“There’s no place like home for the holidays,” croons Perry Como in the traditional holiday song, urging families to “Put the wife and kiddies in the family car/For the pleasure that you bring when you make that doorbell ring/No trip could be too far.”
But when the trip home for the holidays is too far and too stressful, you might be better off staying put.
“I think there is a tendency to idealize a return home and downplay the stress,” explains Hans Meyer
, LCSW, a senior social worker with The Menninger Clinic’s Pathfinder
community reintegration program, who regularly counsels patients about family issues. “And if we plan a trip based on an idealized view of what we wish our family was like, we may get there and realize the experience doesn’t meet our expectations.”
Travel adds stress to the already stressful holiday season, Meyer adds. A 2008 American Psychological Association holiday stress poll
showed that more than eight out of 10 Americans anticipate stress during the holiday season, with households with children more likely to report anticipating stress than those without.
Don’t feel up to any additional holiday stress? Meyer says you may want to consider skipping this year’s trip if you notice these signs:
You dread going home. “If you are stressed just thinking about going home, or you and the other parent are not able to agree about anything related to the trip, then going may cause more harm than good,” Meyer says. “It is time to step back and consider your feelings.”
The trip is not your idea. Often families make the annual holiday trip home because they are expected to—not because they want to. Traveling home may be worth the stress of the visit if a family member is ill, or you haven’t seen your family in a long time. However, if you feel it would be best to stay home this year, you have the right to honor your desires.
You are worried about money. For families on a budget, travel expenses add to the cost of the holiday. Meyer suggests families ask themselves, “‘What is the likelihood that the financial burden of such a trip could cause stress that could last far beyond the holidays?’ ‘Is this a good financial decision for us at this time, and if not, why are we going?’”
Two words: young children. A father of two young boys, ages 3 and 5, Meyer says he and his wife prefer to stay in Houston for the holidays, rather than enduring the travel hassles of trekking to his hometown in Minnesota. “There are a million sources of stress when you travel with young children—from dealing with increased airport security and flying on a plane with a cranky toddler to sleeping arrangements at your destination that aren’t always ideal for kids,” he adds.
You want to do your own thing. “Depending on your family’s stage, but especially if you are newly married and have young children, you may want to develop traditions on your own,” Meyer says. He and his family started a new holiday tradition last year when they decided to get their tree from a Christmas tree farm. Together they selected and cut the tree, loaded it in the car, took it home and decorated it. “From start to finish my kids were part of this really neat process that added to the richness of the holiday.”
Should you stay or should you go?
Still having problems making a decision? Meyer suggests “playing forward” the holiday visit in your mind, and envisioning what the trip might actually be like. “When we have an idealized view of our family it’s easy to lose sight of our previous experiences of returning home. Try to remember what went well, what you didn’t like, and think of how the gathering might be the same or different this year,” he says.
If you decide to stay home, explain the decision to your family honestly and far in advance of the holiday. You can also make arrangements to visit at a less busy time of year. While you may feel guilty about not going home, that doesn’t mean you are making the wrong decision, Meyer emphasizes.
“My hope is that a person can start to feel a sense of ownership when they make decisions for their immediate family,” Meyer says. “If you’re going against the grain that can be difficult, but it can also be empowering.”