- Pumping Irony -

PUMPING IRONY: An Empty-Nest Holiday

When our adult daughter vetoed a longtime Christmas Eve tradition, we were forced to acknowledge all the other ways we can celebrate the season.

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On the holiday-cheer spectrum, I occupy a space just barely on the joyful side of the pre-haunted Ebenezer Scrooge. I’m generally appalled at the materialist trappings of the season, and the assorted social obligations tend to leave me more exhausted than entertained. If there’s anything to be cheerful about, it’s the prospect of spending some time with our offspring — adults who otherwise have better things to do than kibitz with their geezer parents.

So I was a bit miffed to learn during the run-up to our traditional Christmas Eve family dinner that our daughter and her partner had made other plans. The Boss Mare, true to form, didn’t actually reach out to us with the relevant information. We got the lowdown (via text, of course) a few days prior to the gathering after inquiring about their estimated arrival time.

We knew our son, The Young Jarhead, would be spending Christmas Eve with a few hundred other young jarheads on an aircraft carrier floating somewhere between Kuwait and Kuala Lumpur, so his absence was expected. But TBM’s cancellation forced My Lovely Wife and I to abruptly shift gears. Instead of the lively dinner party we’d planned, we suddenly envisioned ourselves stolidly noshing on Swedish meatballs while dutifully draining a bottle of prosecco — in other words, doing our best to pretend it’s not just another Monday night in our empty nest.

And a merry Christmas to you, too.

I’ve always felt a bit chagrined when I realize how myopic I can be when viewing these sorts of family transitions. The kids move out and I wonder why they never call (unless they need money), overlooking the fact that I seldom phoned my parents after I set out on my own (except when I couldn’t make rent). Our nest empties and I wait in vain for an occasional visit, knowing full well that weeks often passed between my own brief appearances at Mom and Dad’s place. Our traditional Christmas Eve celebration gets vetoed and I conveniently forget my own absences at the gift-opening extravaganzas my parents once hosted.

Kids grow up, they leave home, they make their own way. Who knew that would happen to my own offspring?

While I can’t say how many of my Geezerville peers are as oblivious as I am to these generational parallels, I suspect every aging parent must navigate this terrain at some point. As Mothering21 blogger Mary Quigley notes, it’s a transition that few of us are prepared to handle. “For parents of adult children, the holidays can mean abandoning decades-long traditions, and that’s not without some angst,” she writes. “But parents need to adapt to the changing family dynamic.”

Shifting your expectations can be challenging, explains author and psychotherapist Kathy McCoy, PhD, but it may be the only way to avoid spending your holidays fuming over a plate of cold meatballs and flat bubbly. McCoy suggests a few strategies to generate as much cheer as possible:

  • Don’t fixate on a single date.“Maybe your adult children have other commitments during holidays but are happy to visit before or after. And after the initial disappointment upon hearing this news, try seeing this not as a rejection, but as an opportunity to expand your holiday season.”
  • Celebrate in a new way. “If you sense that your adult children are hesitating to get together for the holiday because of economic constraints, you might choose to simplify Christmas this year by suggesting no gifts — except, perhaps, for your grandchildren — and a relaxed day together with all the things you enjoy doing as a family.”
  • Reconnect with your spouse or partner. “With so much holiday activity and attention happily focusing on children and grandchildren, longtime spouses may not have much time for enjoying each other. If the kids can’t come for Christmas this year, seize the opportunity to do something you might not do otherwise.”

I can’t really claim our revamped Christmas Eve dinner sparked any tangible “reconnection” between MLW and me, but we did exchange a couple of gifts and enjoyed a nice meal. I might have felt more of the holiday magic had she not thumped me so thoroughly at Yahtzee after dinner.

Still, McCoy’s advice turned out to be more prescient than I had imagined as the season rolled out. TBM and her partner showed up at a pre-Christmas party my sister hosted, and they dropped by our place at a pre-New Year’s gathering for MLW’s side of the family. And while TYJ was off defending the homeland, we were able to spend Christmas with his wife and her family watching our grandson cheerfully tear open too many presents to count.

And, as we do on every New Year’s Eve, MLW and I cooked up an early dinner, uncorked that bottle of prosecco we’d reserved for Christmas Eve, worked our way through the last of the Christmas cookies, pulled out the board games, and quietly acknowledged that there was, after all, plenty to celebrate.

Especially after I beat her at Yahtzee.

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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