A Complicated and Costly Time of the Year to Be With Family

I’m flying out West for the holidays this week and had the above text message exchange with my younger brother, who is clearly a person of few words and, well, I’m not sure if pragmatic is quite the right word here. Direct, perhaps.

I’ve visited my family for Christmas every year since I left home at 18, and each year it feels increasingly like we’re going through the motions of how a family should be during the holidays. The magic of Christmas was lost long ago, and has been replaced with … me making sure to buy an air mattress and send it to my parents’ house so I’ll have something to sleep on during the week I’m in California.

Friends who’ve heard about my annual trip describe it as “Harry Potter going to visit his Muggle family and sleep in the space underneath the stairs,” and it does feel a lot like that, though I feel it might be a little unfair. Aren’t complicated family dynamics and strained relationships ordinary for many of us? Especially during the holidays when money is involved and adult children are figuring out whether it’s worth it to pay for a hotel rather than having to navigate a delicate set of rules that their aging parents have passive aggressively enforced?

This all sounds a bit gloomy, but these holiday trips can get quite expensive, which makes me question why we spend all this money for them in the first place. Mary Foston-English, the assistant director of Stanford’s Faculty and Staff Help Center has one explanation:

Returning home or being with family when one has changed, and when one’s values/expectations about the holidays are now different, can be stressful. It’s easier sometimes to just “go along” with “the way it’s always been” rather than “rock the boat.” People want to belong and feel connected during the holidays. This desire can be so strong that we overextend ourselves emotionally, physically and financially.

I’m not rocking the boat, and I’m going along with the way things have always been. Bingo. So I buy the plane ticket, and rent the car, and ship the air mattress in advance. I’m overextending myself financially. It’s complicated.

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