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How to Get Through the Holidays When You’re Feeling Like Crap

I’ve written a post like this every year, bringing together all the advice from the years before (my own and what appeared in the comment section) and then opening it up to additional ideas (which will be brought next year into the new post as well).  Because this time of year can be both impossibly difficult or impossibly wonderful depending on which side of the happiness line you fall, and I say that even as a non-Christian who doesn’t need to do anything more than participate in a volunteer project and eat a bunch of candy canes on Christmas.

Holidays are a lot of pressure — to get them right, to coordinate schedules/needs/wants, to navigate relationships, to travel.  For some people those pressures are additionally pressed down by the knowledge of people missing from the table — either those who were once here or those who haven’t been brought into your family yet.  And compounding it all is this ongoing message that holidays must be fun.  They must be a happy time.  That families draw together and eat a spiral ham in front of a roaring fire with a sparkling tree in the background.

For people who are happily moving through the holiday season, especially those finally celebrating after many dry years, I lift my virtual glass of champagne to you and send you off to enjoy it.  Don’t apologize for being happy — just soak in this time.

For anyone else still sticking around to read this, remember that everyone experiences something in life that makes a particular year or set of years difficult for them. That for every holiday season that you enjoy and look forward to participating in, there is also a time in life where you dread all the reminders that come with a holiday season and wish you could avoid the whole thing. And this year may be that time for you, but it won’t always be that time for you.  Things change; both for good and bad.  This too shall pass.

You can sit out of the festivities if that’s what you need to do, but a survival guide is sort of like holding your breath to eat (you know, so you don’t taste anything) when your mother asks you to try lima beans. Like slimey green lima beans, going to events is usually good for you, and it’s important to be around people who care about you when the going is tough. You just may need a trick for getting through family time just as mouth-breathing (and not tasting) works for choking down undesired foods.

I’ll offer up the same advice I gave the last year three years with additional notes from comments that came on those old posts:

  • Create your own incentives and treat getting through the holiday season as your job. Pay yourself in whatever will make you happy. For instance, after a trip to the local mall to have your picture taken with your niece and Santa, pay yourself with a manicure. Attending the holiday party from hell may win you an entire bar of chocolate. It’s worth setting up small incentives and budgeting for your own happiness because it can be something to focus on during the task at hand.
  • You know the idea that you can take a large school and make it small but you can’t go the other way around? Flip that concept when it comes to the holidays: take a small part of the holiday and make it big. Focus on something that you can do and make it your contribution to the holiday season. If you know celebrating Christmas will be too much, make sure you throw yourself wholeheartedly into helping prepare Thanksgiving (and then develop an unfortunate case of the stomach flu on December 24th). If you can organize the family gift but can’t fathom how you’ll do Christmas dinner, make sure you send out an email to your siblings early asking for photos of your nieces and nephews so you can design a great picture calendar for your parents. And then skip the ham.
  • Do all your shopping online instead of subjecting yourself to walking past the displays of toys and Christmas baby clothes at the store. Keep it simple this year – you have a lifetime to plot out the most fantastic gifts of all time. This may be the year that you need to buy a DVD or book for each person your list and be done.
  • Leave a note in your pocket: write a note to yourself, ask a friend to jot something down, trade letters with your partner, or simply leave a list of names (therapist, fellow bloggers, the friend you’ll drink with the moment you get home) in your pocket to touch as a reminder that someone has your back when you begin to feel overwhelmed at the holiday table. I can’t be with you at your Christmas dinner (the whole Jew and vegetarian thing aside, I just don’t think your family is going to be cool if you drag along a random blogger), but I can give you a note right now to keep in your pocket. Simply print this out and whenever you get overwhelmed, touch it and remember that there are people out there who get you. And change the line about mini hot dogs if you’re a vegetarian:

Hey Sweetie:

I know it was really hard to come to this party/dinner/get together but now that you’re here, you’re even closer to it being over. Try to enjoy yourself, but if you can’t, nip into the bathroom for a cry or bury yourself at the buffet table and do nothing but eat mini hot dogs for the rest of the night. There is no shame in enduring rather than enjoying and you need to do whatever you need to do to get through this without ruining any relationships. Make sure you take time for yourself today/tonight after you get home. I’m here on the other end of the computer if you need me.


