Coping as a Couple During the Holidays

By Beth and Carl Smith

Here’s something you should never, ever, ever do. On Christmas morning. In a house full of relatives.

Don’t present your mother-in-law with a “Save the Date” card inscribed with a date eight months in the future. “The day,” you announce triumphantly, “when you will become a grandma.” You will be engulfed in tears and hugs, and feel slightly guilty when she says “I’ve waited so long!” So have we, you think, looking over her head at your husband and remembering the surgery and the ‘sharps’ and the medications crowding your crisper. So have we.

Two weeks later, we had to convey the devastating news that at 10 weeks pregnant, we’d lost the heartbeat of that longed-for child and grandchild.

We are sharing our story with you because we want you to know that you are not alone. Perhaps you’ve also had a loss around the holidays and you cannot reconcile your grief with the vibrancy of the season. Maybe you find yourself in the middle of a cycle with practical concerns about transporting injectables, scheduling blood tests, or finding an excuse to miss an important family gathering for a retrieval or transfer. Probably, like most of us who continue to work toward building a family, you are dreading the kid-centric, relentless push of the perfect family portrait on display between Halloween and New Year’s. Every month seems to bring a reminder that you don’t fit in the picture: adorable trick-or-treaters, a smaller box of Thanksgiving leftovers for “just the two of you,” a missing chair at the Chanukah table. And do we have to mention those seemingly inescapable matching sweater photo holiday cards?

We get it. And we want you to know that starting right now, you can compose a game plan to help you get through – and maybe even enjoy – the season. We’ve had 21 years together as a couple, so we’ve had practice! These tips and tricks have worked for us, and we’ll be dusting them off and using them again this year. Feel free to steal and adapt them to your own family gatherings, work functions, or run-ins with a department store Santa.

Most importantly, remember that all those Facebook posts and holiday cards and perfect family photos have one thing in common: they’re staged. Try re-framing the expectations of your own holiday portrait, and you may be surprised at how much easier it is to survive the holiday season working as a team.

  • Learn how to say no. You can deliver it politely, with or without an excuse. “I’m so sorry, we’d love to attend your party, but we’re away that weekend.” Or, when the clinic has just called to say that your transfer will be tomorrow and Great Aunt Mildred expects you to arrive with two dozen cookies and she’s DEPENDING ON YOU: “Oh, Aunt Mildred, I’m afraid I have to have an emergency root canal tomorrow, it’s just awful, I can’t even LOOK at sugar…” You get the picture. In most cases a dental emergency works as a ready excuse: it’s plausibly sudden, it’s common, and most people don’t want to hear the details. There’s also nothing wrong with saying, “No, I’m sorry, we’re not available” with a regretful look and leaving it at that.
  • Limit your time. Agree beforehand how long you’ll stay. Like a bumpy ride on the Provincetown ferry, sometimes knowing the end’s in sight helps you endure the rough seas. Make the rounds, chat, spend time with the people you really came to see (that’s why you’re there, right?) and know when to leave graciously. This can be accomplished only if you…
  • Have a signal. We can’t stress this enough. Long before the saving grace of a cell phone call or text message, couples had to collude on something less obvious than a kick under the table or the not-so-subtle widening of the eyes. Devise a gesture that works across a room and doesn’t look like you’re telling Ellsbury to steal, or come up with an innocuous phrase that is code for “I can’t take this anymore and if I don’t get out of here soon I’m going to snap this wine glass in half.” If the signal fails – and it might take a few cocktail party tries – fall back on “OMG GMO” (that’s text for OMG, Get Me OUT!).
  • Give yourselves a break. Don’t go to the work event / family gathering / friends’ party. (See above for tips on declining graciously.) You can say no. If it will be too hard for you to be around kids, or to try answering the well-meaning second question at every cocktail party (after “What do you do?” always comes “How many kids do you have?”), or to dodge the nosy family-planning inquiries of Cousin Robert, stay away. Your sister-in-law may call you to try to lay on the guilt, and your mother may probe your decision, but you have the right first and foremost to take care of yourself. And let’s face it, you’re exhausted. So consider this:
  • Give yourselves a break – literally. Take a vacation, just the two of you. Do something you love doing together: hiking, skiing, savoring a meal, catching a play. Even if it’s just an overnight to recharge in a new place without anyone around who knows you, make time to reconnect. Agree to not discuss the “kid thing” for the entire time. Your family may miss you, and it may seem like a big deal at the time, but they’ll get over it. And you’ll have some great stories to tell when you get back.
  • Here’s a secret: you can have a sense of humor. There will be times when you just want to hold each other and cry during the holidays. I vividly remember abandoning an armful of gifts and racing out of a store in tears when I heard “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” one too many times. But there will be unexpectedly light moments, too, and sometimes you can make them happen. (This usually comes at the expense of your family, but think of it as their gift to you.) We devised a “Family Phrase Bingo” game. Brainstorm phrases that your family will inevitably use during your holiday visit, and write them down on Bingo cards. Our favorites are: “So, when are you two starting a family?” and “You’re not getting any younger” to “Look at that pass!” and “Belichick is a genius.” Mark off the phrases you’ve heard. Bonus points if someone announces their pregnant. As hard as the visit may be, you’ll share this secret game and know that you’re in this together. And if someone utters your “signal phrase,” BINGO! You’re free to go home now!

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