November 20, 2023

Managing Holiday Stress with Michael Ian Black and Martha Hagen-Black

Today’s bonus episode is with special guests — and Leslie’s former clients — comedian Micheal Ian Black and interior designer Martha Hagen-Black. They join me to talk through holiday stress, and how to manage expectations around family and holiday plans. 

About the guests:
Micheal Ian Black is a comedian, actor, author and podcast host. You can find his podcast, Obscure, here.

Marsha Hagen-Black is an interior designer, murder mystery lover, and architecture nerd. You can find more about her work on her Instagram @studiohagenhus.

Show Note Links

  • Cope Ahead Video: A Dialectic Behavior Therapy Skill

    Leslie-ism: May you find moments of joy in your holiday season.

    Credits: Is My Child a Monster is produced by Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, and Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Theme music is by L-Ray Music. Public relations is handled by Tink Media. Graphics and Website Design by Brien O’Reilly. by Eric Rubury. A special thanks to everyone who contributes their wisdom and support to make this possible.


    0:03  Michael: I don’t think we did a very good job of saying to them, “I know this might be a challenge for you, but this is what’s important for us as a family.” I think our attitude was basically, “Oh, shut up, it’s fine.”

    0:21  Leslie Cohen-Rubury:  Hi, I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Is My Child A Monster? is between seasons right now, and we’re releasing all sorts of bonus content, including upcoming mini-episodes about expectations, and how to find a therapist.

    On today’s bonus episode, I’m joined by interior designer and murder mystery lover, Martha Hagen-Black; and comedian, actor, and author, Michael Ian Black. His podcast, called, Obscure, is available wherever you get your podcasts. Martha and Michael were longtime clients who I first met when they took my parenting class about 15 years ago. Their kids are now adults; so they’re joining me to share some of what they learned along the way, and talk about managing holiday stress. 

    So let’s get started.

    1:17  Leslie:  Thank you so much for joining me, Michael and Martha.

    1:20  Michael:  Oh, yeah. Hello. Nice to be here.

    1:22  Martha:  So happy to join.

    1:24  Leslie:  It’s so great to have you. I’m between seasons right now, so, people might be wondering why you’re on the podcast with me today, because you’re not my typical guest, per se. But you are parents, and we have worked together. We’re talking about the holidays today. But let’s go back to what is it like just taking young children–if you can remember–to family, or did family come to you? Let’s just start with the basics. Did you go to family, or did they come to you?

    Martha B  1:49  

    We did a little bit of both over the years. You know, thanksgiving for many, many years, we always was expected to spend with Michael’s family. And either we had to go to Florida, which we all hated. We’re just see his mother or sometimes some year she came up to the New England area to see all of us. And then Christmas. We were usually alone. But there were many times when either my parents flew out, or I think there was only one Christmas, we went to Minnesota. Yeah,

    2:31  Michael:  I would say, from an advisory point of view, if you have young children, and you’re inclined to travel with them over the holidays: don’t. Don’t do that.


    2:44  Leslie:  Tell me more about that. 

    2:47  Michael:  I mean, you’re going to make yourself miserable. Trying to throw things into suitcases, get presents organized, figure out, like, just traveling with children is terrible. So if you can avoid it at all costs, avoid it. Have people come to you? If you can, outlay money so they come to you. First of all, you’ll save money, because instead of traveling with you and your partner and your kids, maybe it’s just two parents that you have to fly in. It’s so much better. The less you have to travel with children during the holidays, the better holidays will be for everybody. 

    3:22  Martha:  As every parent knows, their routine is completely thrown in the air and so they often won’t sleep well, whatever corner you’ve stuck them in your parents house, whatever. So everyone ends up being miserable, because no one’s getting sleep.

    3:33  Michael:  Right. Plus just the anxiety and excitement of the holidays can make everything a little bit more challenging with young kids. So yeah, my advice would be either don’t travel with your kids, or if you are going to travel, put your children in a kennel somewhere: board them.


    3:50  Leslie:  Okay, well, this is great advice. I mean, really. The holidays: it’s like saying to people don’t stress–the holidays’ coming, don’t stress. Well, I’ve never heard anyone take my advice. I’ve been giving that advice for the last thirty, thirty five years, and nobody’s following my advice. 