  • Pick and Choose: there is no rule that says you must attend every event during the holiday season – even if you’ve gone to everything in the past. If it’s going to cause more grief than it’s worth, just attend the event. But if you can get your partner to “surprise” you with a holiday trip, all the better.
  • Book: I actually include a lot of ideas like these in Navigating the Land of If to get through life in general; not just holiday. I’m just saying.
  • I will tell you the only trick I have up my sleeve: the holiday card. Most holiday cards we receive are either generic package-of-12 types or pictures of kids/families. We send out cards every year that routinely get responses that it was the best card they’ve gotten all year, or sometimes the best card ever. Sometimes one fabulous photo of us in some fabulous locale; sometimes a whole series around the world (which it will have to be again this year). We used to just have a normal photo card, but now we include a newsy update of career progress and travels. The people with kids (or limited funds, or limited outlook) say, “Wow, your life is amazing. I’m stuck here at home.” I’m not trying to make them feel envious of us, but envy is way better than pity. –Baby Smiling in Back Seat
  • All of our friends have been sending photo X-mas cards in the past years. In previous years, we’d send an awesome vacation photo. Like- heh!- we still had fun this year!–Mrs. Spock
  • One tip I figured out early on: If you can’t shop online & have to go to the mall, find out what hours Santa will be there — & then go when he’s not around. There won’t be as many kids & babies around to deal with then. –The Road Less Travelled
  • I manage to work in a reference to Katie in every edition of our Christmas letter … usually in relation to our volunteer work. But I like being able to remind people that she was real & is still a part of our lives. My Christmas card itself usually has either an angel or Classic Pooh theme (which was also the theme of her nursery). I know other people who use angel stamps on their cards as a subtle reminder of their lost baby(s). –The Road Less Travelled
  • This year I solved my problem in the cowardly fashion … I offered to work. I work at a domestic violence shelter, which is open 24/7 … So I figure I might as well. I can get paid double time as well, so it’s all sorts of awesome. –An Unwanted Path
  • I started listening to holiday music in August this year. I’m using it as my own private technique for connecting with the joy of the season early enough that I won’t suddenly get trampled in the crush of child-centric images, events, and conversations coming my way during the actual season. I want this year to be different! –Lisa
  • Instead of focusing on what I can’t handle, I’m heading into the season excited about the possibilities of the new traditions TH and I will make this year. I’m just going to roll with the punches. If I’m really excited about putting up the tree, we’re going to do it and not wait. If I can’t handle being around our nephew, TH can go and I can stay home. I’m not going to force myself into any situation, and I’m just going to accept where I am and be there. –Kim
  • I just bought three bottles of my favorite wine yesterday to take to my mom’s… and I don’t plan to share any of it. –Guera!
  • I think I’m going to plan something for just me and my husband so we’ve got an event during the holiday season to look forward to. It’s either going to be going out to a really nice restaurant or going on a trip (or possibly both!).  —Sushigirl
  • I’m a big fan of lights. Lights inside and out of the house. But putting up the tree where cute handmade kid ornaments should be was always too hard. So I just put up lights – it goes back to finding out what you can do to enjoy the season and doing it. —BigPandMe
  • Two years ago at Christmas right after my 3rd miscarriage I was in a really bad place and dreading the holidays. My mom suggested that instead of our normal Christmas Eve meal we make homemade Chinese food – egg rolls, stir fry, etc. It turned out great and for whatever reason not having to face the traditional meal made it so much better. Don’t get me wrong – it was still really hard – but I got through it and was happy that I spent time with my family instead of avoiding the whole holiday. –Becky
  • And “work” can also mean volunteer work. Nobody is going to get mad at you for selflessly devoting your time and skills at a soup kitchen instead of sitting around the family table (or for rushing from the family table to do said work). Or they might, but they’ll end up looking like the bad guy, not you. —Bea
  • Remember it’s just a day. It has now power. You don’t have to enjoy it. Lots of people don’t. —Mali
  • Sometimes things suck, and sometimes, you have to feel what you’re going to feel while things suck. That it’s okay to mourn and it’s okay to cry and it’s okay to not pull yourself up by the bootstraps based on someone else’s timetable rather than your own. And that sometimes, when you push yourself to do something, you find that you actually derived a great deal of peace from the experience. Such as sitting down at the Thanksgiving table when you’re sort of dreading being around people. –Me (from last year)

How do you get through the holiday season when you’re feeling less than your best?


1 Rebecca { 11.16.11 at 8:07 am }

By refusing to stay over, so that I know we can go home when we’ve had enough. Oh sorry, we’ve got the cat to feed, we can’t possibly stay longer…

2 April { 11.16.11 at 8:28 am }

For Thanksgiving, we invite everyone to our house. This lets me throw myself into getting the house ready for everyone and cooking a big meal and I don’t have the time for the questions. For Christmas, I remind myself that I can make it through the day and then when it’s done, I can go home and have a glass of wine and I’ll be ok.

