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Holiday Survival Guide for When Life is Craptastic

This is apparently the version of Thanksgiving that they teach in kindergarten: the Mayflower came filled with smiling pilgrims who all wore cool hats and shoes with buckles. Wait, no, they were also sad because they had no toys. When they got here, they realized that they didn’t know how to farm this strange new land (because, apparently, dirt is different over here vs. England), but their new friends — the native Americans — taught them. In the winter, they were sad and homesick, and some of the pilgrims were even very ill! But they sat down with their new friends — those native Americans — and made a big dinner to say thank you and celebrate the fact that they were here in a new land. (Though the ChickieNob asked a good question: how does killing animals and making someone else eat them say “thank you?”) They were all happy and sang songs and even did a few dances around the table.

The End.

And that Thanksgiving story is precisely what makes us feel like shit when we come to our own Thanksgiving table feeling less than stellar when our life is craptastic. As kids, we’re told this sanitized version of events because can you imagine your kindergarten teacher telling you the truth?

That out of the 103 pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower, only 53 were alive for that meal? And only 4 of them were women, so good luck with that re-population effort, my friends. And those new friends, the native Americans? 90% had died of leptospirosis a few years before the Mayflower landed. They couldn’t defend their land because there were so few of them still alive. The pilgrims robbed the native American graves for corn stores, creating a strange tension as they tried to build a relationship with the remaining native Americans. But yes, they did sit down for a three day feast that included wild turkeys and deer.

So with all of that shit going down, are you honestly going to tell me that the coping mechanisms of the pilgrims was so fierce that they were able to set aside that small fact that half of their compatriots (as well as spouses, children, or parents) were dead and they were across the sea from anything familiar and grin through the feast?

Are we honestly expected to believe that the pilgrims didn’t bitch about the cold or the fact that they were eating corn that had been in the ground with corpses a few days earlier or the fact that their loved ones were dead — that they smiled and thanked G-d that they were alive, and we’re all supposed to set aside anything we might be feeling and just talk about how freakin’ thankful we are? That we’re supposed to become Suzy Sunshine for one day of the year and grasp to find silver linings in our life even if we’ve just lost someone we love or were downsized from our job or had a miscarriage or broke up with our partner.

Well, call me less self-actualized than the pilgrims, but I can’t set aside everything that is happening in my world when I sit down to a dinner table — even if it’s a dinner that took several days to prepare and the table is populated by people I love (and who love me back regardless of my mood). I can’t let it go, and frankly, I don’t really believe that the pilgrims let it go. But I do think we do a world of damage when we perpetuate that myth and teach it to our kids.

They should know that 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.

Every year, I write a Holiday Survival Guide because I think 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.

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 two 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!

How do you get through the holiday season when you’re feeling less than your best? And are you more like those fictionalized pilgrims or do you bring the weather with you wherever you go?


1 Sushigirl { 11.21.10 at 8:10 am }

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!).

Also, for reasons entirely unconnected with fertility that are too lengthy to go into here, our family are doing Christmas differently this year and having a barbecue rather than the usual roast. For some reason, the knowledge that it won’t be the same as it has been every other year is making me dread it less!

2 AFM { 11.21.10 at 8:12 am }

I plan on spending the entire day in the pool ( benefit of being in the southern hemisphere) and avoiding the rest of the family out the back drinking with the dreaded ” so when are you having #2? on the tips of there tipsy tongues.

3 BigP's Heather { 11.21.10 at 9:07 am }

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.

4 NotTheMama { 11.21.10 at 9:12 am }

Right on time… I can manage to be those fictionalized pilgrims for parties, church things, and family gatherings, but I balance it out by not decorating my house at all – no tree, no outside lights, just life as usual. As long as my mom doesn’t find out my plan, I’m safe! And on Christmas morning, when hubby and I roll out of bed around 9-ish, I think of all the exhausted parents who stayed up late and got up before daylight. I relish in the fact that I am rested, and hope that next year I’m just as exhausted as the rest of our families!

5 PaleMother { 11.21.10 at 9:16 am }

I just loved this, “how does killing animals and making someone else eat them say ‘thank you’?”

6 gingerandlime { 11.21.10 at 9:16 am }

Mel, thank you for this. I wish I had a strategy for the holidays, but my life strategy right now is just to get through each day. I will definitely be putting your note in my pocket (but I may substitute “wine” for “mini hot dogs”).

