Balancing time with extended family

By Published On: February 1st, 2010

P&N shares tips for balancing time with grandparents. When I […]

P&N shares tips for balancing time with grandparents.
When I was growing up, my holidays were spent shuffling from one side of the family to the other—and since my parents are divorced and my mother remarried, that was a grand total of three extended family gatherings I had to sit through, not counting the celebrations at home and at my dad’s house. I dreaded Thanksgiving and Christmas the way most people dread going to the dentist.
My parents’ divorce was ugly and they never quite forgave each other for whatever indiscretions took place, so my brother and I were often in the middle of a huge fight over who “got” the kids for which big day. And to be blunt, it seriously sucked. I never want my own children to be in that uncomfortable place.
But when my oldest son’s first birthday rolled around, it was a family feud all over again. Is there any way to keep family shindigs from becoming a headache for new moms and dads when their families just can’t get along?
Vicki Panaccione, PhD, child psychologist and founder of the Better Parenting Institute, says, “short of the wisdom of Solomon (i.e. cutting the kid in half), someone is usually [going to be] upset. Begin with the premise that everyone loves [your child] and needs to do what is in her best interest.” If extended family is giving you a hard time, whether they’re trying to take it over or tear it apart, it might be time to take a tough love approach.
“I flat out told my mother that if she couldn’t be civil to my stepmother, she wasn’t invited to my daughter’s birthday party. I really wanted her there, but I really didn’t want another family fiasco, and it was the only option I could come up with,” says Kate (last name withheld), a mom of two in Atlanta. Her mother finally realized how out of control things had become and the effect it had on the rest of the family, and has been pleasantly civil at every party since. “Sometimes I think parents, even our own, just need something thrown right in their face to really see it.”
My husband and I laid some ground rules that have made birthdays a whole lot easier: 1) The party is at our house, no one else’s. 2) Although we’re happy to have input from our many mothers (and boy, do we get it!), we set the guest list. 3) Our siblings act as buffers to keep apart any people who might get snippy so we can focus on what the day is really all about: our growing little boy. We reciprocate at their parties. It’s a not-so-perfect solution for a not-so-perfect family, but if it buys me two hours of peace, it’s good enough for me!
Keeping the peace all year long
The holiday season may seem a long way off, but it will be here before you know it. (Have you noticed how time flies since your baby was born?) Plan ahead by:
Starting traditions. The “birthday at home” rule worked so well for us that we extended it to include Christmas—anyone is welcome to visit, but my immediate family always spends Christmas Eve and Christmas day at home. (It’s much more enjoyable than rushing from one dinner to another, and my kids get to actually play with their new loot!)
Thinking of others. If Thanksgiving has always been a huge deal for your mom and is just another day for your hubby’s family, let your mom have her day. You can’t make everyone happy, but if something is important to someone and you can make it work, it’s a nice gesture.
Tips from a pro
A few recommendations from Dr. Panaccione on making parties with bickering relatives a little more festive:
“Convey that in the eyes of the children, [the grandparents] are all family.” No matter what feelings lie underneath, no one wants to negatively affect their grandchildren.
Keep it simple. “Reserve time that is strictly for your own small family. That way, everyone else is excluded equally.” (No “she got more time!” wars.)
“Be careful not to let the gift-giving get out of hand or turn into a one-upmanship event.” If one grandparent tends to give extravagant gifts, ask them to save it for a quieter time.