    So let’s go backwards and say, how do we make it better? And I love your suggestions. We still have to figure out, what is it. Because you’re right, Martha, your talking about the expectations. Or one of you said it: the expectations and the stress of waking up at five in the morning with young kids when you’re traveling. So bringing in parents is a great idea. But even if you’re bringing in parents, I don’t know about you, but I had to give my children a heads-up that some of the relatives are going to be who they are. So I would say, “Poppi is going to be Poppi and so-and-so is going to be so-and-so. It’s like we have to help our children deal with different personalities.

    4:51  Michael:  That’s funny. In my experience, the kids are fine with different personalities. It’s the adults. 


    5:00  Martha:  They’re always like, “Why are you telling us that? Grandma’s fine.”

    5:07  Leslie:  That’s very true. So I think holidays, sometimes, are more stressful for the adults, because you have a history with family. And your kids, they’re bringing a whole new perspective to it. So, did you know to regulate yourselves when you were going away or being with family? Did you know that little piece? Did I teach that piece to you in the past? 

    5:30  Michael:  I feel like when it comes to powers of regulation, and the strength of regulation, and the awareness of regulation, my wife is probably in a better position to talk about that than I am.

    5:38  Martha:  Oh, no, I thought you were going to throw me under the bus…


    Michael: I would never.

    Martha:  It all goes out the window. Michael’s very regulated.

    5:47  Michael:  I’m not always regular, but I am regulated.


    5:52  Martha:  I think I was always going into it, just holding on, holding myself tight and trying to just accept what we were going to do. But it was never very enjoyable, I would say, for me.

    6:12  Leslie:  Okay, so let’s give our parents a little advice. On the idea of staying regulated, Michael—I’m going back to that—on the idea of staying regulated. What tools do you actually use, because when we stay regulated, we help our kids stay regulated. And whether they’re tired from the travel, maybe they’re not picking up on the family dynamics, but they’re still traveling, they’re still exhausted or excited. And regulation, co-regulation, is a really important way of helping anyone move through it. So what tools did you use? What kind of strategies did you try? 

    6:55  Michael:  One good way, one good thing to do is at around 7:30pm, you go, “Oh, I’m exhausted, I have to go to bed.”


    7:03  Leslie:  And either you leave the kids up with the relatives, or…

    7:07  Michael:  …you remove yourself.

    7:10  Martha:  I think she wants this as a parenting podcast, and she wants all the usual things that you did.

    7:14  Michael:  That is what I do. I remove myself. That’s the situation. 

    Martha:  That’s not necessarily good. 

    Michael:  I think it’s the best thing to do, well, for me,

    7:22  Leslie:  Let’s get rid of good or bad. When does it work to do that? Like, how would your kids respond? Now, it’s a very different thing to remove yourself when your child is five, versus when your child is fifteen. 

    7:31  Michael:  Yeah, well, with the kids…I mean, honestly, when we traveled with the kids, aside from the sleep stuff, and just the general excitement, and the routines, and everything, is our kids were usually pretty good about travel. I mean, I think in my experience, young kids especially, tend to be pretty flexible, as long as they feel like their needs are being met, and attention is being paid, and they feel safe. I feel like they can roll with pretty much anything in my experience, that really, in my experience, it really is the adults who struggle, not the kids.

    8:07  Leslie:  I can definitely agree with you. And I think that’s some of the big takeaways that I give with parents in the parenting podcast is that we need to look at ourselves, and we need to figure out how to regulate ourselves and understand. So holidays are a time when we are absolutely going to have some issues coming up. So do you remember any examples when that happened when you were trying to regulate yourself?

    8:36 Martha: I do remember being in one particular…having a really hard time regulating myself and I wanted to model. I think mostly I would try to model for them, even if they weren’t aware when they were little, kind of what just kindness and patience was. But I remember one time we were driving to see his family in New Jersey for Thanksgiving and it was supposed to be a two hour car ride and it turned into five and a half hours. And we also had the au pair in the car that we were bringing with us and we were just going there for dinner and then we were going to turn around and come back…and I just couldn’t handle it. I just lost it and I don’t think the kids were even particularly…

    Michael:  I think they were fine. 

