My husband’s comment about my speaking opportunity was meant to be a joke, although there was some truth behind it. I couldn’t help but laugh, a little. Afterall, don’t we all struggle with control issues? My speaking engagement went well, I think, and I thoroughly enjoyed being around so many moms. It also made me realize that it wasn’t having pre-school aged children that I have missed these last couple of years, it was being with other moms on a regular basis. The talk was 35 minutes, so there is no way I could put everything here in one post. I will spare you all of the boring details and try and focus on the most important points.
I took this talk seriously, made a detailed outline, and practiced out loud with a timer to a four-legged audience of one. My dog, Luna. She fell asleep. Not a stellar start to say the least. My voice was stiff and collegiate. My usual honest, conversational cadence was simply non-existent. My last attempt was made sitting at swim practice, tackling this talk like a blog post. If I could hide behind my laptop, sit cross-legged in my velour jogging suit, with a cup of heavily creamed coffee in my hand, what would I really say?
First, I’d admit that I am a closet Scrooge. And not the post ghost trampled, attitude adjusted Scrooge. It takes work to enjoy the holidays, and mostly because I have to get out of my own way to enjoy the season. Let’s face it, whether we like it or not, our past molds our present. A great deal of how we view life, especially around the holidays, hinges on what kind of childhood we had. Good or bad. Our current expectations are rooted in memories.
Ok – try and picture this:
A little girl feeling giddy putting on their new Christmas dress before having family dinner with mom, dad, siblings, grandparents and an aunt and uncle at the same Chinese restaurant every year. After dinner everyone goes to candle-light mass, the little girl practically falls asleep in the car on the way home. Then picture waking up Christmas morning with eager anticipation, running into the family room to a beautifully decorated tree towering over mounds of carefully wrapped presents. The morning is spent playing with new toys, trying on new clothes, or attempting new games with siblings while smelling tantalizing aromas streaming from the kitchen. By mid-day the house is filled with guests and good food. Then later in the evening the fire-pit is lit and the roasting of marshmallows begins. Someone might even pull out a guitar and start singing. And last but not least, everyone piles up into the car to drive through the well-lit neighborhoods to oohh and aahh over the brilliant lights.
That was my childhood Christmas experience.
It didn’t change much after I moved out either, because I lived close to home for years. The Christmas Day parties just got bigger and the food got more amazing. My mom still hosted even after I got married and had my first baby. It was a joy to bring my eldest daughter to experience the same holiday happiness that I had my whole life.
Then something happened. I got divorced. I got remarried. I moved to another state.
Imagine what my expectations were then. Luckily my husband’s family all lives in Texas as well and it was his tradition to spend the holidays with his immediate family. However, now, I had to balance his traditions with my own. I had to compromise – Christmas Eve with his family, Christmas Day with mine. It took time, but my attitude about the holidays slowly evolved and I started to truly understand that this time of year has very little to do with where you spend it, but who you spend it with. It doesn’t matter if you eat pizza and open presents on Christmas Eve in your pajamas or wear a pretty dress over Chinese or sing Silent Night by candle-light with a hall full of voices. What matters is being present. What matters is developing expectations of grace, forgiveness, generosity and selflessness.
So how do we do that? How about breaking it down into two parts:
So let’s start with the Internal Expectations. I believe these are all the burdens that we lay on ourselves in regards to our attitude, body image or self-esteem, decorating the house, making a budget, and hosting events.
First, Attitude. It is huge. Just because I had wonderful childhood memories sculpting my expectations of what the holidays look like, don’t think I had a great attitude. There were times I felt bitter about not getting dressed up and going to dinner with my family. When life changed, and I had to take someone else’s desires into consideration, my expectations needed to change as well. And just when I came to grips with that, my parents moved to Virginia. My expectations of what Christmas Day looked like took a 360 degree turn again because my husband’s family doesn’t celebrate Christmas Day the way I had been celebrating it for 35 years. No party. No huge spread of food. No extended family or friends to toast the day. Instead of fire pits and acoustic guitar singing they watch football, play kickball, go for a walk or play games with the kids. It is still just as family focused, but smaller and more like a regular day.
But I know not everyone has good holiday memories. What if your childhood memories are of over-stressed parents who openly talked about how much of a financial burden the holidays were or that you had to split your time between two households because your parents weren’t married any more, and each parent complained about the other parent? I can’t imagine how that kind of childhood environment would effect you now as an adult, but I think it’s safe to say that if you come into the holidays with a poor attitude, you are doomed from the start. You’ve already pre-determined the whole feel of the season. And most likely if you are feeling a little Scroogey on the inside, it is showing on the outside.
*At this point of my talk I told the ladies to look around their table and make the most angry, annoyed, frustrated face that they could think of and hold it for about 30 seconds. You can do it in a mirror, and take a good long look. Yes – that is what your kids think the holidays look like too when your bad attitude shows on the outside.