3 Amy { 11.16.11 at 8:33 am }

As someone who had (is having) a happy IF ending that resulted in children, I find myself very aware of the depression of holidays past. So this year, I’m doing two Christmas cards: one for family and other friends who experienced a happy IF ending, and one for those who are still waiting with empty arms. The first will, of course, include a picture of our family and children and all the enjoyment of the past year. The second will be less “kids in your face” and more “Happy Holidays, we love you.” I remember how much it stung to get Christmas cards in the mail of new babies and young families that I wanted so badly for myself. I just can’t do it to my friends how I KNOW are enduring the same heartache.

4 HereWeGoAJen { 11.16.11 at 8:51 am }

I always like this post every year. Even though we’ve reached enough of our happy ending, I am totally going to need to use a few of these this year.

5 Carla { 11.16.11 at 9:17 am }

I was hoping you would do this post again—thank you Mel!

6 Meredith { 11.16.11 at 11:06 am }

I really appreciate this post, thank you so much Mel. The tip about taking a small part of the holiday and making it big really inspires me. For me, that’s Christmas cards and gifts. It’s extra important this year that I give thoughtful gifts because my brother-in-law died two months ago, and last Christmas he gave everyone the most thoughtful gifts and loving cards.

Our families are coming to us in NYC and I’ve been overwhelmed by all I need to plan and prepare. 4 of us will be staying by the East River and 5 by the Hudson. I’m hoping that generating ideas early, asking people what their top 3 NYC activities would be , and then proposing tentative plans might work. A simple thing like having maps and prepaid Metro cards for everyone could help make things less chaotic, fingers crossed…

7 Beth { 11.16.11 at 11:12 am }

This post is so helpful! I’m in my rookie season of IF treatments and I have a sister in law due to have a baby right after Christmas. To say it’s been difficult is an understatment.

My husband is a chef, so naturally we cook the holiday meal. I’m launching myself into getting recipes and the house ready. It cannot be decorated enough this year!

8 Denver Laura { 11.16.11 at 11:31 am }

A couple of years ago, I got lazy and didn’t even put up a tree. We didn’t cook any special meals, no family came over and we weren’t invited to any parties. We didn’t have any kids, so why bother right? It was the worst Christmas ever. No traditions meant it was just another miserable weekend to be depressed.

So even though it’s a PITA, I put up a tree. Last year we fried chicken on Christmas Eve for our foster kids so it’s likely we’ll carry over that “tradition” this year.

I punch holes in the cards and hang them on the tree (saves having to store ornaments year to year). I tend to hang the kid pics on the back of the tree. It’s nice to see my friend’s kids growing up but I don’t need to be reminded every day about it.

9 Molly { 11.16.11 at 1:03 pm }

Love this post. Perfect timing, thanks for putting these ideas together!

10 Pam/Wordgirl { 11.16.11 at 1:08 pm }

I’ve been thinking of this a lot in this particular season — which has increasingly over the years — instead of being something to enjoy with our family — as something to endure. The holidays itself seem filled with ghosts of so many people’s unmet expectations — I am trying to focus on my partner and the really wonderful moments we’ve experienced together — I find if I can re-orient myself with good memories I can reinvigorate the holidays for W & Z. I’m still figuring out the culture of our family when we’re sharing W with another family — it makes things incredibly difficult. Things are a bit dark this year and luckily we have a place to escape to — as a last ditch effort we may just leave town to escape our mothers.

Well that was uplifting 😉

11 Mali { 11.16.11 at 1:53 pm }

1. Ignore the “Christmas is for kids” school of thought. I hate that. It’s for everyone who wants it. You’re allowed to enjoy it whatever way you want to. Or not.
2. Make it your own. Establish your own traditions, special food, or decorations.
3. If it is going to be too much for you, then escape. We’ve taken advantage of the extra days off and have been lucky enough to be able to escape somewhere where we’re completely anonymous. Being in another time zone helps too. It is liberating to escape a little from the burden of sadness. But don’t do it if you’re going to feel sad and alone and wishing you were with your family.

12 loribeth { 11.16.11 at 2:13 pm }

I love this annual holiday tipfest, Mel — even though I’ve seen it many times, here & in other forums, it never hurts to be reminded & there are always some great new ideas & perspectives that pop up.

13 amy { 11.16.11 at 5:17 pm }

Thank you!
I am dreading the holiday season because Mark and I will be on our own. No family meals, or parties. The friends all have plans with thier families. It feels like the holidays are just another way that world is moving on without us.

