The holiday shuffle

For Angela Smith, Christmas is among the least wonderful times of year. Smith, who lives in a Milwaukee suburb, spends the holiday shuttling among four sets of parents: her divorced parents, plus her husband's divorced parents, none of whom gets along with the others but all of whom expect a Christmas visit. And then there's Grandma, who also doesn't get along with the rest of the family and requires a separate trip.

Smith, her husband and their toddler daughter manage by splitting Christmas Day between her husband's mother and father, and Christmas Eve between Smith's mother and father, stopping by Grandma's on the way home — and worrying all along about how many hours to spend and how much food to eat at each household to make sure they save room for the next meal.

Making it all worse, Smith said, are the extended family members (including an uncle who drinks too much and is known to talk about pornography at the dinner table), who don't seem worth Smith's effort given that they're not part of her life the rest of the year.

"Holidays are a nightmare," said Smith, 29. "We were hoping having a toddler would make it easier because we have an excuse, but then it's like, 'We don't get to see her!' "

Overwhelming family demands can sour holiday spirits faster than week-old eggnog. Even reasonable families on good terms are rife with holiday expectations, forcing many people to face an unpleasant choice between disappointing loved ones and losing their minds.

How do you cope when everyone wants dibs on your precious holiday time?

The key is learning to set boundaries — even to say the unthinkable "No," if necessary — so that you're not stuck trying to spread comfort and joy at the expense of your own.

"You have to do what feels good to you and what feels good to the relationship," said Constance Ahrons, a San Diego psychologist and author of "We're Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents' Divorce" (Harper, $14.99).

Drawing the line

While splitting holidays between divorced parents is a sure exercise in diplomacy and time management, juggling in-laws, siblings, grandparents and any number of geographic obstacles also can complicate holiday arrangements.

Even in divorced families, negotiating holidays isn't so bad when dealing with flexible people. In amicable divorces, it's becoming increasingly common for exes to spend the holidays together so as not to complicate the lives of their children, Ahrons said. Other adult children of divorced parents are happy sticking with a custody schedule — for example, Mom's house on odd years, Dad's house on even years — so that it's all fair and they don't have to renegotiate the rules each year.

The situation gets tougher when family members are warring, jealous or unwilling to share time. Single people often have a harder time dealing with those situations because, without families of their own, they're often treated like kids and expected to go where they're told, Ahrons said. But having your own children doesn't always lessen the obligations, because then everyone wants to see the grandkids.

Rather than get sucked into the role of mediator or trying to please everyone, Ahrons said, sometimes you have to draw the line.

One option is to hold the holidays at your home and announce that whoever wishes is welcome to come by. No one gets along? That's their problem to work out, Ahrons said.

If mixing families is untenable, and no one's willing to budge, sometimes it's best to take a holiday away from family altogether.

"I think it's very important for adult children (of divorced parents) to empower themselves," Ahrons said. "You may not get along, but you may not ruin my life because of it."

'Our own tradition'

Ann Marie and Beth Klacko, sisters who live in Chicago, put the kibosh on family holidays after Thanksgiving 2008, when they visited their dad and their mom threw a fit. They were tired of the guilt trips, the frustrating bus schedules to the suburbs, and the last-minute pleas that the girls swing by one parent's house after they visited the other.

Now, on Thanksgiving and Christmas, the sisters take house-sitting jobs, and later meet up with friends at a bar.

"We've started our own tradition," Ann Marie Klacko, 28, said. "It's liberating. We've just gained a little more control."

Their parents were confused by their decision, but they haven't responded angrily, Klacko said. The sisters make time on weekends and special occasions throughout the rest of the year to visit their parents, just not on emotionally loaded holidays.

While watching out for your sanity is important, San Francisco psychologist Joshua Coleman worries that some people are too quick to extricate themselves from their families. He works with many parents who have been cut off by their grown children. "When they don't get visited, it's heartbreaking for them," he said.

Conflict is an unavoidable part of being in a family, Coleman said, but increasingly people figure they don't need to maintain relationships they don't enjoy being in.

"The obligatory sense that other people in our lives matter has been replaced by this filmy bond of whether this relationship makes me feel good," said Coleman, co-founder of the Council on Contemporary Families and author of "When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along" (William Morrow, $15.95). "It makes relationships more fragile and more individualistic."

Still, you have to pick your battles.

Coping strategies

Rather than banish family completely during the holidays, sometimes it helps to set boundaries. A few tips:

* Avoid round-the-clock family obligations by carving out time for yourself to work out, visit a friend or spend alone time with your spouse or partner, advises psychologist Joshua Coleman.

* Head off issues you anticipate arising. If you want to stay at a hotel instead of a house packed with relatives, or if you dislike how your parents treat your kids, have a conversation about it before the visit, Coleman says. If you discuss it in a clear, lighthearted tone, always saying something appreciative before delivering any critical feedback, it likely will be received better.

* Take control by hosting a holiday in your home. Invite the family, and be prepared if some of your relatives decline.