    Martha:  I think they were fine. I was just losing it because this anticipation, trying to hang on to…I mean, I was the child in this situation, trying to hang on to my emotions about what the day was going to be, and then having to deal with this ten-hour car trip, round trip, which I just couldn’t believe we were doing. I just couldn’t, I didn’t regulate myself very well. And I think I… 

    Michael:  Were you yelling?

    Martha:  I probably was yelling at some point. 

    9:55  Leslie:  Well, you said about modeling, and I’m going to make a point of that. That’s a great one because it’s okay for us to admit that we’re struggling. I mean, the kids see it, it’s not like we’re going hide it from them, right? So it is okay for parents, if you’re in that situation, whether you’re with your family and you’re having difficulty, whether you’re sitting in traffic and having difficulty. But if you as the parent are the one struggling, it is okay to say, “Hey, I’m struggling, I’m a little tense, this drive is not what I expected.” And so if that’s the case, you want to add for your children, regardless of what ages, “I’m struggling, and I can handle it.”

    I really like to tell kids that it’s okay that you’re struggling and that you’re going to handle it. And then you can either talk about the strategies you’re using-–”I’m going to do some breathing”—you might play a game, these are all ways of coping, and we want to teach them that. So if you’re struggling, why not show it to our kids? It’s when we’re struggling, and we don’t bring that wise mind, we don’t bring that awareness—that’s when the expectations really get us. You had expectations with your family, it sounds like. Did you think you were going to go and have a great time and no traffic? I mean, expectations get a lot of us in trouble. So tell me about that. What were you expecting?

    11:16  Michael:  I think we were probably…I mean, for whatever reason, holidays do bring out both expectations and anxiety, I think, in every family. Ours is no different on both sides of our family, Martha’s and mine. And the expectations can be positive, but they can also be negative expectations. And sometimes those expectations become challenges that you have to overcome. For example, if we think it’s going to be difficult because of sleep schedules, and because of personal tensions, and whatever else, sometimes those things become self-fulfilling prophecies. 

    And conversely, sometimes the expectation of everybody having an amazing holiday can create its own unnecessary burden. We build up these events in our lives to be sometimes something more than they are, rather than just saying, this is an opportunity for us to get together and whatever will be will be, which is how I want to approach any family gathering. And it’s not always easy, because as you know, like everybody falls into their familiar patterns in families. And yes, it’s sometimes hard to remind yourself that you’re not necessarily the same 14-year-old who was causing so many problems for these people decades ago. And they may have those expectations of you. And it’s important to just be who you are today, as as opposed to be who you were yesterday or 25 years ago,

    12:58  Leslie:  So I think what you’re describing, Michael, is this commitment to your values, and that your value of being with your family is an important value to you. And you’re just showing up with family for the sake of that value and your commitment. And I think that’s another thing that we can communicate to our children,just letting them know that you’re going to spend time with the family, even though it may not be easy or always fun sitting in five hours of traffic, because you believe in this value of family. And I think it’s important to name our values to our kids. And also it helps you name why are you putting yourself through this. 

    So why are you doing what you’re doing? So, that’s a good point. I love that. Do you know your limits? I’m going to switch a little bit when you go away and you’re with family. Do you know how much you can handle, what your limits are? Do you need a little space? Did you ever know that that was an option as a strategy? Does that make sense?

    14:02  Michael:  I’ll answer that quickly, as Martha probably has more to say about it than I do. But for me, yeah, I am aware of…I have become aware over the years of my limits. And when I say I need to remove myself, I need to remove myself. And that can be away or that can be if I have people at our house here. Sometimes, I’m just somebody who needs to be alone, I would say most of the time. And when I’m in a big social setting, I need to remove myself. 

    14:32  Leslie:  Okay, knowing yourself. Martha, what do you want to add there?

    14:35  Martha:  Well, what you’re good at is, you’ll do it even when…you don’t have that fear of, well, what are people going to think if I just… like, you don’t care what their expectations for you are, what they’re thinking, 

    14:48  Michael:  Well, I don’t want to be rude, but…there are times, like, even if we’re out, like, at a dinner party or something, I’ll say, “Okay, I need to go. This was great. Bye.” 

