Carving Out Me Time During Holiday Season

Most people use the term “holiday season” in reference to December—with Christmas shopping, family get-togethers, work parties, and New Year’s. For me, it begins much earlier. October breaks me out of my comfort zone by thrusting me into the crowded spaces of Comic-Con, Halloween, Diwali, and Bandi-Chhor Diwas. Then, there’s just a little recovery time before Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.

Yes, we celebrate them all. And it’s a lot of big crowd people-time.

Growing up in different countries, I didn’t need to devise any strategies to combat the extroverted holiday party scene because my immediate family are all introverts. My parents would begrudgingly and selectively accept invitations to various parties, celebrating Eid, Diwali, and/or Christmas. I would go through the process of performing small talk with random aunties and uncles (all adult family friends are called auntie or uncle as a gesture of respect) or other kids my age. In some cases, we’d leave early enough to have our quiet time at home, huddled up in blankets, watching taped-from-TV Christmas movies, reading books, or just sitting around without the obligation of talking. And other times, we’d all have introvert-style hangovers and spend a few days making a point of avoiding interactions even with each other within our house.   

Fast-forward a few years to when I married my introverted wife, Sona, moved to the East Coast, and spent the winter holidays with her very extroverted family. It was hard to believe, but there were even more parties to contend with. No matter the occasion—whether it was a Christmas party, a Diwali party, or a party to celebrate a three-day weekend—there was a pattern of sameness to them all.

We’d stay over in a house full of people, many of whom had come from all over the country. There were conversations on every square inch of space, from the staircase to the corridor. In the evening, there would be more talk, accompanied by alcohol and Indian card games with rules incomprehensible even to the sober.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun spending time with folks we haven’t seen in months or years, listening to hilarious jokes or the latest gossip. But I can literally feel the energy draining as I sit there in the midst of the chaos. It’s the unending Catch-22: I really want to be here, but I also really would prefer not to.     

In the first few years of knowing Sona’s family, I didn’t devise any strategy for self-preservation and would end up fried by the time the New Year rolled around. Wanting nothing but a rest is a terrible way to begin the year.

I needed a strategy.

Ever since we had kids, I’ve tried to use them as excuses to avoid these loud, extroverted spaces, and it’s never worked. When they were born, the entire Indian population in the Tri-State area descended to offer their heartfelt congratulations. Now that the kids are older, they’re super comfortable during the party season. They get to wear fancy clothes, stay up late, fall asleep at the table—DJ music blaring—and then be magically transported to a comfortable bed. They have kids their age to hang out with and adults lavishing them with attention. They also don’t realize until the next day how exhausted they are from the socializing.

There is no universe where the idea of a party not happening or you not showing up would make sense. It’s how extroverts show love, and Desi extroverts double-down on this. Organized criminals hold grudges for less time with less severe consequences than Punjabis who feel socially slighted. I have a cousin who visited a certain Canadian city in 1982 without visiting my aunt who lives there, and this is now an infamous, frequently-referenced part of our family history.

“I need to be alone” is also not an option. It’s akin to telling an Italian grandmother you’re on a carb-free diet and don’t want any pasta. You might as well slap yourself in the face.    

The solution to maintaining my sanity during these holiday parties is to demand me time, away from the crowds, away from my wife and kids—away from people I actually enjoy spending time with—for my own sanity.

But I can’t demand it the way many articles would suggest. It doesn’t work with tightly knit families, especially tightly knit immigrant families like ours. I can’t calmly explain my introverted fantasy and expect to be taken seriously. I can just see the quizzical looks as I tell folks I need me time or space, and I can’t even imagine the response I’d get were I to suggest I stay at a hotel.

Instead, I case out the joint to find out where the quiet areas are. Sometimes—surprisingly—it’s where the kids are. They get lost in play and ignore the adults, so even though it’s not quiet, at least I’m not the center of attention. I will volunteer to drive and pick up groceries or people from the train station. Inside the house, I will make the drinks to escape the crowds.

During most of the year, we introverts can choose to participate in events and control our interactions. Holiday season seems beyond our control, but it’s not. I’m sure plenty of folks can use the advice of asking for me time or privacy, and perhaps with enough persuasion, it would work even with families like mine.

But the truth is I enjoy spending time with the family in all its extroverted mayhem…just as long as I get to log in my introverted time and go into proper introvert mode once the holidays are over!