Why It’s ‘Just The Two Of Us’ This Holiday Season

When I look back on the past few years, I am proud to feel like I’ve built something that’s mine. Staying with my partner in our new home for Christmas is another way to mold the life I want.

When my partner suggested that we spend our Christmas sans family, I initially balked. Being an adult child of divorce means that I’m like a trained seal around the holidays, dutifully splitting my time between mom’s (90 minutes away) and dad’s (5 hours away) in whatever way I can manage. Some years, one parent gets Thanksgiving and the other gets Christmas. Or I’ll switch it up like last year, when each parent got me for half of the week between Christmas and New Year’s. My partner, also an ACOD, travels much farther north to see his parents and attempts a similar balancing act.

Sometimes to my own detriment, I am a creature of habit. I also hate disappointing people. But damn it, I’m tired. So I sat down with my perfectionist, people-pleasing brain and made the executive decision to nest this season.

I’m in good company, as Amy Monticello and Anne Grunsted have written before on rejecting the expectations of this season. It is subversive for women in particular, who are saddled with the bulk of holiday labor, to prioritize their own pleasure over grueling road trips, bad weather, unwanted family altercations, and other bullets to dodge. The biggest victory here is not just deciding that your needs come first. It’s also refusing to feel guilty about it.

This year, my partner and I desperately need a holiday break that’s actually a break. I work in immigration policy, he works in health care policy, and we both spend a considerable chunk of the day commuting to and from D.C. This semester I commuted an additional hour to my two graduate classes after work, and spent “off” nights reading 400+ pages a week. He took a second job on the weekends for some extra holiday money. We are both heavily involved in local politics, and he is the president of two local organizations. We made time to knock on doors for the midterm elections almost every week up until November 6. And somewhere in the middle of all that, we picked out a house to rent together. Oh. And I wrote my bi-monthly column. As I write this one, I am concurrently preparing for a final exam and packing up my soon-to-be old apartment.

The last four months have drained us. Down time has felt like a distant rumor, and we have been lucky to see each other once a week. A large part of what has kept our morale up – other than continuously reminding each other that this collision of responsibilities is temporary – is our joint decision to stay put this Christmas. I know that what follows the exams and the packing and the weekend bartending isn’t more rushing around. It’s a state of quiet and calm, of staying in my pajamas until 2 pm if I so please.

There was a period of time when I actively dreaded the holidays. My parents’ divorce in 2012 put a grinding halt to traditions as I knew them, and my great aunt’s death the following year meant that our annual December 26 celebration at her house ceased as well. Christmas became depressing and disorienting. Many of the strangers I spent those seasons with are of course not strangers anymore, and they were always warm and inviting. But at the time, being surrounded by people I didn’t know felt like salt in a wound, a reminder that what I’d known for over 20 years was suddenly gone.

It was at this point in my life that I decided to focus on what I can control rather than what I cannot. To keep going, I had to cement it in my mind that my parents’ divorce had nothing to do with me – not in the sense that I felt blame like a younger child might, but in that I needed a sense of direction apart from a divided family. I began to make choices that had no connection to our shared past, making a career change, moving to a new city (twice), attending a college that my parents did not help me select and paying out of my own pocket. When I look back on the past few years, I am proud to feel like I’ve built something that’s mine. Staying with my partner in our new home for Christmas is another way to mold the life I want.

“The holiday season does not need to be about driving ourselves into the ground stressed over obligations and forced community,” Anne Grunsted wrote last fall. “What if Thanksgiving to New Years were instead a time to focus on being our best selves, expressing gratitude for who and what nurtures us, and sharing what we have with others.” I will miss seeing my parents this Christmas, but my partner nurtures me and brings out my best self. Right now we need to slow down and share our gratitude for each other, with each other.

Chelsea Cristene is an international student adviser, English professor, and graduate student based in Washington, D.C. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, The Establishment, and MamaMia, and has appeared on HuffPost Live. Find her on Twitter.

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