    14:59  Leslie:  I’m going to share a story that reminds me is, I love the fact that we go to our family holiday, and there’s a lot of us. And it was always held at my sister’s house in the past. And when 9;30 or whatever time came around, she would just go upstairs, put her pajamas on, say, “Goodnight, I love you, I gotta go.” So, it’s just okay for all of us to be who we are. And in holidays, we see that. The TV’s on and families, some people are a lot of technology—some people can’t stand that—there’s the football game on, there’s the jokes that are going on. We’re walking into situations where you’re with people, and everybody’s going to be themselves.

    15:44  Michael:  And usually, family is the place where you can most be yourself. That’s not always the case. But I think, for me, the idea of family is a home base. It’s a safe space for you to just be yourself and to kind of let down your guard. And to feel as though, even though I know this isn’t the case, you can be yourself—your most authentic self—without the same kind of judgment you might experience in the workplace, for example. And it’s just, I know, that’s not always the case. But to me, that’s the ideal of family.

    16:19  Leslie:  Sure, that sounds wonderful. And as you said, it’s not always the case. And I think there are a lot of people who actually have a chosen family for the holidays, because it’s so challenging for them to be with family. We’re speaking to a wide variety of people who, for some, it’s letting down their hair, they get to be who they are, no judgment. And then other people, that’s where they feel the most judged. So yeah, I agree with you. 

    So there’s a skill, you want to learn new skills, you guys? There’s a skill in DBT—Dialectical Behavior Therapy—that we call cope ahead. And interestingly enough, it involves a bit of rehearsal. So I want you to try this. As the holidays come up, what you do is in step one, you imagine the situation, that you’re going to have some emotional response to; whether that’s traffic, whether that’s a five-year-old waking up at 6 am, whether it’s a comment that a relative is going to make or something like that. You imagine the situation, you name the problem, and you name the emotion you’re likely to have, whether it’s anger, anxiety, frustration, whatever it is. Then you imagine—a lot of imaginal rehearsal here—you imagine what skills you want to use. And yes, you need to know some skills. Are you going to take a deep breath? Are you going to bring some car games, or get a book on tape or a great podcast called Is My Child A Monster? I mean, you can bring all these things along. You can start to cope ahead with some distraction skills. There’s lots of distraction skills that help us cope with stress in the moment. There’s a new perspective—you can find another interpretation. 

    And then the last step is, you’ve rehearsed it in your mind the way you want it, you don’t rehearse the rose-colored situation, like, everything will go, well, we won’t hit traffic, da da da. The rehearsal is: you rehearse it, either in your mind, or if you’re dealing with the kids, rehearse it with them, roleplay it. And rehearse it over and over again so that by the time you get to the situation, even if you’re just driving there, and you want to rehearse it in the 10 minutes before you arrive, or a few days or a week before, as much as you can, you’ve rehearsed it. And I will tell you, your body has a cellular memory that when you rehearse it, your mind doesn’t know the difference between the rehearsal, and the actual real moment, those skills will show up for you. And you will respond differently in the moment. 

    18:55  Michael:  You just made me think of something when you talked about a chosen family. I’m on tour right now, with my old sketch group. We’ve known each other since we were teenagers. And they very much are my chosen family, and very much have all of the same issues that you would have in any family. And it just made me think about what are the coping strategies that I have been dealing with on a kind of sub…I mean, consciously, but I wasn’t consciously thinking of it as these are coping skills. It was more like, well, this is how I’m going to deal with the situation, as I know it’s going to come up and it did. And having, I think, thought about these things beforehand, it did help. I think I wasn’t naming it the way you’re naming it, but I think I was doing what you’re describing and it has been really helpful.

    19:46  Leslie:  I’m so glad to hear that. Cope ahead is a great skill for all sorts of things, not just the holidays. I appreciate that you just applied it to that. And we do use a lot of skills sort of unconsciously. And the whole goal of feeling more regulated and empowered, is just to bring a little intention to it, bring your mindfulness to, “Oh, look what I’m using. And I can use this intentionally because that feels good.” So I’m glad you just made that connection between that the two.

