Holiday Grit Guide
When the holidays are hard
Growing up, the holidays used to fill me with dread. Not the idea of them a few months or even weeks out, but the reality as the day drew closer. There was always the tension about “whose turn” it was, and what that would look like. Was I at my mom’s for Thanksgiving? If so that meant I was with my dad Christmas Day and my mom Christmas Eve. If I was with my dad for Thanksgiving, then it was reversed for Christmas. When I got older, Christmas Eve would get swapped based on Thanksgiving, but Christmas Day I would go to both houses so I could always be with my brother for some of it. Except for the year that my mom, stepdad and brother went to Florida to be with my step dad's family, and I had to stay home because it was my dad’s year. Kids with divorced parents will understand this well, as will anyone with a blended family.
Thanksgiving at my mom’s meant we would be driving to close family friends in Connecticut, where dinner would be delicious, but the drinks would be flowing freely. I always knew there was a decent possibility things would get messy with my mom, or embarrassing or deeply uncomfortable, and there would be nowhere to go. The day would begin at our apartment in New York City, where my step dad would tell my mom what time we needed to be walking out the door to reach Connecticut on time. Then he would go and get showered and dressed, and my brother and I would do the same. My mother would have picked out our outfits, and since my brother is eleven years younger, it would fall to me to make sure we were both dressed and ready.
Christmas card photo 1981
My mother, however, had a very strange sense of time. She would usually get in the shower as my stepdad was walking out the door to bring the car around and start loading it up with bottles of wine and pie and flowers and whatever else we were bringing. My brother and I would typically hear my mother turning off the shower at roughly the same time my step dad would start honking the horn from in front of our building, signaling that it was time to leave. My mother would continue getting ready as if time was a concept my step dad had created, and she could bend it at will. Around the time she’d have the hairdryer going, my step dad would come into the apartment, see my brother and me sitting there ready but waiting for our mom, and head to their bathroom where we’d hear the two of them discuss time in a heated fashion. Then my step dad would stride through the house calling out, “Here we goooooo!” in a way that my brother and I laugh about to this day. Even my kids and husband know what it sounds like because it’s family lore. If we are going anywhere, there’s a good chance that one of us will call out, “Here we goooooo!” It is funny now, but when I was a kid, the first “Here we goooooo!” was the starting gun. If my mother was not ready and walking out the door with us within ten to fifteen minutes, the horn usage outside our house would start to get intense. If my step dad had to come back into the apartment to ask my mother what on god’s green earth was taking so long we knew there was going to be trouble. Sometimes the ride to Connecticut would be very tense.
If it was a year I was with my dad for Thanksgiving, it would mean we’d head to friends of my stepmom’s. There was a big party at an apartment nearby with kids I would see once every two years, but kids who clearly spent a lot of time with one another in-between the Thanksgiving party. I’d always feel awkward and I was pretty painfully shy, so it was neither fun nor easy. My dad would get swallowed up with my stepmom and all the grownups, and I’d be down in the lower level of the apartment with about twenty kids I didn’t know. I’d spend a lot of the day trying to look like I felt comfortable, when inside I was dying and counting the likely minutes until we’d leave. I don’t recall any of the kids being mean, but I don’t recall any of them being particularly nice, either. It’s a dog-eat-dog world sometimes, as we all know.
Here’s the thing about holidays - they tend to magnify whatever isn’t going the way you wish it was. It’s so easy to fall prey to the Norman Rockwell-ish idea of what holidays should look like, what they should feel like, how they should be. Which is another way of saying, however your family situation or life situation is versus how you wish it was is probably the stuff that’s going to swirl around in your head like gravy, and make you feel a little sick. Unless, of course, you’re one of the few people who has a Norma Rockwell-ish family, and if that’s you, please identify yourself. I jest. There are, in fact, people who get really excited about the holidays and can’t wait to see their families, and that is wonderful. Truth be told, as much as holidays with my mom were incredibly stressful for me, I’d do just about anything to have one more Thanksgiving with her, even if she ended up drunk as balls. I’d love few things more than the chance to see her face, hear her voice, give her a huge hug, and tell her how much I miss her. I miss her so much, and I miss her a little more this time of year.