7 a { 11.21.10 at 9:23 am }

Well, either the Chicago public schools were a little more honest about Thanksgiving or I was a cynic at 5, but I (vaguely) remember being taught about hardship and strife and the Native Americans offering food to help save the Pilgrims from starvation. I’m sure there was some glossing over of the uglier parts, but the tone I got was that the Pilgrims were thankful to not be dead. Which seems to match your mood a little better than the story put out by the schools these days.

I keep my mood at home, these days. My husband has found that spending time with his family en masse REALLY irritates him, so we usually just stay home. It’s actually nice and pressure free. And I think it’s great to teach my daughter to enjoy her holidays on her terms rather than to manage the expectations of others.

8 Michelle { 11.21.10 at 9:40 am }

I knew we would be in the middle of an IVF cycle, or just done, or just canceled for this holiday season.
So I have been shopping for 6 months. I’m hoping to be done soon. I also broke my “have to have a real tree” tradition and bought a fake one. This way I can put it up before the cycle is over, because if I wait till after I may not put it up at all.
Last year I did not decorate at all and my house felt sad and dark. I can’t do that again this year no matter how dark I feel on the inside.

9 jessica { 11.21.10 at 10:29 am }

thanks for the guide, and thanks for the note…..i love mini hot dogs 😀

10 Becky { 11.21.10 at 10:34 am }

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.

11 Rebecca { 11.21.10 at 11:04 am }


12 Randi { 11.21.10 at 12:39 pm }

Mel, these are genius. Thanks so much for that note – I got teary reading it just now and its not even directly only at me! I have a tiny family and pretty much everyone pours their grief and troubles right on the table except me and my dad, we mostly retreat to the television. With surgery coming up this year I’m sure that’s all we’ll talk about this thanksgiving. And my surgery falls on the first night of Hanukka, so all we’re doing is gift cards this year. And thank G-d for that, because my ass will look less lazy if everyone else is doing it this year 🙂

13 Foxy { 11.21.10 at 1:12 pm }

haha Rebecca! I second your suggestion of Alcohol – it might not be the healthiest way of coping, but it sure is tried and true!

And Yes, Mel, Your book is an awesome holiday coping companion. I got copies for my mama and Bestie, and am going to order more for my MIL and sister!

My best strategy is giving myself permission to make plans, while reserving the right to cancel at any time for any reason.

I’ve also been trying extra hard to keep up my self care over the holiday season – exercise, spa days, healthy eating.

I also think a lot about how to best preserve my emotional capital for the events and people that I really want to be present for. I know that i have a limited amount of energy and emotion to share and I do my best to prioritize the things that matter most to me.

14 Aunt Misfit { 11.21.10 at 1:20 pm }

I was just thinking about how to survive Christmas this year. Your note had me in tears and I think I’ll just keep that in my pocket to help get me through this chaos. Thanks, Mel!

15 HereWeGoAJen { 11.21.10 at 1:53 pm }

My family wouldn’t mind a random blogger at Christmas. 🙂 Plus, they are coming at the beginning of December when no one else has any holiday stuff planned yet, so I’ll expect you there as well. 😉

Excellent point.

16 Annissa { 11.21.10 at 3:47 pm }

I love the word craptastic…. it’s an amazing word!! Loved the survival guide! With all the crap coming down in my family right now, I certainly don’t feel like spending Thanksgiving with them. That’s for sure. Sadly I have to go..

Stopping by via: IComLeavWe

17 Sue { 11.21.10 at 4:38 pm }

I’m a Jew who adopted my husband’s family’s Christmas, and even before that I enjoyed the feeling of the giving season. Since our loss, though, and despite great effort, I cannot for the life of me stir up Christmas joy anymore. I love my nieces and nephews, and regret missing that time with them, but my husband and I have promised to make a trip during a more neutral time of year so we can really enjoy the family without trying to escape memories or wishes about what might have been. Those wishes will be there anyway, but we hope they won’t be quite so…fraught.

About three years out, now, I find myself wanting to give, again. Donations to the animal shelters. Coffee for troops overseas. Maybe cookies for the nurses who treated us so kindly three years ago. Small, but hopefully meaningful things. I find this wish to give returning — holidays or not — and I’m grateful for it. Even when I’m feeling about as bad as possible, even if I’m not participating wholely, or in a traditional way, I can do one small thing.