    20:15  Martha:  I feel like it does change with kids when they’re young. Well, everybody has different challenges with their kids for different reasons. But, we have one child that was very, very laid back and easy. And one child that was very, I wouldn’t say high strung, but she was…

    Michael:   Strong willed.

    Martha:  Strong willed and energetic. But she was also easy to take anywhere. She wasn’t like…it wasn’t a drama to shift them around and move them places. But I do remember as they got older, and we started doing those things, those holidays, that used to be fine, where all the kids got along. All of a sudden, they don’t like each other. They’re older, and they’re like, “I don’t really know him, I don’t really know her,” and they don’t really want to hang out with them. And then all sudden, this holiday that used to be a you know, we used to cope with and be, “Oh, this is okay,” now all of a sudden, they’re like, not happy, don’t want to go. And then they have to start coping with how to deal with that. And that’s interesting, because it does morphed over the years,

    21:24  Michael:  In some ways, it got easier for us as it got harder for them. And I don’t think we did a very good job of saying to them, “I know this might be a challenge for you. But this is what’s important for us as a family.” I think our attitude was basically, “Oh, shut up, it’s fine.”


    21:40   Leslie:  Okay, all right—can we take that apart a little bit there, Michael? You gave me something really good to work with right there. Okay. So, yes, first, let’s acknowledge that sometimes families have more difficulty when the kids are young; and then it may get easier as they get older, or vice versa. Or maybe, for some, both situations are hard. But you did say, in hindsight, “Oh, maybe I could have said hey, this would be difficult for you.” That’s called validation. And a lot of validation is super important in these situations for yourself, for your partner, for your children, it’s really magical, because…it’s not magical, it’s science…when we feel validated. When we feel like we are being seen and heard and understood, if you could just say, “Hey, you’re going to the family, I don’t know that you guys know your cousins as well, I don’t know that you’re as comfortable being around everybody, now that you’re a little bit older. And you used to but—I’m going to switch that to the dialectic andand we have this value of being together and family, it’s not going to be easy. I get that you don’t want to be here. Thanks for being part of this family.” And sometimes we leave the and off—we just validate, “This is not what you want to be doing this weekend.” Period, the end. So we want to just validate that. And that’s great. I think that you pointed that out, I just want to make a point that validation is sometimes the best way to, not solve the problem, but acknowledge what we’re going through.

    23:15  Martha:  Yeah, definitely. Because I think most of the time teens think you don’t understand them, and you’re not hearing them. And sometimes they just keep their mouths shut. So how are you supposed to understand them? But if you can kind of see what’s going on and voice it and say it out loud. And then say, and…

    23:35  Leslie:  And my two words that I love to use are: tell me more. So if they say, “I can’t believe we have to go,” or if you see their behavior is they’re not engaging.. You could say, “Hey, I noticed that you’re very withdrawn. Can you tell me more?” And that not feeling understood? There may be a reason they don’t want to go to the holidays, they may have had a past experience that you didn’t know about. And I think, sometimes, when we just invite them to have a conversation, they are being told that it’s okay to share. They may not share in that moment. But it’s still wonderful to be given the invitation of, “Tell me more. I’m really curious why this feels so miserable.” 

    So I do have one more question for you before we start to wrap up. Now that your kids are out of the house, what advice can you give to parents who are still in the thick of it?

    24:33  Michael:  The easy sort of trite advice, which I’m not going to give but I feel like people hear this all the time, is enjoy these precious moments because they’re so fleeting. And I remember receiving that advice and wanting to give people the double bird upon hearing it, because, yes, I know all of that is true. And yet I’m also experiencing tremendous stress in this moment. I know when I look back at these Hallmark moments, I’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, that was great.” But the truth is, it’s very stressful,

    25:09  Martha:  Because it’s not acknowledging your feelings in the moment.

    Michael: Right. It’s not acknowledging the truth of the moment. 

    Martha:  It’s trying to whitewash that and be like, “But it’ll be fine, you’re fine.”

