I am struggling to set a much-needed boundary with my mom around Christmas.
I’m a divorced mom of one, and my ex-husband and I split the holiday. My daughter is either with me on Christmas Eve and then goes to her dad’s on Christmas afternoon or vice versa, depending on the year. We’ve been divorced since she was little, so we’ve been doing this for years.
Our parents live near each other, about three and a half hours away, and we both go down to see our own moms for Christmas. My mom is toxic and guilt-trips me big-time whenever I inform her that I don’t want to come visit. Last year her reaction was so bad that I became physically ill: ocular migraine, anxiety so intense I could barely speak, etc. I caved because I just couldn’t handle her nonsense.
My daughter will be 13 this year. I’ve always dreamed of a Christmas Day we could just enjoy at home, creating our own traditions. I’ve never really been able to do this, because of the split household and the lack of boundaries with my mom. This year my ex-husband has a work gig on Christmas Day, which has presented me with the opportunity to stay home and enjoy the day with just my daughter and our cats. My daughter is getting older and the years of having her at home are numbered. As of right now, my mom thinks we will be down on Christmas for our “fancy dinner.”
I buckle because I’m a people pleaser and can’t handle the guilt trip. Last year she said, “I guess adopted children just love differently” in response to my saying I’d like to stay home and maybe hang with a friend instead. I’m 42 and I struggle to say no. So how in the world can I set this much-needed boundary with my mom? I have zero desire to visit. It ruins the day, and I love Christmas.
Many people struggle to express what they want to their family members, and this is especially true during the holiday season, which comes with heightened expectations layered upon old patterns and wounds. Issues around gift-giving, visiting, travel, and hosting tend to be not just about the question at hand, but about feelings related to how individuals in the family have felt loved, prioritized, controlled, or appreciated. Because of this history, often there’s a fear of how unpleasant the conversation might be, so people either avoid having it entirely (which creates more resentment), or initiate it in a way that sounds uncaring (which creates more conflict).
For this reason, before I suggest how to set this boundary, let’s consider the way you’ve framed your holiday dilemma. You describe your mom as “toxic” and her expression of perceived rejection as “nonsense.” You might understandably find her behavior frustrating, but as soon as we begin labeling people and their reactions, any compassion for their experience diminishes and we become dismissive of their feelings. This doesn’t mean that your mom’s feelings should supersede yours. It just means that you will get better at stating your wishes when you can make space for both.
To do this, you’ll need to hold two things at once. First, as an adult, you absolutely have the freedom to spend Christmas as you wish. Second, it’s natural that your mom would want to spend this day with her daughter and granddaughter, and that she would feel especially disappointed not to at a time when it seems as if most people will be with family. For her, the “fancy dinner” tradition might be something she never had as a child and wanted to create with her own daughter (like your wanting to create a tradition with yours). Or Christmas might have been a happy time that she looked forward to every year, and looks forward to even more now that her family has moved away.
In addition to whatever personal associations your mom has with family holidays, in our culture the holidays take on extra significance because their commercialization makes them inescapable—the seasonal music at the grocery store and the mall, the ads during a TV show you were enjoying, the decorations on neighbors’ homes as you walk down the street. If your holiday isn’t coming together in the way you’d hoped, it’s easy to feel left out of something that seems to include every other person.
Given her comment about adopted children and parental love, she might also have her own long-standing feelings of “otherness” for not being able to have a biological child, if that was the case (many adoptive parents are made to feel “othered” by society), and those feelings may inform her perception of being othered once more (“Everyone else is spending Christmas with their families—yet again, I’m different”). The point is that there are many reasons she might feel anything from sad to excluded to abandoned at the idea of not spending Christmas with you and your daughter.
To be clear, none of this is your responsibility—asking you to consider her feelings isn’t the same as guilt-tripping. What I’m encouraging instead is the practice of what’s called mentalizing: imagining her internal experience while also being able to hold on to your own.
Why does this matter? It’s easy to fall into the trap of viewing a parent in a binary way—they’re good or bad, healthy or toxic—and in doing so, we become narrow-minded ourselves. In reality, her feelings are reasonable, and so are yours. By acknowledging this, you might still disappoint her, but you can approach her with empathy so that your boundary is presented less as a rejection and more as an invitation to connect with some flexible alternatives that you can both enjoy.
Considering your mother’s feelings and your own together can help you come up with an arrangement that works for you and, with that clarity, set a compassionate boundary. You might, for example, decline the usual celebration but offer to visit her the week after. Or you might decide to go for New Year’s (or, in the future, for Thanksgiving) instead of Christmas. Or you might do neither, and send her something that arrives on Christmas so she doesn’t feel forgotten, along with a heartfelt card: “Merry Christmas! We love you and are thinking of you! We’ll FaceTime you later!”
As you decide what feels comfortable, don’t forget to check in with your daughter—does she enjoy the “fancy dinner” with her grandma, or does she want to stay home with just you? She’s old enough to have a preference, and by including her in this decision, you’ll be modeling for her that you care about how she wants to spend the holidays, and that she’s not there just to satisfy your needs. Remember to frame this without complaining about her grandma, which puts her in an awkward bind between two family members. It can be as simple as “Because your dad’s away this year, I thought it might be fun to relax at home this Christmas, and we can see Grandma on such-and-such date instead. Does that sound good to you, or would you rather go to Grandma’s that day?”
Now, as for setting the boundary with your mom, you could send an email that goes something like this (I’ll call your daughter Jane for simplicity):
I want to let you know that this holiday season, Jane’s dad will be away, and we have the opportunity for the first time since the divorce to stay in one place and not juggle homes this year. We haven’t spent a single Christmas together in our own home, just the two of us, without the usual three-hour drive and splitting Jane’s time. Jane is 13, and I only have a few more years with her here, so we’re going to spend Christmas at home, the two of us.
I know you feel disappointed, and I completely understand that. As a mom myself, I imagine I’d feel the same way if Jane wanted to spend Christmas away from home. But as difficult as that would be for me, I’d also want Jane to spend the holiday in a way that works best for her. You once said something that surprised me—that “adopted daughters love differently”—and I found that comment confusing because that’s not how I feel, and my being adopted has no bearing on how I decide to spend the holidays. At some point in her life, Jane will choose to spend Christmas with her partner’s family, or with her dad, or with her friends, and despite how much I’d want to see her, I’ll know that I’m giving her my love by supporting her wishes, and that she’ll feel closer to me because of that. That’s what I hope happens with you and me—that you can love me by honoring my wishes, and know that loving me in this generous way makes me feel closer to you.
Of course, we would still like to see you, and wonder if we can find another time to come visit the following week to celebrate together. Let me know your schedule, and we’ll figure something out.
Once your boundary is communicated, your job is to manage your own response, not the other person’s. Your mom might send her usual dose of guilt, but remember: Just because someone sends you guilt, doesn’t mean you have to accept delivery. You can reply, “Mom, I know you’re disappointed, but I’m not discussing this further—let me know another day we can come visit the following week, otherwise I have to go now.” Alternatively, she might show her hurt by not responding, or talking badly about you to relatives, but that’s beyond your control. Part of setting a boundary is deciding how you will respond, and if you stay home with your daughter but still feel guilty, that’s something you’re doing to yourself. Instead, I hope that you’ll give yourself a long-overdue gift for Christmas this year: a beautifully wrapped box of self-compassion.
Lori Gottlieb is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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