Cecilia Ford Ph.DCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. This week, she counsels a woman in her sixties whose children have asked her to give up her holiday duties—the cooking, organizing, and decorating she has always loved to do—so they can spare her these “burdens.” To Connie, this is a devastating diminishment of her role as family matriarch.


Dear Dr. Ford:

I have such a hard time managing the holidays now that my sons are grown and my husband and I have been forced to downsize in the last two years. My husband lost his job, one thing led to another, and we had to sell the large house where the children grew up until he could find a job. He found one, but it paid much less than he had made before, and he gets no benefits.  I went back to work at 50; I am 63 now and should be thinking about retirement, but we both feel fortunate to have a job with income that allows us to live frugally but safely. We bought a small two-bedroom condominium in the area where we have lived all our lives. We had Thanksgiving dinner at the Club last year for the first —and, as it turns out, last—time, since we had to give up the club membership at the end of last year. I have always given the big holiday dinners that all of us have loved. I am a great cook, and these festive occasions gave me great joy: setting the table, planning the menu, working all week to make the day a special one.

My three children are married and live within driving distance of our home.  Each of them is doing well financially, and all of them are adults with good character.

I could easily have cooked the same meal and made it fun, even without a dining-room table. But last week, my children all came to visit to announce that they had decided that they would each take a holiday—Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter—and host the extended family.  I was heartbroken. It was like a death. My daughters-in-law don’t know how to cook.  The one who will be in charge of Thanksgiving said this would be her day for a no-stress family meal. Well, I don’t know any competent home-trained cook who doesn’t realize that even roasting a turkey is always stressful . . . to say nothing of the stuffing, the carrots, the Brussels sprouts, the mashed potatoes, the salad, and the homemade pies.  She doesn’t want me to help. She said it was my time to be “taken care of.”  I do work 50 hours a week as a very competent administrator for a financial firm. I don’t need to be taken care of.

I don’t know how to manage this. I want to keep the family celebrations intact, but this dinner will be a disaster and my son certainly knows better. I must not be alone in this painful transition. Do you have any suggestions for me?



Dr. Ford Responds:

Dear Connie:

Holidays are stressful for many of us, and are often the flashpoints for conflicts and issues that arise during the rest of the year. You and your husband, you say, have suffered losses and setbacks over the last few years, and now, the relocating and reassigning of your holiday celebrations to your children’s homes feels like yet another blow.

One of the reasons why holiday traditions are so important in our lives is that they help us maintain a sense of stability and continuity—so important when so much is unpredictable and out of our control. Recognizing this, divorced parents sometimes celebrate holidays together in the usual manner in an effort to give their children this measure of assurance. But intact families, even those with grown children, need these rituals too, and parents rely on them as well. Not only are the holiday traditions being altered in your family, but your role as caregiver, matriarch, and head chef are all being challenged as well.

Your letter implies that your children decided this together and that they were probably thinking they were doing you a favor by taking these “burdens” from you. Though they consulted with each other, they obviously did not consult with you, and they failed to understand your true feelings. You need to talk this out with them, but first sit down with your husband and consider your goals. What parts of the holiday traditions would you like to preserve, and what parts might be possibly improved by compromise or alteration? For example, you emphasize your cooking skills, so I wonder if it would be possible for you to remain in charge of the cooking while changing the venue to the other, larger houses? Your daughters-in-law might well be grateful for this help, and, in time, may pick up some valuable lessons so that they can continue the traditions for future generations.

I know it can be difficult working in someone else’s house, but if you are explicit about each person’s role and expectations and plan carefully ahead of time, it can work. From your description of your experience as a hostess of large family dinners, it’s clear you fully understand the practical complexity involved. Perhaps there are small “jobs” that can be assigned to everyone, even the kids, so that you will be getting some useful help but still retain some control over the “artistic” side of the presentation.

Finally, these transitions are one more reminder of our mortality and yet another way in which we are asked to let go of the past in order to stay in the present. The process is painful, but there may come a time, sooner than you can imagine, when have successfully taught the next generation how to do it right, you will be able to enjoy putting up your feet and letting others take care of you.

Dr. Cecilia Ford





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