14 Shelli { 11.16.11 at 7:02 pm }

Your little note in the pocket has saved me over the years, multiple times. Now that infertility treatment is long in the past for me, it is ironic that I still need reassurance around the holidays for many other reasons too. I thank you profusely for saving me from myself. xo

15 Pam/Wordgirl { 11.16.11 at 7:46 pm }

Today I had a terrible fight with my mother who hung up on me and its not even the holidays. I just reread this post and reread your note in the pocket more clearly — thank you for being on the other end of the computer…


16 Kimberly { 11.16.11 at 9:10 pm }

Thank you for this post. It means a lot to hear such wonderful suggestions. I was really dreading this holiday but at least now I can go into it with a game plan and some wonderful ideas.

My trick: Lots of wine and a sober husband to get me home. When everyone is so busy doting on kids or passing around gifts, its easy to just be in the room, but just off to the corner, on the outskirts, enjoying drink after drink. And I also let hubby tackle the “so when are you guys gonna have kids” questions. Now that we are pretty much out to our families about our infertility, those questions should *hopefully* stop and I can just get really interested in my phone and my drink to avoid the pity stares.

17 Justine { 11.16.11 at 9:21 pm }

I actually looked up last year’s post just today … how funny!

I visit my blogger friends online more often during the holidays … it’s nice to know they’re out there. 🙂

18 jen { 11.16.11 at 11:20 pm }

Nice to know you are with me when my friends and family can’t figure out how to be. 🙂 thank you.

19 Emily { 11.17.11 at 12:51 am }

Just being away and being guests for Thanksgiving will be nice. I will force myself to relax. I think this year will be better because everyone knows of our situation now. Thank you for the great ideas!

20 Flowergirl { 11.17.11 at 9:35 am }

This made me tear up just reading it. So agree with doing the shopping on line, mine all done apart from the 3 month old nephew who I have delegated to DH as too much for me.

Over the past 24 hrs, I’ve come up with a plan based on something we did 2 years ago. We’ll have a big breakfast, then go out for a real long walk (10 miles), then we’ll come back and cook a sumptious dinner for the two of us, then in the evening, we’ll head out to the in laws when the children will be in bed and we can just stay an hour or so before being tired and heading home for our beds.

21 Kelly { 11.17.11 at 11:34 am }

I don’t really have anything to add but I definitely appreciate all of the suggestions. The holidays were already hard for me because I lost my beloved grandparents within weeks of each other, one at thanksgiving, one at Xmas. We just found out that IVF # 3 failed, so I’m a bit sad to say that this is just another not so great event that occurs at a time of year that screams “FAMILY” and “CHILDREN”.

My thoughts though are to be both selfish and selfless. I’m going to start working with several charities that I’ve been meaning to start with. I’ve donated thanksgiving dinners to families less fortunate. I’m going to try to organize a “pumpkin pie contest” for my neighbors that are in town for the holidays. I’m finally going to try to start meditating at a fellowship near where I live. I’m turning work travel into personal travel-gonna tack on trips to see my parents and my best friend while doing business on the east coast in Dec.

Oh, and the selfish part (or maybe one more on that list): I’m redeeming some hotel and air points and going to Hawaii. And also donating left over ones to charities.

22 Lora/ still hoping { 11.17.11 at 11:40 am }

What a great list of options! I’m printing out your letter to have with me. This year was supposed to be different, we should be toting in a beautiful two month old to family dinners. Instead we’re still empty handed and broken hearted seeing all the other children and pregnant bellies. Thank you so much for this list, I’ll have it with me!

23 Detour { 11.17.11 at 2:16 pm }

I love this list! I am definitely going to print out your note–LOVE IT.

24 K { 11.18.11 at 9:57 am }

Oh my goodness thank you for this post. I needed it so much. I just got my period and while I’ve decided, after much thought, to “skip” Thanksgiving this year, I actually have a baby shower that Sunday that I may be going to with my pregnant sister-in-law and her mother. Not looking forward to it. My plan is to have all my favorite candies and chocolates in my purse, and maybe a nip or 2 of something creamy and fun like caramel Bailey’s or butterscotch Schnapps. I will definitely be coming back to this post a lot in the next couple months.

25 ourlackoffamilyproblem { 11.24.11 at 8:36 pm }

I had read this post the day you had published it and thought that it was nice and encouraging. Then, today while driving to my parent’s house to celebrate Thanksgiving, my MIL called to inform us, among other things, that my husband’s cousin is pregnant. Oh Joy! It wouldn’t be a big deal since they live several hours away but that extended family always spends the entirety of Christmas day together. I’m going to need your note in my pocket more than I thought!

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