It’s that time again—time to acknowledge our ambivalent relationships with the holidays, a real mine field of gray areas. We’re supposed to be merry, and embraced in the bosom of our families, and we’re supposed to make the dreams of those around us come true, and make memories to last a lifetime, and give everyone a seat at the Norman Rockwell table, and if we’re not Martha Stewart then by god she’d better be on hire for the season decorating the house and cooking the Christmas dinner. Talk about pressure! No wonder many of us are harboring a barely hidden layer of dread below our Ho-Ho-Hos!
I know intellectually that I am not responsible for making the holidays perfect for my son and for my mother, who lives nearby, but darned if I don’t feel that responsibility at some gut level and get sucked in year after year. I used to feel absolutely pulled in two directions with their visions for how we celebrate (do I cook, do we go out, how far do we go with the decorating, do we have a live tree or an artificial one). I finally took charge and we developed a rhythm—Thanksgiving I bought the turkey out but cooked the sides homemade, and Christmas we picked a country and made a themed feast (this made it feel more fun for me and no one complained at the Italian baked ziti, antipasti and chicken parmesan, or the chateaubriand and buche de Noel. The hard clench of my insides eased a bit with the advent of having taken control of the holidays, but there was still a lingering sense of dread as they approached. Sort of a forced march.
Things have changed now with my 25-year old son a burgeoning foodie who serves as head chef, with me very happy to be relegated to sous chef. My mom helps with chopping veggies or chats in the living room with any other guests we may have and the pressure (from the pressure cooker that was once me) is off. But there is still this free-floating anxiety that overtakes me at this time of year. No, it’s not just Seasonal Affective Disorder, where the shorter days and lack of sun can take some of the wind out of my sails. I’ve attributed it to a sense that my son didn’t feel like it was a real family, just the three of us, or that my mom always mourned the holidays of her married past and more that were meant to be. But as I had a conversation about this with a close friend, I suddenly wondered, was it just about them or was it about me, too? Was I feeling like three at the table instead of four didn’t equal a real family, or was I mourning not only the holidays of my married days (or more accurately, my vision of what they could have been) but those of my childhood, to which I attribute retroactively a Norman Rockwell-esque glow?
Whatever the reasons, I’m my own worst enemy, and I know I’m not the only one who falls into the trap of expectations and perfectionism at the holidays. I need to re-read columns and blogs I’ve written over the years about kicking Martha to the curb, and needing to breathe, and gratitude. Let’s make a pact to make perfectionism a four-letter word, and understand that expectations are the enemy of a good time. Let’s accept our families, and ourselves, for who we are, and realize that being together—whether with the families we were born with or ones we’ve created for ourselves—is a gift not to be taken for granted. That the relentless push of consumerism to do bigger and better with presents and house decorations is corporate America doing its job—but that doesn’t mean we have to buy into it. And that the impulse for giving this time of year is the one we should be listening to, not the voice of impossible extravagance and the pretense that families—or we ourselves—are perfect.
Letting go, I’m hoping to put a little more jingle in my step this year, and if the halls don’t get decked, well, I still know which list Santa’s got me on. It’s The Good Enough List, dwelling place of good enough moms and dads, good enough grandparents, and mischievous children, all of whose hearts are in the right place.