All I Want for Christmas are Some Boundaries

It was Christmas Eve 2012 and I sat alone in my office, thinking about the year before.

The Christmas Eve before, my Grandma Jan hosted her last holiday gathering. My immediate family, my mom’s sisters, their children, and their grandchildren gathered in Grandma Jan’s tiny house. We barely fit and we barely got along, but we were family no matter what.


This year, I moved into Grandma Jan’s house just a month earlier. It was strange for me. She had lived there for over 25 years. When she bought the house at age 55, she proclaimed that she must live to be 85 because she had to pay off her 30-year mortgage. She only made it to 82. There was a perfect dusty outline of her desk on the unpainted white wall when we moved it away from its spot after all those years. The lavender-gray carpet was pulled up to show the line between the original house (with hardwood floors) and the 1940s addition (plywood). Her rocking chair was taken away, inherited by one of my aunts. As the new resident in Grandma’s tiny house, I felt it was my duty to carry on the Christmas Eve tradition. I wanted to honor her and keep the family together.


This year, however, I was doing paperwork.


This Christmas Eve was not full of dysfunctional family love. This Christmas Eve was crappy. Even though I had accrued six weeks of vacation time in only one year on the job, my supervisor at Child Protective Services told me I could not take off Christmas Eve unless my paperwork was done. She had been instructed to tell us this rule by her supervisor, her supervisor’s supervisor, and maybe even the governor.


Kids were dying and they were covering their asses with paperwork.


This was the beginning of the end of that job for me. It was hard before that, but the paperwork was never done. This was the last straw. It might have been easier if I had been required to spend time with the foster kids on my caseload that day, but paperwork?! Seriously?! It had been too long since I had a day off.


In the months that followed that Christmas, as I slowly made Grandma Jan’s home my own, I also became clear about my priorities in life.


As I worked through the emotions of losing Grandma Jan and taking over her space, I’m sure she also helped me quit that job. I talked to Grandma Jan as I chose the paint colors and rolled it onto the walls. I consulted Grandma Jan as I turned her cute little butterfly grandma bathroom into a bright coral bath-time retreat. I asked Grandma Jan if it was okay that I took over her closet, her bedroom, her kitchen. One thing was sure: she was delighted that someone else was doing the dishes.


It quickly became evident that I would never use all my vacation time.


In fact, the Christmas Eve shenanigans showed me that I would be hard pressed to use any of my vacation time. I asked my supervisor why it would possibly make sense for me to continue accruing vacation time instead of opting for overtime pay. She told me that when I quit, I would have a nice chunk of money to help me transition to my next job. What a great seed to plant. She was right. By March 2013, I had put in my two weeks. Not only did I have time to catch up on my paperwork in my last two weeks of work, but I was able to take a lovely vacation to see my best friend. I suddenly had time and money.


I was determined that Christmas Eve 2013 would be delightfully dysfunctional again.


When my family showed up for Christmas Eve 2013, I was acutely aware that they had not had the chance to be with the spirit of Grandma Jan, in her home, like I had. They did not go through the layers of transformation, shedding challenging emotions of grief with each renovation. They simply showed up for Christmas to the same little house, on a shortcut street, in the middle of town. They may have noticed that the outdoor carpeting had been removed from the three steps up to the front door, but with arms full of snacks and presents, it’s hard to notice things like that. When they stepped inside, I’m sure it was hard to remember where they were. There was no side table in the entry way with an analog phone connected to the wall. There was no TV in the corner. The hide-a-bed was gone.


Instead, they were greeted by two big crazy dogs and bold paint colors. They were met by new furniture, a piano, and familiar faces. We carried on like nothing had changed. I will never know if they went home and cried like I had during the renovations, but this Christmas Eve was definitely bittersweet. Our grumpy, funny, loving matriarch was there in spirit, but it was hard to find her in the middle of all my stuff.


In hindsight I wish I had gone rogue on Christmas Eve 2012.


I wish I had refused to work that day. I wish I had prioritized my family and myself. By that time I had been on the job a full year and my union membership was official. They would not have fired me. The turnover rate for our office was 80%. They needed me. But none of that really matters because I learned that my life is more important than any heartless employment practice.


In the helping professions, we learn the concept of boundaries.


We are supposed to put up walls between ourselves and our clients: Do not get too close, do not take kids home with you, do not share your personal life, do not cry, do not, do not, do not. The list goes on. But what about boundaries with our employers? Why is it okay to let them run us over? Don’t try to answer that; it was a rhetorical question. It’s absolutely not okay to let employers run us over. As a collective, we have more power than we even know. We have to stop putting up with workplace practices that are not supportive of our well-being. When our employer does not support us, we cannot support our clients or patients. So let’s make some new norms, grassroots style. It’s time for a groundswell.


I’ve got a few ideas for workplace boundaries:


  • Patients come before paperwork.

  • Family comes before work.

  • Our team is fully staffed.

  • Maximum 40-hour work weeks.

  • Maximum 8-hour workdays.

  • Our workplace culture enforces breaks.

  • Self-care time is paid because it is necessary to carry out the job.

  • Our workplace culture gives time and mechanisms for grieving patients we have lost.

  • Our supervisor worries as much about our next vacation as our workplace performance.

And, for the love of Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid Al-Fitr, and Solstice…

Paperwork on holidays is prohibited — unless it’s wrapped around a gift.


If you're working this holiday: THANK YOU. Someone has to be there to care for patients who would also rather be with friends and family. I hope that no matter where you are, you feel valued for your contribution to your workplace, to your family, and to your community. You embody the true spirit of the holidays.


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#holidays #christmas #paperwork #boundaries #family #grief #workplaceculture #employmentpractices #employeeretention #priorities #lifeistooshort

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