Back when I was smugly in my late twenties, I used to say that the holiday season is only as stressful as you make it. By that point in my life, I had developed a series of fool-proof strategies to help me survive Christmas without losing my mind or patience, all of which boiled down to curtailing family visits in favor of regenerative alone time. If I did everything right, I’d enter the New Year feeling calm, restored, and healthy.
Then I became a dad.
When you’re a parent, the holidays are no longer yours. They belong to your children, and your job is to act as a curator of their experiences, weeding out the banal and filling every moment of their school break with excitement and fun. It’s exhausting! Especially when you add in the other family members—namely your child’s grandparents—who don’t just want to see you at the holiday table, but who’d like quality time with your kids as well. Each year, my parents invite us over for long weekend visits larded with Christmas-themed activities and gift giving. Then, just when I think I’ve escaped, they ask to come to our house so they can see it in all of its decorated glory. (Really, it’s not at all glorious.) And that’s only my side of the family. Then there are the in-laws.
In the past six years of fatherhood, the oasis of December “me time” has become a thing of yore, replaced by a minefield of chit-chatty social commitments, outings to crowded places, and plastered-on smiles. This can be seriously toxic for an introverted parent, and what’s more, it can be unhealthy if you have an introverted child as well. To get through the season with your sanity intact, you’ll have to be strong and draw on your deepest reserves of patience. Here’s how I’ve learned to navigate the holidays:
Turn your obstacles into opportunities by relying on the grandparents for help. So my mom and dad want to spend as much time as possible with my son? Well, they can have him! While they order in pizza, watch cartoons, and run him through his bedtime routine, my wife and I will go see a grown-up movie or have dinner with friends. During the day, my little boy is now big enough to help his Nana and Pop-pop set the dinner table and make up trays of cookies, and when those tasks are done, they’re happy playing endless games of Uno or Don’t Break the Ice. This is quality time for them and for me too—I’ll exercise, hide in the guest room with a book, or enjoy an afternoon beer or hike with my wife. There’s no need for the entire family to spend every hour of each day together. Those eager grandparents are the best babysitters you’ll never have to pay, so take advantage of them and get yourself out of the house. Remember, it’s the quality of the time you spend together, not the quantity, that matters.
But why stop there? Rely on your friends for help too. Other parents are in the same boat as you, so organize group play dates to free up time for at least one set of adults. After all, there are plenty of fun things to do at this time of year—from cookie baking to wreath making—and having some playmates around will make those experiences more special for your child. Just make sure that your friends return the favor! Or instead of dividing and conquering, join forces. My family has a holiday tradition of having close similarly introverted neighbors over for Christmas cocktails. We’ll put on Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer for the kids and then cozy around a snack tray with glasses of wine to blow off steam and engage in some quality commiseration about the season’s headaches. A small get together with like-minded folks can be warm, intimate, and refreshing in all the ways that a big Christmas party isn’t.
Speaking of loud, exhausting shindigs, here’s a secret: Bring your child along to parties—only if kids are welcome, of course! Sound crazy? Well, it might be, depending on the child, but my little guy tends to put his best foot forward when he’s allowed to stay up a little late with the grown-ups. At my wife’s annual work bash, he ends up taking the heat socializing-wise: everyone would rather hear what he’s up to in school than make mindless small talk with me. Just when my energy is starting to fade, we have the perfect exit strategy—time to get the boy to bed! For you as an introverted parent, your child can be more of a social asset than liability.
Also, don’t forget to reach out to the single people in your life who might enjoy spending quality time with your child. For me, that’s my brother, who is an awesome uncle but doesn’t have kids of his own. Because of that, he’s not always sure how to play with or talk to my son, so I help him by suggesting things the two of them can do together that don’t involve me. Sometimes, this is as easy as running an errand. Going to the grocery store with dad is boring, but going to the grocery store with his cool-guy uncle is an adventure, especially if I tell my brother it’s okay to buy the little guy a candy bar. I also feed my brother some questions to ask my son so that their conversation stays lively. Usually, with a little coaxing, the two of them end up going together like gingerbread and hot cocoa, while I’m able to step back and have some “me” time.
Remember that as an introvert, your child has needs too, needs that she or he might not be capable of properly managing. Just like my son will suck on candy canes till he gets a tummy ache unless I tell him to take a break, he’ll also get cranky and moody if I don’t enforce quiet—even on the holidays and in the midst of family visits. That means clearly communicating to my parents that he must take a rest in the middle of the afternoon. I also insist that bedtimes stay strict-ish because he becomes crabby and unable to enjoy himself if he doesn’t get the proper amount of sleep. And yes, that requires ratcheting down the energy before bed and engaging in peaceful activities like watching television or coloring—and not, say, wrestling with my parents’ dogs.
It can be hard to discuss both your needs and the needs of your child with family members, in particular extroverts who may not empathize with or understand you. My dad, for example, still thinks I’m overly shy if not downright unfriendly because I’ll hang on the periphery of family get togethers. And it makes both of my parents sad that I don’t want to stay longer at the holidays and pack in more Christmas outings. But as introverts, we have to take care of our mental health, and sometimes that means drawing lines and regretfully saying no. Some people have to watch the New Year’s football game or storm the mall the day after Christmas, gift cards in hand. I need a silent space to refresh my social spirit, and I can’t harbor shame about that. Nor should you or your child.
Finally, and I know this is cliché, but it bears repeating: Relax your expectations. If you think back to your own childhood, you’ll probably remember that in between the tree trimming and gift opening, there were long stretches of boredom. Maybe you watched your favorite cartoon movie for the hundredth time or re-read a beloved book. Perhaps your parents told you to go play outside and amuse yourself. Unstructured solitary time is a normal, healthy part of being a child. It’s how we learn how to daydream, occupy ourselves while waiting, and set personal goals for ourselves (like building the tallest block tower ever!). So in the coming weeks, take a step back every now and again to find some solitude, and try not to schedule social outings on each day that your children are off school. By taking care of yourself, you’ll be setting a good example for your kids.
I hope that this year, you’ll give yourself the gift of self-care without any anxiety or negativity. Turn off the television and lower the Christmas carols. Make time for yourself to be alone. Have yourself a happy, quiet holiday—or at least a quiet-ish one.