Thanks, in part, to pop songs and treacly movies, there’s still a widespread belief that there’s no greater tragedy than not being “home” (whatever that means when you’re a grown-ass adult in the year 2020) for the holidays. Not spending a major holiday with your family of origin for the first time is a rite of passage—for you and for them.
The holidays tend to make people emotional, as does admitting that your kid is growing up and developing a life of their own. As such, these conversations can be super fraught.
If this year marks the first time that you’re not planning to spend the holidays with your folks—whether that’s because of the pandemic or for some other reason—and, uh, they don’t know that yet, here are some tips for telling them.
Give yourself permission to not go home.
Feeling confident in your decision is, I think, one of the most important aspects of communicating news someone else doesn’t want to hear. If you don’t feel right about it, you’re more likely to waver, over explain yourself, be talked out of it, or make excuses that are untrue or disingenuous. So before you talk to your family, think about all of the reasons your plans make sense and are OK. If you’re feeling really guilty, you might even want to make a list—for your eyes only—with your thought process. That might look something like…
- Traveling and celebrating the holidays during a pandemic is incredibly risky for a number of reasons and I’m just not comfortable doing it.
- It doesn’t make sense for me to spend this much time/money/energy to make this trip.
- I get so few days off, and I’d like to use them to relax and recharge, not to travel to my boring hometown.
- I’m an adult now, and I’d like to start establishing my own holiday traditions.
- I don’t even like this holiday that much.
- I’m no longer willing to spend days that are supposed to be uplifting and special with people who don’t really accept me, or who criticize and disparage me every chance they get.
- It’s completely reasonable for me to want to be with my partner on this holiday.
- I’d like to be in my own home for the holidays.
- [Insert sibling] hasn’t spent the holidays with family every single year and it’s been OK.
- This is something that every family has to navigate at some point, and I think it’s time.
- Lots of people don’t spend the holidays with their parents and it’s not that big of a deal—regardless of what Hallmark movies want us to believe.
Again, these aren’t thoughts to share with your family, necessarily—the point of this exercise is to help you stand firm if/when someone starts making emotional pleas for you to reconsider.
Tell your family about your plans as soon as you’ve made a decision… or, if it makes sense, as soon as you start considering not going home.
In general, it’s kind and courteous to let someone know as early as possible that you won’t be attending an event they’re expecting you at, and your family deserves that same respect. There’s a chance that they’ll make other plans as well—like booking a just-for-two vacation, making arrangements with friends, or simply cooking different foods—and the longer you delay, the more inconvenient and difficult it will be for them to have a holiday they feel good about. (And the better they feel about their alternative plans, the less likely it is to sting.) Also, the more time passes, the more instances there are likely to be in which they’ll say things like “we can do x in December when you’re home” and you’ll have to lie (either directly or by omission). You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where they are (understandably!) pissed at you for not saying something sooner. So communicate your “no” RSVP to them as soon as you make that decision.
In some families, it might make sense to say something a little sooner—e.g., “I’m thinking about not coming home this year.” If they seem like the type who wants to emotionally prepare for something for a while, go for it. If, on the other hand, they are likely to badger you about it every day for two months, hoping to change your mind because the decision hasn’t been “officially” “made” yet, it’s fine to wait until you’re 100 percent sure.
Expect that they’ll be a little hurt and disappointed when you tell them, and give them some time and space to process their feelings.
Remember that you’re going to get what you want here; let that win motivate you to be gracious about the fact that this isn’t the holiday they envisioned for themselves. That doesn’t mean you have to commit to spending the next three Christmases with them, or subject yourself to a 20-minute soliloquy about how you’ve broken your mother’s heart every day in November and December. But try to resist the urge to talk them out of feeling upset.
Instead of writing out an airtight defense or offering a 30-point apology, get comfortable with the idea of simply saying, “Yeah, I hear you” or “I know, and I’m sorry,” and then just… letting them feel their feelings for a bit. Ideally, they’ll get over it once they’ve had some time to process and talk to a couple friends about it. But even if they don’t, try not to let their disappointment make you think you’re a terrible person or that you’ve done something horribly wrong. Families disappoint each other—at the holidays and always—and it’s not great, but it’s fine. And managing their emotions around this isn’t really your job.
Be firm and honest while still being kind.
The tone of this conversation should match how your family talks about holidays in general. If your mom’s been talking about how excited she is to have you co-host her annual cookie party that is basically a family reunion since January, you should probably take this a bit more seriously and make sure what you say is really considered. If your family holidays are fairly informal and all plans are hashed out in the group chat, a private text—that’s still thoughtful, of course—might be fine.
When it comes time to tell them what’s going on, don’t beat around the bush. Say something like, “I wanted to talk to you about the holidays this year. I know we typically do X, but this year, I’ve decided to do Y instead.” That “I decided” is important—it communicates that the decision is final, and that you made it yourself. (Don’t throw your partner under the bus here! Take ownership of your choices!)
From there, you can go into your reason, keeping in mind that this part doesn’t have to be terribly long; pick whatever explanation makes sense to you and that you think your family will be able to grok, and tweak accordingly so it feels right for you.
What to say if the reason is coronavirus:
- “I’ve read way too many stories about small family gatherings ending in tragedy, and I’m just not willing to take that risk.”
- “I’ve barely left my home for the past six months; as much as I love our typical Thanksgiving weekend, I’m just not comfortable traveling, interacting with strangers, or combining households during this pandemic.”
- “I love you so much, and I couldn’t live with myself if I got you sick.”
- “The holidays are the riskiest time to travel because of how many people will be and will have been out and about and mixing households. Airports are also likely going to be way more crowded than they’ve been, and so will planes—airlines want to make money, so they are likely to sell all their seats.”
