How to handle heading home for the holidays
We’re over the halfway mark of November, the John Lewis ad is out, and the red cups have been flowing for a week, so I’m going to have to do it: it’s time to talk about Christmas.
I’m so excited to be flying back to the UK for the festivities a month today (a month today!!). I can’t wait to catch up with friends, gorge myself on mince pies, and sit in front of my parents’ open fire with the tree lights glittering whilst my sisters and I settle in for a re-run of the Gavin and Stacey Christmas special. But I have to confess, I’m also already feeling a little stressed. Not because I haven’t started my shopping (I haven’t, but that’s what Amazon Prime is for), or because I’m anxious about flying with a wriggly 16 month-old (it’s 7.5 hours – we’ll survive), but because living far away means that the usual chaos of Christmas parties, family get-togethers, and catch-ups with old friends is amplified ten-fold – especially with a baby in tow. Whilst most people have all year to schedule time with loved ones, faraway families have (if they’re lucky) a few short weeks to squeeze it all in. And it is bloody hard work.
Last year, returning home for the first time with our four month-old, we ran ourselves completely ragged trying to do it all whilst keeping our daughter in as close a semblance to her normal routine as possible (jet lag and multiple changes of accommodation are cruel mistresses). Whilst she was a trooper, my husband ended up sick as a dog by January 1st, neither of us had much time to properly relax, and we returned back to the US far more exhausted than we’d been when we’d left. Not an ideal way to start the new year.
So this year, I’m going to try really hard to adhere to some ground rules – and I’m sharing them in case they are of use to other faraway mums. I hope they might help a little in planning your own trips, and mean you all have the fun, happy and restful Christmas that you truly deserve!
Block-book family time
Believe me, when it comes down to it you won’t spend time feeling glad that you managed a cup of tea with the neighbours you’re not that keen on, squeezed in a few hours with your old colleagues, or made lunch with that family friend you haven’t see for years if it comes at the expense of quality time with the people you are closest to. Most of our friends back home have the option to see their families as often as they want; we, on the other hand, have to stockpile it. Don’t feel guilty about it – you’re not being selfish if you don’t make plans with some people in order to spend more time with your granny.
(*of course I like all of my parents’ neighbours, am fond of all of my old colleagues, and love all my family friends. It’s just, ahem, an example – you know?)
Ask people to come to you
Chances are you’ll already be doing a lot of travelling between family and in-laws – maybe multiple sets if there are step-families involved – and experiencing the joy of living out of a suitcase and packing up each time you move. If you have little ones, you’re also likely to be scheduling visits around naps, feeding and fairly rigid bedtimes – so the last thing you need is to be uprooting them more than necessary. Ask (nicely!) if visitors will come to wherever you’re staying – particularly if they are child-free. Time is precious, you don’t want to be spending more of it on the road than is absolutely necessary, and you can repay the favour to them when they have little ones.
Pack light, and order ahead essentials wherever you’ll be staying
It’s an obvious point, but one not to be overlooked – you’ll already be traveling with three times as much stuff as you’re used to if you’re heading home for the first time with a baby, and you will be coming back with even more thanks to the haul of Christmas presents (no matter how hard you plead, people can never resist gifts for the baby!). You don’t need an outfit for every day you’re away (that’s what washing machines, and helpful grandparents, are for), but you probably will need more muslins and dummies than you think (easy buggers to leave behind when you’re packing up and moving on). We’ve taken to leaving a box of basics – muslins, nappies, wipes, sippy cups etc – at both parents’ houses to save on the stuff we have to cart from place to place, and have also succumbed and bought two travel cots so it’s one less thing to squeeze in to the boot.
Give yourself some breathing space
I definitely made the mistake last year of trying to pack too much in. During the four days we were at my parents’, we had people scheduled in to visit morning, noon and night – it was easier than saying no to well-meaning friends and, if I’m honest, to my own family who wanted to show their new granddaughter / niece off. It meant we felt like we were ‘on display’ all the time, my poor husband – for whom this was a rare two weeks off work – didn’t get a break, and we missed out on some of the simplest joys of Christmas – putting our feet up in front of the fire and not doing anything! This year, I am vowing to give us some spaces in the calendar to sit back and enjoy the season without too much going on. Pass the Terry’s Chocolate Orange please.
You’re more than just a mum, so plan time for the other sides of you
It’s very easy to fall in to the trap of making it all about the kids – particularly if you’re travelling home for the first time with a new baby. Of course you want to make the trip as easy on them as possible and things will inevitably revolve around them, but it’s also really important to take some time to remember you’re a daughter, sister, friend etc as well as a mum. Last year I was breastfeeding exclusively (which, let’s be honest, is a massive tie) and was a bit anal about being close at-hand in the evenings in case my daughter woke up in a strange place and needed resettling. This year I’m really going to try to take advantage of having babysitters on tap and make some more time for lunches and pub trips without the baby in tow, so I can enjoy the company of the people I love whilst sitting still for more than five minutes and finishing a meal without having to scoop pasta entrails off the restaurant floor. And the extra one-on-one time this will afford the grandparents with my daughter is a Christmas present in itself, right?!
Reading back over this, I don’t know if I’ve really managed to reduce my stress levels at all. I can’t decide whether to plan to the hilt to find the right balance of fun and rest, or whether to just leave it all until we get home and see what happens. Any advice, or additional suggestions from other faraway mums would be so welcome!! Ultimately, though, I know I have to accept that I’m never going to be able please everyone; I’m going to have to say no to some things; and I need to try not to feel too guilty about it. And with that, I am going to get Love Actually out for its first screening of the season and begin the countdown….one month to go!