Below is a column on the follies and fears of Christmas — and the five stages of parental holiday survival.
THE FIVE STAGES OF PARENTAL HOLIDAY SURVIVAL
For me, the end of the year is always a time for deep joy and celebration – and fear. With four kids, I find that each holiday season is an angst-filled wait for the disaster that will serve as this year’s test of parental survival skills.
Don’t get me wrong, Christmas is my favorite holiday of the year. I even like the fruit cake. However, in my family, holidays and disasters go together like trailer homes and tornados.
This year, it was my near death by inflatable Penguin. To the ever-lasting embarrassment of my family, I insisted on hoisting my ten-foot inflatable, fully lighted Penguin to the top of our new house. There is a small balcony in front of the house and can only be accessed by ladder. So, after buying an extendable 75-foot ladder, I rigged the Penguin to inflate while carefully tying him to four posts to resist hurricane-rated winds.
I then told my wife to plug it in. After she went back in the house grumbling, I watched with great excitement as it inflated only to realize that there was not enough room for both of us on the high ledge. As the Penguin began to push me off the ledge, I frantically tried to untie the ropes with no success. I then began stabbing the Penguin for dear life. It was at this point that my wife responded to the screaming and turned off the Penguin.
Over the years, I have come to a personal epiphany that holidays can produce parental stresses that strangely mirror the five stages of grieving identified by Kubler-Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. If you understand this process, it is possible to achieve a level of holiday grace that has long escaped all but the Dali Lama.
All holidays begin with denial that last year’s utter disaster will not repeat itself this year. There is a very good reason for universal denial of reality: the number of disasters that occur during holidays are infinite. So, like generals always preparing to fight the last war, parents tend to work to avoid last year’s holiday disaster—not realizing that this simply allows one of the other disaster scenarios to occur while you blissfully avoid last year’s debacle of having Christmas lights ignite a holiday wreath.
Indeed, I was so focused on last year’s disaster that death by Penguin never entered my mind. Last year, the disaster began when I realized that I had locked the keys to my new Yakima carrier inside — with everyone waiting to drive to see Grandma in Chicago. No problem, I insisted, we can easily find a replacement. I spent the next five hours driving around Virginia with a giant luggage carrier sticking out my back door – insisting that someone can open a carrier without a double-headed axe.
It is only then that I discovered the next stage: anger. This occurs when you finally call Yakima (when the office opens on the West Coast) and discover that it makes “unique” keys and lock cores. A cheerful “carrier consultant” then informs you that you should join something called a “Yakima Key Club,” to deal with such key issues. Of course, when you bought the carrier, you did not tend to expand your various alumni and professional organizations with the “Yakima Key Club.” I am not even sure why such things are called clubs in the first place. Do they have Yakima Key Club Singles Night or recipe exchanges?
Of course, you truly know anger when you finally borrow a neighbor’s carrier, lug your massive carrier back into storage, only to have your wife notice that the key was on the car key chain that you have been using to visit locksmiths for the last five hours.
This brings us to bargaining. This occurs when our over-stuffed carrier bursts open in the middle of the night of a two-lane highway. All of the wrapped presents that were secretly hidden from watching eyes of our four children are then deposited across the highway in full view – where most are ground into holiday chum by eighteen wheelers moving at 90 miles an hour. As the children proclaim the end of the world, you then walk inches from speeding goliaths using the only light source available: your six-year-old’s pretend video camera light. In the process, you get the camera caught in the automatic closing van door and, in front of him, smash his favorite toy on the concrete. I returned with a single pair of gift pajamas with a tire mark and spent the next ten hours promising that Santa would make good on the toys left strewn across the highway.
Bargaining is the longest of these stages. It continues after Christmas when you beg your children to leave one or two toys at Nana’s rather than stuff them back into the van for the trip back home. This is always met with the same reaction – akin to asking them to leave one limb with Nana for use at some later date.
This is when depression sets in with the advancing stages of physical and financial ruin. You proceed to stuff every gift into the deluxe luggage carrier, which is now held firm with a two-dollar bungee cord. For the whole trip home, you then realize that the “Talking Grill” has been pressed to remain on for the whole trip. Your children become increasingly freaked out as they listen to a dying talking grill become more and more grotesque as its batteries are depleted. The kids grow terrified around Toledo as the grill moans in a deep, elongated voice: “Heeeeeeey, leeeetttttss grilllllllll.” It is like having a wacked out Weber-shaped serial killer speaking with your children in the dark for twelve hours through Indiana, Ohio, and most of Pennsylvania. When it finally dies, your four shivering kids are left staring blankly forward like shell-shock victims.
It is only when the contents of your van are piled in the middle of the living room that you get to the final stage: acceptance. You and your wife simply sit on the couch as four children disassemble toys that will never be assembled again. It is then that you realize that the holidays are not about the presents or the food or even the children. It is about a sense of survival that has been lost in today’s convenient lifestyle. It is the sense of accomplishment that parents felt in an earlier age when food was hunted and shelter was uncertain. We have survived. We have remained in the gene pool for another year. So you put away the homicidal inflatable Penguin, open a bottle of wine, and just wait for next year’s holiday disaster to come.
Jonathan Turley is a law professor and columnist in Washington D.C.