This is the time of year when she took a serious turn for the worse. It was the middle of November, 2021 and her ALS suddenly escalated. I won’t write too much now because I’ll end up beside myself and I don’t want to be beside myself today, but she ended up in the ICU and it was the beginning of the most horrible few weeks of my life, and the end of hers. She didn’t make it to Christmas, she passed away while I was holding her hand and whispering to her not to be scared, that it was okay to go, that I would take care of everything. December 7th, 2021 at 3:37am.
Maybe there’s someone missing from your table, and maybe you had a complicated relationship with them, too, or maybe there was nothing at all complicated about how you felt. Grief is unlike any other emotion I know, except love. I’m pretty sure they’re flip sides of the same coin, because anytime we love anyone wholeheartedly, we’re signing a contract that we may also be wholly brokenhearted at some point. Human beings don’t last forever, even though we don’t like to think about that. For those of us who’ve lost people, the idea of time passing without them is a painful reminder of what and who we are living without. The world keeps spinning, but our person isn’t here, not in a way that we can see them, hear them, hug them. Sometimes it doesn’t seem possible. It hurts.
If you’ve lost someone for reasons other than death, that hurts, too. I was a single mom for eight years, and having grown up with divorced parents, it was the last thing I wanted for my own kids. The holidays were bittersweet those first few years, even though I did everything in my power to make sure my kids were happy and at ease. I didn’t want them to swim in that stress or tension, that longing and sadness I felt about what I had hoped for, versus how things ended up. Not everything goes according to plan as we all know, but there’s a gift in learning how to release your grip on how you wanted things to be, and open to the beauty that can exist when things go in a direction you didn’t expect.
One of the tendencies that creates the most pain for people is the one that causes us to compare and contrast our experience to other people’s experiences. Holidays can be a little extra hard when your social media feed is full of people snapping pictures with family, laughing, hugging, passing the pie. The thing is, you really never know what’s happening in anyone else’s life. I remember once I was having lunch with my kids, they were about two and four years old at the time. There was a table next to us with these two young women, they looked about twenty-five. At one point, my ex husband came by to drop something off. He sat down for a few minutes, hugged the kids, we chatted, and he left. One of the girls leaned over and said, “Your family is so cute. Like, you guys are exactly what I want when I get to that point in my life.” I highly doubt she wanted to get divorced when her kids were tiny. Things can look one way and be another. And even if someone has something idyllic, which I do at this point, it is very likely hard-won and probably didn’t pan out in a straight, rom-com-like line. Few things do.
Lastly, you might have family members who are extremely challenging to be around, and the holidays may be fraught because of them. Maybe you love an addict, or you have someone in your family who does not respect your boundaries, or whose core beliefs insult your soul. Maybe you are related to someone who keeps lists of ways she’s been wronged by everyone in the family that dates back thirty years, and all it takes for her to pull the (metaphorical) list out is a little wine with dinner. It’s a very painful thing when you have family members who cannot be consistently kind and respectful. I know what it is to love people like that, and it is really tough. Depending on the circumstances, sometimes it means you just can’t put yourself in the line of fire. Having to walk away from family members who refuse to be loving is a different kind of pain. It feels personal, as if you don’t mean enough to this person to value your feelings. Sometimes a dynamic has existed for decades and you’ve grown up and away, and they are still stuck. If someone is cruel, thoughtless, unkind and intentionally disrespectful of your boundaries (especially if your boundaries are just to be treated with common courtesy and reasonable sensitivity), you might need to weigh whether it’s time to create a new, chosen family you celebrate with, and see the family members who are good to you on different days. No one should have a free pass to wreak havoc on your wellbeing, not even family.
If the holidays are hard for you for any of these reasons, know you are not alone. Be gentle with yourself. Create your own traditions. If you’re missing someone, try writing them a letter. Do something you know they would enjoy. Go sit quietly somewhere and talk to them. If you’re struggling because life isn’t looking the way you thought it would, make plans for the day that are going to feel good to you. It doesn’t matter what they are. Remember that holidays are temporary, families are complicated, life will always surprise you, and the best way to ride the ride is with your hands in the air. I mean, you can grip the wheel if you want to, but it won’t change the fact that twists and turns will come, our hearts will be broken some of the time, and joy will surprise you in places you might not even know about yet. Sending you lots of love.
Come As You Are is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
If you’d like to meet me in real time to talk about all of the above, I will be here Friday, 11/24/23 at 11:15am PST, or you can wait for the Come As You Are Podcast version. If you’d like to meet me out in the real world, I would love that so much.