For years, on Christmas morning, my little brother and I woke up before the sun and sat excitedly at the top of our staircase waiting for our dad to come home from his on-call shift so we could race down the steps to rush the Christmas tree and open gifts as a family. My parents would record the madness on an oversized video camera, made famous by Danny Tanner on Full House, while my grandma and aunt drank coffee and talked about memories of their own childhood holidays. As kids, we had no idea what all went into pulling off this magic.

As long as I’ve understood the nuclear family, when I mentioned mine it included my dad, my mom, my little brother, and me. I celebrated every Christmas, birthday, tee-ball game or report card alongside those four.

Even as an adult I struggle to wrap my mind around the fact that I am now a real, live grown-up and the meaning of that phrase has evolved. Somehow it is no longer 1990 and I went from young girl to wife and mama. So now, saying, “my family” means self, husband, and wild, feral children.

As hard as that is to comprehend, what’s harder can be how that change in understanding can impact those we love the most—especially during these momentous and memory-making occasions like holidays.

Growing up in the 80s-90s in the Midwest, most families had holiday traditions that were on repeat each year.

We made our own Halloween costumes, ran the neighborhood trick-or-treating with our friends, and then emptied our sugar-filled pillowcases onto the kitchen table for our parents to check before we worked out trades for our favorite kinds.

In November, we went to school dressed as turkeys or pilgrims for a short week and then loaded up station wagons to head to grandparents where most relatives we only saw once a year would bring a side dish or dessert while the kids sat around a metal-legged card table in the living room with the parents at the grown-up table in the dining room.

When December came, we cut down our own tree or unboxed one that in almost no way resembled actual foliage, dressed it with oversized, brightly-colored Christmas lights, an obnoxious amount of tinsel, and glass ornaments mixed into the reindeer ones we’d made of Popsicle sticks and googly eyes. We opened gifts with family, ate a meal, and then played with our new toys while discarding the hideous sweaters our distant aunt bought us as we were shuffled from grandparent to relative to fourth Christmas.

Well, friend. That stops now.

No more shuffling.

No more loading and unloading.

No more giving gifts out of habit or obligation.

No more rush without rest and doing what stresses us out more than what makes us happy.

As for me and my house, we will take a dang breath!

If you are struggling with the desire to start family traditions of your own but fearing the disappointment that will likely ensue from relatives who are expecting your visit, consider these tips:

1. Boundaries are for both of you.

You aren’t the only one who stresses over the holidays—buying gifts, spending money, endless to-dos, rushing to each event. So freeing yourself up also gives space and permission for someone else to breathe.

Say this: We will miss you all too, but we are excited to start new traditions for our kids and we’d love to get together with you after the holidays.

2. Which would you regret most?

I promise there is no situation where later in life you will look back and regret spending time with your children. People understand that inherent truth.

Say this: The last few years have been stressful with our kids and all of our obligations. I’m sure you remember what that was like. We want to make sure we take time to make fun memories together.

3. The benefits far outweigh the repercussions.

Gently remind the host of how they might have felt when they were raising littles. They’ll get it. And if they don’t, then remember that you set those boundaries for your own mental health and for that of your family and that is never the wrong choice.

Say this: When we run around trying to see everyone, we end up missing out on the simple excitement of spending the time with our kids so we will try and pick a time to get together for a meal soon but it will have to be after the New Year.

Friends, the holidays are an ironic time where we preach of peace and unity, family and faith, but then all run around spending money we know we shouldn’t on people we don’t know well enough to buy anything more meaningful than a scented candle. We stress over menus and cleaning our house when we know everyone will be fed and our kids will just cover our living room with shards of wrapping paper anyway.

None of it makes sense.

So this Christmas, the best gift you can give yourself is the strength to say no when you need to in order to make memories as a family and give your children the gift of your intentional presence. That is what brings peace and rest.

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Brynn Burger

Mental health advocate, extreme parent, lover of all things outdoors, and sometimes a shell of my former self. Parenting a child with multiple behavior disabilities has become both my prison and my passion. I write so I can breathe. I believe that God called me to share, with violent vulnerability and fluent sarcasm, our testimony to throw a lifeline to other mamas who feel desperate to know they aren't alone. I laugh with my mouth wide open, drink more cream than coffee, and know in my spirit that queso is from the Lord himself. Welcome!