18 Sue { 11.21.10 at 4:41 pm }

p.s. Thanks for that note. It always makes me cry. In a good way.

19 Bea { 11.21.10 at 4:47 pm }

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.


20 Mali { 11.21.10 at 5:28 pm }

Great list. My additions:

1. Remember it’s just a day. It has now power. You don’t have to enjoy it. Lots of people don’t.
2. Give yourself permission to do something different, to travel, or to stay at home and hibernate. But do something special with your partner, or to remember a loss. It’s okay to be happy and sad on the same day.

21 Erika { 11.21.10 at 5:57 pm }

For me, letting everyone know exactly what’s going on and what that means for my mood and my health does a lot. It’s good for me to voice it and good for them to be aware.

Luckily for me, we usually are spending the holidays with our immediate families (parents, siblings and spouses with their kids). If we were doing more I think I’d skip out!

22 Mon { 11.21.10 at 6:12 pm }

Your note is beautiful, Mel. Very thoughtful. I enjoyed this post for a number of reasons – one is your description and education about Thanksgiving.

As I live in Australia, we don’t have that holiday here and I didn’t really know a lot about it.

I totally get how the real story has been sanitised though (I think so many do) for popular consumption and I like the way you have described the reality of the history behind Thanksgiving – so true, I imagine. So thanks for educating me!

Enjoyed all your other thoughts here Mel. Christmas can bring back lots of memories (good and bad) and it is lovely to see someone reaching out to others at this time.

Kindness makes such a difference in life!

23 Annie { 11.21.10 at 6:14 pm }

Love this post! What a great idea. I’ve had a series of Craptastic Christmases (most involving deaths of babies) so Christmas is a much simpler stripped down thing for my kids than it was for me growing up. And no one’s complaining. We don’t need tons more stuff for Christmas. We don’t need to go to every stupid party. We quite sending out Christmas cards. We have our little traditions (like making gingerbread houses together) and it’s enough.

24 Christina { 11.21.10 at 6:39 pm }

Mel, THANK YOU so much for this: ” 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.” Right now I’ve been wishy washy about whether or not I can attend my sil’s babyshower the first week of Dec. (she is due 5 days before I WAS due…..) but after reading this I started thinking, I really need to be there, and try to endure it. I do not have to enjoy myself. Sometimes it’s important to do something that makes me cringe in order to add happiness in a family or friends life! Thanks !!!

25 Willow { 11.21.10 at 10:27 pm }

Thank you for all these fabulous tips! This year, for the first time ever, I gave us permission not to trek halfway across the country for a Midwestern circle tour of holiday madness. It’s ironic because in the darkest days of our infertility, I always insisted we go “home”–I think because I would have felt even sadder on Christmas with just DH and me and no baby, so my big crazy extended family provided a nice distraction. Besides, only one of my cousins had kids before this year, so it hasn’t been a kid-centric event since we were little. But this year…two of my cousins have new babies, and another is pregnant (with her third–all accidents with her deadbeat boyfriend–she was trying to get her tubes tied when she found out she was pregnant again–awesome!). While we now have our wonderful baby boy too, I feel like the pregnancy mania in my very fertile family would be too much for me this year. Since I’m a mom through adoption and preparing for a donor egg cycle in Jan., easy pregnancies like my cousins’ just aren’t something I can relate to. Besides, I like the idea of building traditions here in our own home for our little guy. I’m excited to try out some of the fun holiday events around the city that I always miss because we’re out of town. And, I’m excited to skip the cold and snow of the Midwest and stay here in sunny California instead! Plus, my mom and stepdad are coming to town, so that will lend some extra festiveness. Anyway…I know these tips will help so many of us infertiles this year! Thanks again!

26 Justine { 11.21.10 at 10:48 pm }

Love this post! I had just said something, too, about the pilgrim story … because my son just had *his* school “feast” the other day, and I found myself being really surprised that we still taught it. Thanks for the list of tips!

27 Eve { 11.21.10 at 11:42 pm }

Yes, a timely post for me as well. Wonderful suggestions…I plan to print this post out and stick it on my fridge. Changing things up seems like the best strategy for me this year, since it is coming so close to the time of the year we lost Will last January.