Second is negative self-talk. It doesn’t just affect you; it affects everyone around you too. Imagine what your husband must think finding you sitting on the edge of the bed, half-dressed, crying your eyes out minutes before you are supposed to leave.
“Um, honey,” he might say. “What’s wrong?”
And you reply, “My butt is too big for EVERYTHING. That’s what’s wrong!”
Hypothetically speaking, of course, wink…wink.
Let me tell you a little secret – YOU WILL GAIN WEIGHT OVER THE HOLIDAYS. I didn’t stutter. It’s true. And if you haven’t already gained weight from Thanksgiving, then it is coming. Soon. So just get over it and buy an outfit that really fits and makes you feel like a million bucks and quit expecting your clothes to miraculously grow with you. There is an entire year ahead of you to be a healthier, more fit you. The holidays are NOT a time to diet or fret about all the times you drove through Tim Horton’s donuts after the kids got on the bus and had not one, but two, Canadian Maple Donuts.
Thirdly, house decorating, budget and hosting because they all go together. No one cares if the potpourri in your family room matches the scented candles in the dining room which compliment the perfume laden pine-cones in the living room. Really. Besides our tree, my children’s favorite decorations are the hundreds of handmade paper snowflakes taped to our wall of windows in the kitchen. So if you are blowing your time and budget on table-top decorations or pre-lit banister lights, just know that the only person you are impressing is yourself. Quit expecting a pat on the back for making your house look like the JoAnn’s Etc. warehouse when what you really need to be doing is enjoying your company without breaking the bank.
When I was a kid my mother’s parties seemed effortless. Everything was homemade and in abundance. Instead of one main dish, there were always two. Instead of two vegetable sides, there were four. Got it? And she did it all in a skirt – that whole June Cleaver meets Martha Stewart thing. So believe me it was quite a shock to find myself hiding in the bathroom, (the one room that no one over age 12 would ever look), sitting on top of the toilet lid with a bottle of wine, a handful of candy-corn and wondering what in the world that mystery stain could possibly be on my velour sweat pants. My hosting expectations had to come down a few notches.
Ok – moving on to External Expectations. External Expectations are all those things that impact our life, good or bad, which are out of our control. Really, the most important thing I think we need to remember about the things and people surrounding us is this: We can not control other people’s behavior; we can only control how we respond to that behavior.
Everyday day, for months on end, the media has been bombarding us with images and announcements dictating how our holidays should look and feel. But the media’s view is one built on a foundation of profit. Don’t let it confuse you into thinking the holidays are about expensive gifts, fancy parties, big trips or daily entertainment. The only expectation you should have is spending time together as a family and giving back to your community.
I’ve also learned over the years that we have very little control over our children’s responses, truly. We might put hours of thought into the perfect holiday gifts for them only to be destroyed by a pouty face. My expectations now are that I get a thank you – I don’t really care if you like it or not, but you will use it, wear it or end up donating it.
Now extended family is tricky, especially if it is your husband’s family. You might think that the grievances you are harboring only affect you, but they affect your husband and your children. When you complain about his family, you are complaining about a part of who he is, and a part of what he holds dear to his heart. Your children also begin forming personal opinions based on your frustrations that will impact their relationships. That’s what girlfriends are for anyway – go vent to them, and then smile politely when someone criticizes how much food is on your plate. My husband is an amazing sounding board. He lets me vent about our friends, our children and sometimes even our family but then he always helps me put things in perspective. One of the most eye-opening, and grounding, conversations we once had went something like this:
Me: “Aaaarrrggghhh! I am so mad that so-and-so made me feel guilty about spending time with so-and-so”
DW: “Is this behavior different than any other time?”
Me: “Um. No.”
DW: “So why then do you have an expectation that this person will behave differently at Christmas than any other time of the year?
We also have to set realistic holiday expectations in order for our children to have healthy opinions of the holidays when they are adults. Remember that face you made? Is that what you want them to look like when they are parents? What do you want them to remember?
I think in order to set reasonable holiday expectations; we need to Reconcile our Childhood Experiences with our Adult Expectations. We can’t allow disappointing childhood experiences to pre-determine what kind of experiences our families will have – we can learn from those memories and make our present whatever we desire. On the other hand, if our childhood memories are nostalgic and perfect, we can’t expect the same experiences for our own families. We aren’t the same people we were decades ago – we were children then, and now we are the adults.
And last but not least – Pick Your Battles. This isn’t just your holiday; it’s your husband’s, your in-laws’, your children’s, your parents’, and everyone else around you. What is important to you is not important to everyone and you can’t expect to get everything your way all the time. Figure out what family traditions you are not willing to compromise and which traditions you are willing to compromise. When you think of your childhood, what do you remember the most and is it something you want your children to remember? After you have figured out what is really important to you, then set your holiday expectations. You should also think about what expectations disappoint you year after year and come up with a solution to avoid those annual disappointments.
And remember, the only weight you should focus on losing this holiday season is the unnecessary baggage of Unhealthy Expectations.