's temperament, you may decide to either throw the usual routines out the window, pick what matters most and let the other stuff slide, or buckle up and stick to your usual patterns no matter what. The flexibility comes in handy for all three scenarios - if you're bending the usual rules, you can feel your way through and learn what works for everyone and accept what doesn't work as well. If you're sticking to established routines, you may have to relax your expectations about what your holidays will be like - you might miss out on the family game of cards while you're putting a resistant child to bed. Having it all at the same time isn't a thing - so take a few deep breaths, feel all your feelings (yes, even the ones that include resentment and boredom!), and savour the sweet moments in all their forms. There's always next year, and in the meantime, there's chocolate.
- Refuel, refuse, restore - yeah, yeah, yeah, self care. Even I roll my eyes when I talk about it. But I'm not talking about the kind of self care that involves more work on your part, like yoga classes, pedicures, and date nights (although those are all awesome.) I'm talking about the boring (but absolutely essential) stuff:
- eating nourishing food, drinking water (refuel)
- setting clear boundaries and saying no to whatever is too much or you just straight up don't want to do (refuse)
- being truly and authentically yourself, and having space to process the big changes that come with parenting, the amazing joy and the profound frustrations of family gatherings, and whatever else is going on with you (restore)
This last one is a biggie and it will take different forms for different people. I'm an introvert, so time on my own is essential when I'm surrounded by people - even going out for a 20 minute walk will have me grounded enough to make the gravy without murdering someone. On the other hand, if I'm visiting my sisters, I'll happily sacrifice a few hours of sleep to stay up extra late, laughing our heads off at family quirks, childhood memories, and our kids' adorable/ridiculous/maddening antics. Maybe you prefer to go out for a run, or rage-clean your house, or ditch the family to go hang out with your girlfriends. There's no wrong way to be yourself - just do it. Cause the biggest gift you give your family - not just during this season, but every single day - is you.
Like so many parts of parenting, our expectations of the holidays can shape our experience. Accept that chaos and magic will go hand in hand this year, and the beautiful moments that bring tears to your eyes will be easier to find. Stay as gentle with yourself as you are with your sweet little ones and all will be well. You're doing great.