If you’re going to get all judgey-wudgey with me and tell me to shift my perspective and appreciate the precious moments, please stop reading and go away now, for the love of all that is holy. I. Can’t. Even. I intend to rant a little. Or a lot.
I’m exhausted from this time of rest and relaxation, and I go back to work to a week of back to back clients with whom I have to play catch up, and hear about all of their holiday woes and really valid trauma reactions to stuff. To be completely honest, I’ve been anxious about going back to work since about a week before my vacation even started, which kinda’ harshes the holiday buzz. So, if you’d humor me, I’ll take a couple minutes to talk about MY feelings about the holidays, motherhood, and my consummate failure as a human being.
First of all, the house is a disaster zone. I know, I know. I’m not supposed to worry about the state of the house, but I do. My children have eight grandparents because my family is crazy and blended several times over. I’ll give you a second to let that sink in. EIGHT grandparents.
Now imagine the influx of stuff they get from said eight grands. You there? Good. Now imagine all that stuff dumped and scattered throughout your entire small home.
Footnote: You can’t ask them to *not* get stuff for the kids because that engenders all kinds of offense and hurt feelings. Been there, done that.
I have crates and bins and dividers and shelves and all of the home goods crap that is supposed to make life neat and organized. You know what? None of it does a bit of good. I wander the house picking up toys and clothes and dishes, and as soon as I put away one thing, ten other things appear in its place. The mess makes my anxiety flare and spin inside of me like a Hawaiian fire dancer.
I don’t have cute anxiety. I have cranky, prickly, ragey, sweary anxiety. It’s a thing. Google it.
Some people, like my darling husband, have an impressively high threshold for chaos, disorganization, and clutter.
After ten years of marriage, he sort of understands that when I get like this, he should not take it personally, maybe clear the kids out of the way for a little bit, and bring home a bottle of wine.
He hasn’t seemed to figure out that firing up the vacuum or organizing anything within his reach would go a long way toward deescalating my fervor. That is, he doesn’t get it until I’m screaming and crying about it. . . because that’s the point it gets to. Not all the time, but once in a while and more often during the holidays than I would like to admit. It makes me feel really ashamed, then depressed I can’t get it the fuck together.
Then, there are the children. My sweet, happy, playful children who become maniacal, aggressive, and very loud lunatics when their schedule is upended. Rather, I should say my nine year old Jack has this low threshold for change, is easily overstimulated, and sets off my typically placid five year old, Emily. Jack has meltdowns that escalate really fast and involve a lot of sensory seeking in the form of yelling, pushing, and crying.
If you know me, or can relate to any of this whatsoever, you know my first thought: I created this monster and it is my fault he is unhappy because he inherited my anxiety and depression and it is just a matter of time until I’m being judged by another therapist just like myself and my kid has to go on medication because I’m a complete failure as a mom and have no idea how to parent my kid. It’s science.
And yes, I know that sentence needed some punctuation, but that is how my mind works.
Part of the stress for me, and probably also for my kids, is that with such a big and blended family, there are a shit ton of family parties, get togethers, and visits to be made. In a perfect world I would really enjoy seeing all of these people hither and yonder and would feel awesome about reconnecting and celebrating with them.
Truthfully, I do enjoy it, but it’s also stressful, draining, and unnerving. It seems like more proof I’m a complete asshat of a person. While I enjoy seeing people, it also makes me feel guilty that I haven’t seen more of them, that I haven’t made more of an effort of helping my children get to know them. It is more fuel for anxiety and self depreciation.
And while I know I might be a bit harsh on myself, it also seems there’s a lot of evidence I suck at life.
I DO realize it’s not all bad. And trust me, I’m grateful, despite how this post is making me sound (more proof?). We had some truly happy moments over the break. We laughed. I actually napped a few times! My husband got me everything on my holiday wish list and the kids were delighted and occupied with their gifts. I adore my family, and they fill to overflowing with love, which I believe is the most important thing in life. We have it all.
So what is it about the times of loud chaos that so upends my joy?
It’s a rhetorical question, folks. I don’t actually have an answer, which sometimes I’m okay with, and other times cranks up the hurdy gurdy of nerves and makes me want to run away with the circus. But let’s face it, I’m terrified of horses and clowns. Like actually phobic of them. So, the circus is probably not a viable option.
There’s no escape.
