Dr. Elaine Heffner: The emotions of the holidays
It’s that time of year again, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas — one holiday tumbling right after another. It is an exciting time for children but often a time of stress for parents who have the responsibility of making it all happen. It can take us by surprise that joyous holidays we anticipate with pleasure may also bring with them conflicting emotions.
Each holiday brings with it particular memories for different people. Each family has its own traditions and ways of observing holidays. Individuals grow up in different families where one holiday may have been given more significant observance than another. As parents, we all have memories of what these holidays were like – how they were observed when we were children.
We may not realize the degree to which the holiday itself becomes identified with the particular way it was observed in our own families when we were growing up. We also may not realize that our memories are formed by the experience of our childhood selves seen through the eyes of the children we were and are colored accordingly. As a result, celebrations may feel disappointing when the holidays these days seem not to live up to those childhood memories.
Memories of when we were children are also of a time when we were taken care of and provided for by our own parents. Holidays meant vacation from school and presents rather than the added responsibility and work they mean for us now as parents ourselves. We are expected to be grownups, while perhaps still wanting the remembered pleasures of childhood. A sense of loss may come from the wish, or hope that we will be recreating everything as it was in the best sense, and the discovery that our fantasy is not – cannot – be realized.
Celebrations with extended family can also bring with them another aspect of childhood memories and experiences. Individuals may slip back into old family roles with old rivalries or resentments that we thought had been left behind. As a guest at another family’s celebration, it was interesting to hear an exchange between a brother and sister. The brother in the context of a group conversation made a putting-down remark in the guise of humor to his sister who responded in kind. The edge and feeling in the exchange was unmistakable, evoking an image of them as children.
When a couple unites to create a new family, each brings memories and life experiences that shape their expectations about the meaning of holidays and how they are to be observed. It can be challenging to include or combine aspects of observance that are significant to each partner. The same may be true of decisions about which members of extended families are to be included. Interfaith couples have their own set of challenges in agreeing on which religious observances are to be included in observing particular holidays.
We each bring stories with us from our childhood which we carry forward as parents and inform the experiences we wish to provide for our children. But as a new generation of parents, we need to create our own new stories, combining older values with new realities in a way that works for each individual family. Holidays tend to pull us back to old stories that can be pleasurable to revisit if we don’t get lost in the retelling.
Whether the holidays brings a combining of faiths, of generations, of sibling, or of our childhood memories with our adult selves, being aware of our competing emotions may help us find the joys of the holiday in our own special observances.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.