Bending, Blending and Setting Boundaries for an Even Better Year

This piece originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on January 6, 2019.

We’re days into a new year but I’m still thinking about the one we left behind. December was a whirlwind month, filled with fun, obligations, cheer, reverence, and stress.

While it’s still fresh, I’m reflecting on what worked, what didn’t work, and how 2019 could be even better than last year.

Big things were new for me last year – new husband, new home, new in-laws, as I blended my already-blended family again in September.

Chris and I have dozens of family members ranging from 16 months to 86 years. Our seven adult children are making families of their own, adding lots of parents, grandparents, and steps. I need a whiteboard to diagram all the branches on the family tree.

In the years to come, it will be no easy task for our crew to strike a balance between obligation and choice during the holidays.

As we approached our first holiday season together we grappled with some tough questions.

How would we honor the past, enjoy the present, and shape our future? How could we include and exclude without pressuring or disappointing others?

Acknowledging we’d never have our entire crew in the same place at the same time, we celebrated Thanksgiving early and Christmas late with my kids and Thanksgiving and Christmas on schedule with his family.

It mostly worked.

As the year wound down, we opened a bottle of wine and watched “A Bad Moms Christmas.”

Filled with humor and profanity, the film portrays how a holiday that is supposed to be joyful can be marked by stress and conflict. While it was entertainment for us, I recognized its truth.

The film is about three sets of grown women whose lives intersect at Christmas. Each of the mother/daughter duos has their own issues involving communication, expectations, and boundaries. They come dangerously close to ruining Christmas before they have epiphanies and reconciliations.

It’s Hollywood.

But it’s also real.

From one of the baby boomer grandmothers who insists on creating an extraordinary experience for her grandkids, we hear:

Amy, this is Christmas. It’s the big show.

As they struggle to find balance between their own desires and their mothers’ needs and expectations, the millennial women express their frustrations to each other, offer counsel, and draw lines with mothers who are still trying to manage their lives:

If you want to come down here and be part of my family, then you have to live by my rules.

The film gives voice to the emptiness that can accompany the holiday.

I spend months picking out the perfect gifts for everyone in my family and all I ever get are free coupons for backrubs.

And it tackles one of the most daunting challenges of all — setting boundaries with the woman who birthed you.

I worry that if I push her away even a little bit it’s going to break her heart.

Lisa Bobyak is a life coach who works with high-achieving women to find balance and joy in their lives. Setting boundaries and saying “no” is consistently among her clients’ top challenges.

“We haven’t been comfortable establishing boundaries as a culture, particularly a Minnesota culture,” she says. “We as women have been acculturated to be pleasing, accommodating, and graceful.”

While we are wired to feel connected, she says, we feel disconnected when we say no. So it’s easier to say yes, to connect, then deal with the consequences later.

We are also wired to please. But setting boundaries can disappoint the person on the other side of the line.

And that can prompt pushback.

That’s where it helps to know one’s values and to take steps to ensure that actions and values are aligned.

Many families have mission statements or house rules, Bobyak says, that provide a value-driven foundation from which to live.

With those values in mind, she suggests taking time now to reflect and plan for next year.

“What would bring you peace or happiness at the end of the day? If something feels off, this is the time to talk with family about what needs to change.”

Baby boomer parents are accustomed to running the show – on our turf.

But our kids are now adults, many with partners, children, in-laws, and ideas of their own.

Empowering them to fully enjoy the holidays may require parents to make a reluctant sacrifice, the end result of which is less stress, more joy, and a great experience for the children for whom the holiday is intended to be magical.

We can give our adult kids the freedom to choose how and with whom they spend the holidays. We can cede control over the menu and the venue and, if necessary, be gracious guests in their homes, even if we’d prefer to host at our own.

For those with too many destinations to manage comfortably we can find alternative ways to share the holidays – gathering early in December or January – or planning trips or outings instead of sharing gifts and a big meal.

And, perhaps, as it did in “A Bad Moms’ Christmas,” the story will end with heartfelt thanks and the acknowledgment every parent treasures:

I really want you to know that you did a great job.

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What were the biggest challenges for your family? What steps did you take to make the holidays better?