By Carole Van Holbeck, MSAN Mental Health and Wellness Advocate
We all see the commercials on television – multigenerational families gathered around a perfectly set table with an abundance of food. People are laughing and enjoying each other’s company. There is an idea out there that everyone’s holiday gatherings with family are joyful and stress free.
Perhaps my worst Thanksgiving happened in 1972, I was 15. My father was serving his second tour in Vietnam. We had family come in from out-of-town and we were living in a small Florida rental, but Mom put out a nice meal. Unfortunately, she also let her hair down (which she rarely did) and consumed a little too much champagne. Our guests disapproved and dinner was very strained. She went to lie down after the meal, so I started doing the dishes. Our garbage disposal broke and flooded the kitchen floor. Rather than help, my grandparents, aunt, and uncle put on their coats and left. It was not a happy holiday and this experience shaped my attitude about our family Thanksgiving for years to come.
Many military families experience stress and anxiety during the holidays, especially Thanksgiving. Holiday stress can be triggered by:
- Physical distance from family.
- Family obligation.
- Unhappy memories.
- Toxic relatives.
- Things in life that have changed.
- Things in life that have stayed the same.
What things on this list are making you dread Thanksgiving? Once you have identified the reason for your holiday stress, take charge.
The most important thing that you can do as a military spouse is to take control of the holidays instead of letting them control you. Aunt Sally stress you out? If family obligations overwhelm you, take a step back and don’t feel guilty about it! Don’t be afraid to stay home and establish your own Thanksgiving traditions. If stepping back is not possible (and sometimes it is not) set reasonable expectations and don’t let Aunt Sally push your buttons.
Simplify the day if possible. Don’t buy into the cultural pressure of the perfect holiday perpetuated by the media and maybe even your own notions. If you’re feeding a crowd, paper platters may be a better choice than the fine china.
Giving back can also be an alternative way to celebrate Thanksgiving. Volunteer your time and involve your family. Serve at a soup kitchen or volunteer to deliver holiday meals to a homebound senior.
Many military spouses feel sadness at Thanksgiving because their spouse is deployed or they miss family. Each of us is entitled to our feelings. If possible, try to change your mindset. Many of us are guilty of comparing our happier memories of yesterday to our current situation. In doing so, we cheat ourselves of making memories now.Try and be in the present. On most installations, there are other families in similar situations. Consider joining forces with one or two of them and celebrate Thanksgiving together. Make the meal a potluck, with everyone brining a couple of dishes they enjoy. Some of my favorite Thanksgiving memories have been made with friends.
Changing your expectations and behavior can make a big difference in how you perceive Thanksgiving. Take charge. Simplify. Do something new. Do something you love. And remember – it is just one day.
Carole Van Holbeck is a retired Air Force spouse, veteran (1978-1990), and former military dependent child. She is a mother of three sons, stepmother to three adult children, and grandmother to nine. A registered psychotherapist, she works as the Office Manager of Warrior Counseling & Consulting, a veteran mental health practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado started by her husband Ken in 2011. In this role, Carole engages with active duty military, veterans, and their families and understands current issues affecting this population.