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Boundaries and the Holidays

My husband and I like to say that we broke in two sets of grandparents. Jeff and I are the firstborns in both our families. We got married and had a baby before any of our four siblings were married. As such, we were, for about six years, the only “kids” of our generation who were beginning to set traditions of our own. We wanted to be alone on Christmas morning, and also let our kids have their regular nap during Thanksgiving dinner so we could relax, and stay home from holidays when our girls were sick. Crazy, right?

People often make toasts at weddings about how two families have now become one, but the reality and Biblical edict is actually that a marriage represents making three families out of two. So there is both celebration and grief when old traditions give way to new ones. It took Jeff and I a few years to figure out how to be adults, love our little family well, and also show up in a loving way to our extended families. We wanted to please everyone and also ourselves and it just wasn’t possible.

Reading the book Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend helped a lot. For the last 10 years, I’ve taught hundreds of other moms the boundary basics, including a talk called “Boundaries and the Holidays,” which define the difference between bearing each others’ burdens and carrying our own loads, as instructed in Galatians 6.

My hubby and I don’t have it down perfectly, but I’d like to share a few tips that work well for us after 22 years of marriage...

Tip #1. Carry your own load. In that load are your feelings, thoughts, limits, and choices. Start with managing your own feelings. If you say, “She made me feel guilty,” you’ve failed to carry your own load. You have to choose if you’ve actually done something to feel guilty about and respond accordingly. Disappointing someone is not wrong. You don’t get to control how people feel about your decisions; that’s their load. Say no with compassion and empathy.

Tip #2. Be intentional about setting your own limits. Pay attention to what your body, mind and heart are telling you, and make a decision to say “no” or “that’s enough” before you reach total capacity and get in a fight with Grandma or take the stress out on your kids. Remember that your limits are perhaps different than your siblings or your brother and sister in laws. Embrace how God made you and honor it.

I look back and am so grateful we guarded these precious times of mayhem on Christmas morning.

Tip#3. Pick your top-three must-have, hill-to-die-on boundaries for the season and stick to them. These are the things that are most special to include in your celebrations, that you will feel resentful about if you don’t get to do them. They can also include something you will not stick around for. Here are ours:

  • We do Thanksgiving and Christma s morning at home alone. We never go anywhere on holidays before 1 p.m.

  • No political discussions at extended family gatherings. We do not want to fight, be converted, or convert others at Thanksgiving or Christmas. So, if it starts up, we say we want to change the subject. If that doesn’t work, we leave the room. (And I have learned not to be the one that starts it.)

  • A few special holiday dishes mean a lot to my kids. If no one else is making them, I make them and bring them along.

Tip #4: Decide what you can let go of without feeling resentful. Compromise is good. So what expectation, tradition, or rule can you release? For me, I let go of…

  • How much sugar the kids are going to eat. Whatever Grandma offers, they can have. (If your child has food allergies or diabetes, this would not be your Let Go.)

  • The seating chart. I sit where they tell me. The kids sit where they are told by the host, too. (If your child gets bullied by Drunk Uncle, this would not be your let go.)

  • How we open presents. Hello, my name is Amanda, and I’m a control freak. I like to open things a certain way and in a certain order. That doesn’t work for other people. Watch me release it….

Now, in regards to Tips 3 and 4, the brilliance of this system is you get to choose what are on your Must Have and Let Go list, even if someone else thinks they are silly, even if you look back someday and think you should have swapped out some of those items. For some families, gifts are a big issue: you have limited space and/or environmental impact concerns. Go ahead and set limits on grandparent giving, and if they don’t abide by what you’ve asked, you can exchange what they gave you or give it away. You may insist on sitting by your spouse or baby at Christmas dinner. You may want to make time to go do Christmas Eve service at church.

Whatever you decide, remember your motive: to be more loving and less resentful, and to live in the freedom that Jesus offers us all. In 2 Corinthians 9:7, Paul writes, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not out of guilt or compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” He wrote this about money, but it also applies to our time and anything else of value. I’m praying for you and myself, that we would enter this season as servants of Jesus and no one else, and that we would find joy in that identity.

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