When Your Spouse's Work Schedule Puts The Holiday Joy On Your Shoulders

by Rita Templeton
Originally Published: 

I was scrolling through my Timehop — you know, that app where you can see all your past social media statuses throughout the years? — and this was one that popped up from ten years ago today.

A decade may have passed, but nothing much has changed. I’m still married to the same guy, and though he has a different job now, he’s still as dedicated to his profession as he ever was. He works at least six days a week, every week. And for the past month or so, he has been working every single day to help his company wrap up end-of-year details.

Working that many hours sounds like any regular person’s idea of a nightmare — even me, and I adore my job. But not my husband and his gigantic, relentless work ethic. He thrives on going above and beyond for his employer, and it does pay off in many ways. Still, no matter how much his career is fulfilling him, he has a family that he has to leave at home in order to devote all this time to work.

Somebody has to run it — and that somebody is me.

This can be hard enough on a regular day, but as the holiday season approaches, I feel the strain just a little bit more. Because fitting in holiday parties and celebrations, especially when you’ve got four kids, always requires strategy — there’s just so much to do! When you’ve also got to plan around your spouse’s near-constant work schedule, it takes some serious calendar-finagling.

The bottom line is, my husband just isn’t able to participate in every holiday event that the kids and I do. While I’d obviously rather do them as a family when we can, I’ve learned throughout the years how to work around, well, work. Like …

Prioritizing certain events and traditions.

There are things my kids don’t mind doing with just me, and then there are things they really want their dad to be able to attend with the rest of us. When we bake Christmas cookies, for example, Dad doesn’t participate much even if he’s home — so that’s something the kids and I just do on our own. On the other hand, when it comes to our annual tradition of driving around looking at Christmas lights in our snuggly PJs, sipping on hot cocoa, Dad’s presence is an absolute must. So we plan it accordingly. Which means …

Being flexible.

While some things have to be done at a set time (like school holiday plays, or parties our friends are throwing), others activities (like our Christmas light tradition) can be done whenever we get the time to do them. Sometimes that means doing things on a different day or at a different time than usual. You can’t have a spouse who works so many hours a week and still hope to cling to a rigid schedule. That also means …

Not trying to do all the things.

Yes, there are a ton of opportunities to celebrate with friends and family over the holiday season. But obligating ourselves to go to this social engagement and that one can leave us (read: me) feeling worn thin. Instead of saying yes to everything there is to offer, we’re selective in which invitations we accept. There’s only so much time, I only have so much bandwidth, and I’ve learned to say no to the things that I’m feeling lukewarm about. So whether my husband is around or not, we practice the art of …

Making the things we do extra meaningful.

Tony Anderson/Getty

One of our favorite holiday traditions — one that we wait for my husband to join us in — is filling “Project Happy” gift boxes for OHgo, an outreach organization in our community. We give each of our kids a big box, and turn them loose in the store, where they gleefully fill them with fun presents for other kids while my husband and I load up carts with diapers and gloves and scarves and other necessities. Then we wrap it all, together, and drop it off for the OHgo volunteers to distribute to families in need. We talk about the importance of caring for people, not just during the holidays, but during every season, and our anonymity shows them that it isn’t something we do for accolades or Instagram “likes.”

There are other things we do that are meaningful for our family. Like binge-watching our favorite holiday movies, or digging out the box of Christmas storybooks I only get out at this time of year and reading them out loud around the Christmas tree. (Our oldest is a teenager, but still enjoys listening to the holiday stories he grew up with, even though they’re for little kids.) When it comes to the things we commit to, I value quality over quantity.

Their dad’s schedule is second nature to our children, who have lived with it their entire lives, so they don’t feel deprived of his presence. Besides, they know beyond the shadow of a doubt that if something is really important to them, Dad wouldn’t miss it for the world — even if he has to miss work (or more accurately, shift his hours around, because let’s face it … “vacation day” isn’t in the man’s vocabulary). He is so good about prioritizing their special events, and they never feel that his absence is some kind of void. Mostly because we prioritize what’s most important to us, and then make sure he doesn’t have to miss out on those.

Holidays can be tough when your spouse’s idea of “festive” is donning a Santa hat with his work shirt, but I’m careful not to lose sight of what’s important. He’s gone because he’s fortunate enough to have a job, let alone one that he loves so much. His job affords us the opportunities to make not only our own holidays, but others’ too, a little brighter. I may be hanging garlands and wrapping gifts alone, but that’s not because I’m a struggling single mom or a military spouse whose partner is deployed for the holidays. So for those things, I stay grateful, even when the holiday grind starts to feel a little overwhelming. Maintaining my focus on those things is critically important in getting me through.

My family may not be together for every moment of the holidays, it’s true … but that means the moments that we do spend together are all that much more precious.

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