For many of us, holidays come with baggage. Families can be wonderful …. and exhausting. They can be a source of strength, and the end of your patience. Whether you’re struggling with - or just not ready to talk about - fertility, if you’re tired of those questions about when you’re getting married or if you’re ever getting a promotion, or if you’re just not in the mood to be compared to your always successful cousin, holidays can be rough.
To help you survive, we put together a few tips and tricks for walking into a tough situation. (Be ready to bookmark this article for Thanksgiving, Passover, your family reunion, and any gathering that might pull you out of your comfort zone!)
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking “Not this year. This year is going to be different!”
According to marriage and family therapist Sarah Epstein, the first step to surviving the holidays with your boundaries intact is realizing that, no, actually, this year isn’t going to be different. "It's important to remember that if it's happened before it's going to happen again - your family is not going to suddenly evolve or become more sensitive."
Don't get blindsided. Recognize the patterns in your family and know that if tough questions about your relationship, fertility, and finances happen at every gathering, they will again this year. Intrusive questions are still going to hurt, but knowing they are coming might take away some of the sting.
Be a Team
If you’re coupled, remember that you have a teammate. Have a conversation before a big event about how you plan to approach tough questions and sticky situations. We spoke to a few experts to get their take on how you and your partner can prepare for “when are we getting a grandchild?” type questions. Here are keep a few things in mind about your teammate:
Communicate what your needs are before any big family gathering. Remember that when you’re trying to conceive, you’re two different people having two different experiences.
Each of you is going to have different needs in terms of the kind of support you want, as well as different preferences of the level of privacy. Be clear on your own needs and expectations on getting support and maintaining privacy.
If you’re open to talking to some family members about your journey, but not others, make sure you both are on the same page. Ask your partner really directly - who do you want to tell? Who don’t you want to tell? Talk through a plan together, so you don't inadvertently share in a way that might make your partner uncomfortable.
Decide who is going to respond to which questions - often the person who has the closets emotional connection to the question asker is the one who can be most effective at shutting it down. If your MIL has already asked you 8 times (this week) about grandkids, it’s time for your spouse to answer the question.
Remind your family about the impact of their words. “If a family member asks when you and your partner are planning on starting a family, feel free to remind them that you already have a family,” said Sarah Epstein. Having or not having children isn’t what makes a family - you already have your team and family in place.
Respond as a couple - offer language focused on both of you. Use the word “we” in your answers, such as “we need you to stop asking this,” or “we will tell you when and if there’s something to share,” and even, “we need you to respect our boundaries on this.”
Speaking of boundaries, clear on what your limits are. Remember that people have to earn the right to have access to your very intimate stories, whether they are stories of successes or the moments that challenge you.
“We’re not used to setting boundaries,” said Dr. Elisabeth Morray, consulting Psychologist for the Center for Fertility and Reproductive Health at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates. “It can feel harsh or even non-relational. Women aren’t socialized to hold strong boundaries, so don’t be frustrated if this feels difficult.”
Recognize a relative you see once a year isn’t entitled to your personal information and set your boundary.
If questions come from someone who is not actively engaged in your life keep your answer short and sweet. Don’t get pulled into too much explaining - short and close-ended response that doesn’t invite follow up can diffuse a line of questioning. If your great aunt or second cousin twice removed keeps pushing you with intrusive questions, empower yourself to stick to your boundaries. It’s okay to respond “that’s just not something I feel comfortable talking about.”
Avoidance as Self-Care
Self-care is a word that’s bandied around quite a bit - from stress management to manicures. Did you know that avoidance can be actually be a form of self-care as well?
“Avoidance can be healthy and in service of self-care. Avoidance can also take us out of alignment of what is most important to us,” said Dr. Elisabeth Morray.
Dr. Morray broke this down for us with two examples - and while they both focus on fertility as a trigger, the advice can be applied to other stressors as well.
When working with fertility patients Dr. Morray often explores the impact of avoidance around situations that trigger feelings of sadness. For instance, if it’s hard to go to church series on Christmas Eve because there are so many families and young children there, it may actually be an appropriate act of self-care to say “this year, I’m going to take care of myself by doing something else.”
On the other hand, if you know Christmas dinner is going to be painful because your pregnant sister will be there, avoiding dinner might not be in line with self-care. If you value relationships with your family, skipping dinner isn’t self-care; it will actually pull you out of alignment with your values.
Dr. Morray encourages her patients to acknowledge that events will be painful and also to accept that pain as being an unfortunate part of the experience. When you can, she reminds her patients, act in service of what’s important to you. This is one active way of owning the impact that any struggle might have on your life.
Differentiate between when avoidance is necessary self-care and when you need to show up, complicated feelings and all. (This is great advice during the holidays and beyond!)
Difficult discussions in festive situations can feel inappropriate. That being said, tough moments can be empowering. You might find a connection you didn’t expect - there’s a chance that the aunt casually asking about babies understands more than she lets on about being childfree or childless. Some people find opening up powerful. It might turn into a normalizing experience, where you talk through issues steeped in stigma learn of miscarriages or fertility problems that other family members have worked through. When people you trust begin the conversation, being able to share can be truly valuable.
That being said, Christmas dinner isn’t always the place to dive into this. When it isn’t the right place or time, verbalize your feelings. Try mentioning that the topic at hand is something you’ve been thinking about a lot and set a time to talk about it one on one.
Trust is a key factor of whether or not the conversation is going to feel safe or healthy - and trust yourself to know when and where the conversation should occur.
Remind yourself that questions come from a place of love
If your boundaries aren’t being respected, take a deep breath. Most likely this is a person who is clueless - not malicious.
Feel free to respond strongly to nonstop questions about fertility or your career with “we love that you're excited, we love that you're interested in us and want good things for us. When we have something to tell you we will tell you, please don't ask again."
Or, turn it on the other person and ask them, “it seems like you’re really interested in this, what is it that you’re looking for from me? Because I’m noticing that you’re really invested here - what’s that about?” Hold your boundaries and express some friendly curiosity about their level of interest before guiding the conversation away.
When you try to set a boundary and that boundary isn’t respected you can gently call attention to that fact - without feeling like you owe them an answer. Offer a generous interpretation of their curiosity. Tell yourself, “I’m going to operate under the assumption that this person cares.”
Take care of yourself over the holidays
We find ourselves coming back to advice that Sarah Epstein passed along, “you might decide that this conversation happens once a year at major gatherings - and decide your approach is simply to change the subject or breath through it. It’s okay to let it happen and let it pass.” No matter what you decide, we’re here to support you.