Holiday time is looming, but this year it’s different: You’re a new parent with a baby in tow. Suddenly, the annual family throw-down at your in-laws’ house, complete with Christmas lunch, a family walk to church, a black-tie Christmas Eve dinner, gifts for people who literally have everything, a soccer game with your brother-in-law and a non-optional round of charades seems … daunting.
Perhaps that’s why, even though everyone in the British royal family is no doubt itching to see little Archie in his holiday PJs on his first Christmas, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry announced yesterday that they will not be doing the holidays Windsor-style. Instead, they’ll be opting for quiet time together with Markle’s mother.
You may not be staring down a black-tie dinner at your mother-in-law’s table. But, if you’re a new parent, you may still wish you could follow Meghan and Harry’s lead into a less-hectic holiday. If that’s your wish, Jenna LaFreniere, professor of communication studies and a specialist in family communication at Texas Tech University, has a little advice: “Tell your spouse your true feelings about it. I think with family, people are likely to bottle things up — and you don’t want Thanksgiving dinner to be the moment when you lose it.”
Luckily, the arrival of a new baby presents a natural moment to break with tradition. Your quest for quiet time isn’t outrageous, and it doesn’t have to launch a family conflict, if you follow a thoughtful approach.
Watch out for expectation violations: “Around the holidays, there are so many expectations coming from every angle,” says LaFreniere. Expectation violations result when those ideas about how holiday time will be spent collide with an unexpected — and very different — reality. “If one spouse expects that you will spend all day at their family’s house, and the other is thinking that you should stay for a couple hours and take the baby home, you want to make sure that you’re not having that discussion over at their parents’ house in front of everyone.”
Schedule a talk: The single best thing you can do to head off those expectation violations, LaFreniere says, is to make time to talk through your plans with your partner before the holidays arrive. “People make those plans pretty early,” she says, “so the sooner, the better.” LaFreniere suggests setting aside quiet time for the two of you to talk through exactly where you’ll go (or who will be invited to your place), how long you’ll stay, and any other particulars that feel important. Look for compromise on issues that spark disagreement, and make a plan for what you’ll say to family (and who will say it).
Explain with care: LaFreniere suggests that you communicate your new plan to family members as soon as possible, since last-minute changes may compound the sense of disappointment people may feel if you are abandoning long-held traditions. If you’re delivering that type of news, it’s important to emphasize your love for your family, LaFreniere says. “Reassure them that you love them still, that this isn’t any kind of slight against them or a disinterest in spending time with them, but that maybe this is what is healthiest for your new little family this time.” If you won’t be able to see your child’s adoring grandparents during the holidays, go ahead and set a date for your next visit with them, LaFreniere says, or invite them to come to you. “That way, they know that it’s happening; it’s not just that you’re putting it off forever.”
Make room for new traditions: “A new baby in the family represents a new chapter in life for everyone,” says LaFreniere, “and it would be a great time to start new family traditions.” Negotiating for more time away from big family events is a little easier when you reframe it as the beginning of your own traditions. “That’s time you get to spend creating something new that is special and unique to your little family.” Even though a newborn won’t remember what happens at holiday time, creating a tradition can add meaning for new parents — and become a fun story to tell when the baby is older. “You can start to establish an identity for your own family,” LaFreniere says.
Invest in your marriage: A lot goes into planning the holidays when you become parents, but LaFreniere says the bottom line remains the same: Don’t forget about your partner. “A new baby is already going to take a lot of time and a lot of attention away from your spouse,” she says. “So it’s going to be even more important to make sure that you’re not losing sight of your spouse, especially when you are around extended family and others at the holidays.” Make sure that you know what to do to make your partner feel loved and supported, LaFreniere says — and that doesn’t just mean taking on your share of baby duties. “Changing a diaper might be really helpful,” she says, “but your spouse might not feel really loved by that. Maybe writing a little note or saying some encouraging words are what makes your spouse feel loved. A little bit of encouragement can go a long way.”