We are having Thanksgiving with friends at their house. I even told my hubby that I refuse to make the same boring ‘standard’ dishes and have been obsessing for new recipes.

I echo Sue’s sentiment about giving back. More so than ever before, I am feeling the need to do small things in memory of Will. We recently made up a shoebox of gifts for Operation Christmas Child, and I’m hoping to make a donation of blankets, preemie clothes, and other baby items to donate our NICU around Christmas. I’m on the look-out for bigger projects…but these small ones make me feel Will’s spirit.

28 Vee { 11.22.10 at 6:30 am }

Thanks Mel, great tips! We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here but Christmas is just around the corner. I think it’s going to be a real struggle without Max, but I plan to deal with the same as I deal with any other day and take it as it comes. And also make it a wonderful one for Boo.

29 Damita { 11.22.10 at 8:58 am }

Thank you for the tips, we don’t do Thanksgiving in the UK but will def use them for Christmas 🙂

30 Jenn { 11.22.10 at 9:01 am }

After doing this for 10 years, I have developed some methods of my own. The “just walk away” approach works well, and after a while people notice what you’re doing and kind of get it. Birth stories start, walk away. Kid stories, walk away. Everyone starts rubbing my 16-yr old cousins belly, RU NAWAY. By now my family is used to how moody and distant I get at holiday parties, and they just deal with it.

As far as Holiday cards, I send photo cards with DH & I, and now with our little dog. Good idea on including what you have been doing for the past year!

31 Lori Lavender Luz { 11.22.10 at 12:10 pm }

When you said only 4 women were at the meal made me think more of cleanup than of reproduction. Ha! Shows where my concerns are!

I have the numbers of some very special friends on speed-dial. They always get me through :-).

32 Nelly { 11.22.10 at 1:35 pm }

I’ve been in denial that this holiday season is going to be rough. The closer we get though the panic is starting to set in. Losing my grandma (who raised me), my son, and having our due date Dec 12th….yea

Add that to going to see SIL out of state who is a week away from our due date….yea….

I plan on enveloping myself in my SIL’s newborn, which should be the same age as our child would be. Weird? Yup.

33 Katie { 11.22.10 at 1:48 pm }

Your letter – and lots of wine – is what got me through last year’s holiday season. I can’t decide whether this season will be better or worse.

34 Amy { 11.22.10 at 4:48 pm }

Happy ICLW! I am soooo glad I stumbled upon your page and decided to attend ICLW!! Can I say I want to print your letter right now and put it in my pocket? Thank you for you that. I am soooo tired of ‘being strong’ will people really think less of me if I have a complete and utter breakdown? And do I care? I have to go eat some mini hot dogs now~take care~I’ll be back to read more~Amy

35 Barb { 11.22.10 at 9:38 pm }

I like it. Particularly sassy coming from you. 🙂

36 Sue { 11.23.10 at 1:47 am }

Mel, I so needed this today. I just wrote a post about how I can’t seem to muster up any real thankfulness this year. I almost didn’t post it for fear of what people would think – but sometimes a little honesty is warranted. My life IS craptastic right now, so I think I deserve a pass for the “thankfulness” routine while we mourn our loss of the twins. Thanks for the survival guide, I will do my best to endure when I can’t enjoy and try hard as I can not to ruin any relationships along the way.

37 mash { 11.23.10 at 3:17 am }

The strange thing for me is, that in the depths of my despair I often feel true happiness. When life is kicking me in the teeth (and it really has the past few years), I’m amazed at the depth of the joy that a hug from a friend will give me, a hug that I wouldn’t even notice at other times.

I actually believe that those pilgrims were experiencing true gratitude, love and peace at their thanksgiving feast.

Strangely, when life has stripped everything from you, is when you seem to touch the void somehow. It’s like touching God’s finger.

38 Cherish { 12.08.10 at 5:19 pm }

Life has been so busy I haven’t been checking blogs, including yours. I’m glad I managed to read back this far, because I’d forgotten about the holiday survival guide. I had such high hopes for going home this Christmas and being pregnant, but it appears AF is coming tonight. This marks 3 years of TTC, I just turned 30, and this cycle was my first Clomid cycle combined with a visit to an energy healer, and several cycles of acupuncture and chinese herbs. I was sure this would be it.

Thank you for this post. It just might help me survive Christmas.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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