Can this Christmas be saved?
She flies to California to see her parents, he drives to Maine to see his. They have been together for five years and never have spent Dec. 25 together.
Call it Christmas Angst: The holiday that is supposed to bring families together sometimes tends to tear them apart. The dilemma of choosing which parents' home for the holiday can be especially difficult for two-career, childless couples who annually are put to the familial loyalty test. There are trade-offs and negotiations, headaches and long-distance squabbling. The anxiety of going home is especially prevalent in Washington -- a city of professionals born and bred somewhere else -- where the annual exodus is a massive one.
Take John and Susan Magill. His parents live in Knoxville, Tenn. Hers are in Roanoke, Va. They have exactly 2.5 days of vacation.
"I'll pack the car here and unpack it in Roanoke. The next morning, I'll repack it and drive to Knoxville," says John Magill, administrative assistant to Rep. G. William Whitehurst (R-Va.).
"The next morning I'll pack the car in Knoxville, unpack it that afternoon in Roanoke. Then I'll pack it again. Six hours later, I'm back in Washington, exhausted, wishing we were sitting in front of the fire with the phone off the hook."
Magill says he's confident that he and his wife, who works for Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), will spend the next Christmas in the Bahamas.
"It's driving us crazy," he says.
The professionals agree. Going home for Christmas can be hazardous to your mental health.
"It's a strain," says family psychologist Andrew G. Mathis, author of "Impact Parent Training." "Basically what we're involved in is meeting the parents' expectations. Our inner child of the past really emerges at the holiday time of the year, so it does lead to conflicts. It has to do with guilt a lot of times, particularly if, as children, we were programmed to expect some sort of punishment from our parents if we didn't do what was expected."
"It's an issue we all have to deal with," says clinical psychologist Michael Lillibridge. "If we go home out of guilt, I think it's going to be a strained experience. More than any other holiday, we experience depression, suicides, conflicts with spouses; our high expectations are unfulfilled."
"My brother called from Chicago to tell my mother he wasn't making it home for Christmas this year," says a literary agent. "She yelled so hard she bit her tongue. She had to be taken to the hospital to have stitches put in. Needless to say, my brother is now going home for Christmas."
"My mother would kill me if I didn't go home," says one woman who will spend a week with her family in West Virginia. "The guilt is so strong. I'd be hurting her, letting her down if I didn't go home. I don't enjoy it anymore. Christmas has become one big hassle. It's exhausting and it makes me furious. There's this big rush to get Christmas dinner, the women do all the work and the men just sit around. I hate it."
The woman is a well-paid professional. Thirty-one years old. An adult.
"You're never an adult as long as your parents are alive," she says.
But having children of your own sometimes can let couples off the hook.
Jane Kearns is a 40-year-old Adams-Morgan woman with a design studio in her home. Her husband, Tom Jones, also does design work for ABC. She has one child from a former marriage. He has two.
"The first Christmas we were together it was horrible," says Kearns. "We had to be here at our house, his parents' home, and my parents' home." Her parents live in Frederick, Md., his in Fredericksburg, Va. "Christmas morning, we opened presents here," Kearns recalls. "Then we drove to Frederick, Md., for lunch and more presents. Then, about 4 o'clock, we drove to Fredericksburg for dinner and more presents."
The next year, Kearns decided enough was enough.
"Finally, I was able to tell my mom, 'Christmas Day belongs to me. You can have the day before or the day after.' She chose the day after. Tom's parents chose the day before. It wasn't hard to do, once we did it. But you're afraid you're going to hurt them."
Unmarried couples living together can create tensions on a holiday for some parents. "My parents still cannot accept the fact that I'm living with a man," says one Washington woman approaching the age of 40. Her parents let it be known that her live-in boyfriend would not be welcomed home at Christmas. "I go home for the minimum 4 1/2 days because they would be so hurt if I didn't. There is always the inevitable, 'If you're in love why don't you get married?' conversation on about the third day. It always winds up with my mother in tears. Then Dad and I go fishing while she regroups and after that we hug, agree that our generations are just different. She shakes her head and smiles wanly and I fly back to Washington."
Couples -- married or unmarried -- who come from the same city say it is not uncommon to have Christmas dinner at his parents, dessert at hers, breakfast at his and lunch at hers. By the time they leave, they are often exhausted, frustrated and angry.
Psychologist Lillibridge recommends taking a break from the home-for-the holidays routine.
"I don't think you should always go home. Having a life of your own is just as important. More people need not go home, or should go home for a shorter amount of time. There's something to be said for spending part of the holiday on your own."
Washingtonians Chris and Kathleen Matthews have decided to do just that. For the first four years they were together, they traveled to California to be with her parents. Since the birth of their first child this year, they will stay home--almost. "For the first time, we're having our own Christmas," says Chris Matthews. "It's a real breaking-away experience."
Since his family lives in Philadelphia, they have decided to take the train there the morning of Dec. 24 and return to Washington the same night.
"We're a classic case," says a Washington man. Since his marriage in 1979, he says, planning holidays with his wife "is not unlike the SALT negotiations."
Before their marriage, his mother-in-law had one request: that her daughter come home for Thanksgiving. Her parents live in Rochester. His are in Connecticut. She goes to her parents. He goes to his. The day after Thanksgiving, he makes "a cameo" appearance at her parents' home. "In exchange, she agrees to spend Christmas with me at my parents'. Only, her father's birthday is on Christmas Eve. So we'll spend Dec. 24 at our respective parents. Christmas Day she'll fly to New York. I pick her up at La Guardia. We drive to Connecticut to spend that night with my parents. We fly back to Washington the 26th."
He says it bothers him to be away from his wife on the holidays, but there doesn't seem to be any solution.
"Do you have any idea how odd it is to tiptoe down to your parents' den at night to call your wife at her parents' house?" he says. "It's like you're 17 again."
Dr. Perry Ottenberg, Philadelphia psychiatrist and chairman of the Emerging Issues Committee of the American Psychiatric Association, says, "Parents tend to hold on to the holiday long after it's convenient. It may cost too much money, their health may not be that good. They should be willing to pass the baton to the next generation. It's important to let the authority go."
Ottenberg has found a solution: declaring his own holidays.
"We had two Thanksgivings," he says. "One here with my children and the following week in Boston with my siblings. We managed to work it out."
The guilt, according to Ottenberg, "is probably unresolved ambivalence over our parents. It's because we love and hate them. There's anger, resentment, unresolved tensions. I think the guilt has a lot to do with unconscious anger and competition. People forget that you can love and hate the same person. Within milliseconds."
Conflicts can arise, he says, with multiple generations "if you have one long table and put everybody at it. One likes to smoke pot, one likes jazz, one wants to watch football, some are religious, some are not. You go home for Thanksgiving and it's an outpatient department!"
Christmas can be a time bomb, he warns. "It can arouse devastating emotions," he says. "Ancient hatreds and old wishes come out. That's what you take home for Christmas. You want the love you never got."
The bottom line, says the psychiatrist, is to relax. Whether you decide to go home or not.
"We've always had Christmas and we'll always have fights over it ," he says. "The secret is to enjoy it."