    25:19  Michael:  And it’s not fine in the moment. It’s hard. It’s really hard. So for me, the advice I would give to parents is, “Hey, it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be frustrating, you’re going to have challenges. And you’ll be fine.” And look for those moments of warmth, and conviviality. And try to take in the good, rather than focusing on all the stressful stuff, because there will be plenty of good: sitting around the table, and your dad is telling a story to your kids that maybe you haven’t heard since you were a kid.

    Martha: Or never.

    Michael:  Or never. That first moment, it might be 5:30 in the morning, but your kids seeing the presents under the tree—just pause, take in those moments, understand that there’s a lot of stress and a lot of pain and difficulty that’s going to come along with them. But there’s also going to be some real joy and just try to experience the joy as well as the frustration.

    26:21  Leslie:  Beautifully said—I love it. You’re naming mindfulness of little moments. And I do think that it’s almost like a connect-the-dot that yes, there’s going to be so much stress, or difficulty, that you may be facing in the holidays. It’s a compressed time of lots of expectations, lots of different personalities. And we do have those moments of joy. So let’s not disqualify the positive as you’re going through a tough time. And let’s focus on some moments, mindful moments of joy that you can see. Great advice, I love it. 

    27:01  Michael:  And one more piece of advice, which I think can be helpful for people. A lot of times, in my experience, being in maybe unfamiliar settings, or dealing with family and you’re dealing with all this stress. Give yourself a task, be helpful, be engaged in the sort of moment-to-moment things that need to be accomplished. Not only are you sort of distracting yourself from your stress, but you’re also contributing to reducing stress for other people.

    27:28  Leslie:  Love it. That’s great. And those are things that maybe some of the kids want to do as well. They could have a job when they go do something at someone’s house. I love that idea of contributing.

    27:40  Martha:  I think it’s good to encourage that with your kids. “Why don’t you go help Grandma stir the pot?” My grandma—usually, she may not want them in the kitchen, but usually they love having them in the kitchen. 

    27:97  Leslie:  It accomplishes two things: it gets them out of your hair and it gets them engaged and part of the family. So, lovely advice. I love it. Thank you. 

    Oh, my goodness, I know you didn’t think you had any wisdom. But aren’t you surprising yourself? Isn’t this lovely that you’re sharing so much wisdom?

    28:17  Martha:  I do think it’s…

    28:20  Michael:  …it’s hard earned.

    28:21  Martha:  Yes, it’s hard earned. And I do think we were okay parents. And I have to say, that idea that you have to be great parents and solve every problem in every minute, in order to somehow hope that then your children will turn out happy—it’s just not true. And just accepting yourself as a parent and accepting the moment and that, “Okay, this Christmas might be crazy, but maybe next Christmas will be really nice.” You just don’t know. And you have to give yourself a break. And I think overall, now that we’re older…

    29:00  Michael:  You did fine.

    29:01  Martha:  We did fine.


    29:04  Leslie:  So our advice for those parents going through it right now is: you’re doing great. You’re hanging in there. You know, if the holidays are a disaster, then at least you have something to talk about in therapy. So there’s many ways to look at this. 

    Thank you so much for being here.

    29:20  Michael:  Well, thanks for having us, Leslie. For us, it’s an honor to be invited on your podcast because you’ve given us so much good advice over the years. So thank you.

    29:28  Martha:  I tell everybody about your podcast.

    29:30  Leslie:  Oh my goodness. Well, we’ve supported each other throughout the years. So it’s lovely to hear that you’re sharing that. I really appreciate it and I thank you guys so much. I love having you here. Thank you. 

    Martha:  You’re welcome.

    [Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]

     42:21  Leslie:  Thank you so much to Dale for taking the time to join me. And thank you all for joining us. We are taking a break for a few months where we will be recording sessions for season two. We’re planning to release Season 2 in January. We will have a few surprises in the feed so make sure you are subscribed wherever you get your podcasts and follow us on social media for updates. On Instagram, find us at Leslie Cohen-Rubury And on Facebook, search for Is My Child A Monster? parenting community. You can also find links and other resources in the show notes. The Is My Child A Monster? team is Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, Gabriela Glueck, and me. Special thanks to Eric Rubury. Our theme music is by L-Ray Music. I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Thanks so much for listening. And remember, raising responsible children who think for themselves is more important than raising obedient children.

    Transcribed by edited by Eric Rubury

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