- “I know that I won’t be able to fully relax and enjoy myself while I’m there, and I don’t want our time together to be burdened by that.”
- “There are so many logistical arrangements we’d need to make—I’d need to quarantine before I go, once I’m there (at a hotel or Airbnb), and once I’m back, and I’d want you to quarantine before I arrived, too. Plus we’d all probably need to get tested within that. It would be really expensive and take so much time and work, and it’s still not a zero-risk proposition.”
- “Even if I did all that, it still wouldn’t be a normal holiday because [siblings/aunts and uncles/grandparents] wouldn’t be there and we wouldn’t be able to do [our annual Black Friday trip to Target/neighborhood cookie party/extended family singing carols around the piano on Christmas Eve]. Honestly I think doing something entirely new and different will feel like less of a bummer than trying to approximate some version of that this year.”
- “We’ve already made it this long without a visit; let’s hold out another few months so that our reunion is guaranteed to only be about enjoying each other’s company.”
- “I would rather stay home this year to ensure that we’re all around and healthy next year, and for the next several years.”
And, if it feels right, you might also want to emphasize that you know this plan isn’t ideal—that you had trouble accepting this reality at first, but that you’ve given it a lot of thought and that you know it’s the right thing to do.
If you can’t afford to travel home:
- “I’ve looked at my budget multiple different ways and have been looking at [flights/hotels/car rentals] for weeks, and I just can’t swing it this year.”
One note: Do not make it about money if it’s not really about money! Lying is never a great move, and you don’t want to open up the possibility they’ll offer to pay or just get you a plane ticket with their credit card points or something.
If you can’t take the time off work, especially this year, when the logistics of testing and quarantine are going to add a lot of days to your trip:
- “My PTO is so limited so I’d have to be back to work by x date, which would mean [complicated and wildly expensive logistical plan for making this all happen].”
- “Since I’m new at this job, I’m not able to take the week between Christmas and New Year’s off work like I have in the past; a trip home for just X days would be really expensive, and so rushed that I don’t think we’d even enjoy ourselves.”
If you’ll be spending the time with your partner’s family instead:
- “Taylor’s parents have invited me to their place for Thanksgiving, and I told them yes since I haven’t been able to go in past years, and I’m really excited to [get to know the whole extended family/spend a holiday with Taylor/travel to Alaska].”
If you just don’t have it in you:
- “As you know, I’ve been stretched really thin lately; I’m incredibly burned out by [work/school/whatever], and I know I’ll feel better if I just stay put for the month of December. As much as I love spending time with you guys, traveling and being away from home for the holidays is pretty taxing, and I am just not up for it this year.
You could also add something like, “I’m also dying to have a few days off to [cook a bunch of amazing recipes/have a little time to relax and recharge/catch up on That Big Project I keep wanting to do].”
If you can’t bear another year around your racist/anti-queer/kind-of awful relatives, especially not this year:
This one is tricky—if you’re not ready to be direct and blow the whole thing up, you might want to go with the “I’m just burned out” or “I don’t have the time off work” excuse. (It’s OK to not be fully honest with people who are abusive.) But if you are ready and able to draw a line in the sand—if the idea of sharing a dinner in close quarters with anti-maskers who love them a QAnon meme is just Too Much and also actually dangerous this year—you could say something like…
- “Honestly, I’m still pretty shaken by [what happened last Thanksgiving/how Grandma reacted to me at sibling’s wedding/all the terrible things you have said to me in the past three years] and I’m not up for spending another holiday subjected to constant criticism and questions about my [grad school plans/gender identity/partner/politics/life choices]. I think it’s going to take a while before I get to that point; I’m not saying I’ll never come home again, but I’m just not willing to pretend everything is OK this year when it’s very much not.”
If it makes sense, you might also add something like, “I don’t want to put you in an uncomfortable position so I’m going to call Grandma and Grandpa and let them know that I’m not going to be there this year because I can no longer tolerate Dad’s racist schtick.”
If possible, share what you’re excited about doing this year versus shitting on your family’s holiday plans.
Setting aside that last situation, in most of these scenarios, you should make a point to talk about what you are excited to add to your holiday this year instead of listing all the things that a holiday with your family lacks.
Saying “I don’t want to spend 18 hours round-trip in transit, just to spend three days in my shitty hometown watching shitty TV shows while we all scroll through our phones and bicker about whether some small slight from nine years ago actually happened” might be true, but they aren’t going to feel good hearing that. Saying, “I’m really excited to get to know Partner’s family, because I haven’t spent much time with them yet” or “I’m really looking forward to [doing Black Friday shopping/attending midnight mass/going to my friend’s iconic Boxing Day brunch] in [current city] and cooking a big meal for [Partner/friends/etc.]” is also true, and isn’t nearly as insulting.
If it makes sense, offer up some alternatives/compromises.
If you can throw them a little bone without it being too draining/expensive/complicated, do that. In non-pandemic years, that might sound like, “We’ll spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning up north with Taylor’s family but we’ll be to your place by 2:00 on Christmas Day” or “I’d rather come visit in the February when there isn’t as much going on and we all need something to look forward to.” This year, it might be more like, “I know it’ll be weird to not be able to open gifts together on Christmas morning, but I was thinking we could all make the same breakfast foods, put on matching pajamas, and use Amazon’s watch party feature to watch Die Hard together.”
Also look for small ways to be generous in the weeks leading up to the holiday and on the day itself. Can you send a replica of your family’s beloved ornament to each of your siblings, so everyone’s trees feel spiritually connected? Get your dad to teach you his iconic seven-hour beef stew recipe over FaceTime? Call a little more often and send more photos of your day-to-day life than usual? Things like this cost you very little and go a long way toward soothing hurt feelings, and toward establishing new traditions.
Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.