There’s really only embracing the uncomfortable, nervy sadness and frustration along with the sense of being completely bowled over by living. It’s tough to get my arms around, and it wiggles while I try to hold it.
Look, I could tie this post up by refocusing on a tender moment and telling you it’s all good in the end. I really could do that, and I could probably mean it. But it seems like that would be disingenuous. It doesn’t seem like it would be totally helpful to ignore the tough times when they really feel so weighted, because if I ignore them, they might subtly start to pull me down, hold me under the surface.
I also feel it’s important to acknowledge “the most wonderful time of the year” is really freaking difficult for a lot of us out here. The commercials and songs tell us we are supposed to feel and act a very specific way during the holidays, and these unrealistic images and expectations create tremendous cognitive dissonance for those who can’t understand why we don’t “get it.”
Sometimes stuff is just hard and heavy to hold onto. I have to believe that’s okay and it doesn’t make me a bad person; at least not all the time.
Sometimes the best you get out of parenting is making it through the day and climbing back into bed.
Sometimes the most you can say is that you all stayed in one piece.
It’s not much of a mantra, but there are some days it is the only one I’ve got. Here is the story of such a day:
I wasn’t about to make it onto the covers of any magazines or anything like that, but I’d done a nice enough job on my makeup and my hair didn’t look that dirty, even though it was.
We were supposed to go out and get our Christmas tree and I thought maybe there would be a few family photos. I still hadn’t given up on the idea of making and sending holiday cards to loved ones near and far, but we were yet to capture the perfect family photo.
So, I took my sweet time massaging dry shampoo into my greasy roots and tugging the mess up into a messy bun that I told myself looked hip and quirky. I hadn’t wanted to waste any precious family time washing my hair, but I did take a moment to apply a shiny coat of lipstick.
For a moment, I felt great. I felt pretty and full of hope for a day just as sparkly as my lipstick.
I know it sounds shallow and vain. But every once in a while, I just want to be that perfect-looking mom of the perfect-looking family.
Jack was ready to go, and my husband was in the shower, but Emily was refusing to get dressed. She’d been holding an unhealthy grudge against pants and socks for, and mornings were challenging, to say the least. Jack started flying paper airplanes which caught Em’s interest far more than dressing herself.
“Come on guys!” I said, trying to remain chipper and thinking about how we would listen to the Muppet’s Christmas album in the car and maybe stop for donuts and cocoa. “Let’s get ready so we can get out tree!”
The kids swarmed around me, tossing paper airplanes across the living and dining rooms.
Now, had Jack not recently knocked a photo off the wall and broken the frame and glass (for a second time I might add) because he was throwing something, I might not have added the bit about not throwing stuff in the house. But I did. And Jack countered by screaming:
“I hate you! You never let us do anything!”
His words shot like icy, little daggers into my achingly festive heart. I tried to regroup, and offered an alternative that he put on shoes and play airplanes outside while he waited for us to go. He slammed into his room.
Meanwhile, Emily frenetically dashed around the dining room table in underpants.
By the time my husband came out of the bathroom, I had completely lost control of the situation. The kids were both screaming, uncooperative and wild. I was desperately trying to cajole, which turned into threats about Santa and canceling Christmas.
The fucking elf sat on the shelf and did nothing. Nada. Squat.
An hour later, the kids were still surly as trolls. Jack had torn his bed apart. Emily was still naked. My husband and I looked at each other in a state of total confusion, trying to figure out exactly what had happened.
I decided that 10:30 in the morning was in fact too early to start drinking, but it was too late to make the trek out for the tree. We decided we could not reward the poor behavior with a special outing.
Sometimes I really wonder why I had children.
I also wonder why I had such strong-willed, independent, smart kids who seem to never bend to my wishes.
And I wonder if I just completely suck at everything.
Parenting is hard. I know it’s hard. Other people commiserate with me about it, and we laugh and secretly feel relief curl up like a cat in our souls because we are not alone with this fear and stress.
In my work as a child and family therapist, I went to a seminar once where one of the sound bites was that “crisis with kids happen when the adult in charge loses control of the situation.”
This might have been the single most UN-reassuring thing I’ve ever heard about parenting in my life. Seriously. Sometimes we social workers say some stupid shit.
Because there is crisis and chaos in my house a lot. Which must mean I lose control of the situation a lot. Which must mean I am doing something wrong a lot.
It makes me look at my husband and think, am I really that bad of a mom? Would my kids be better off without me?
That’s maternal doubt, depression, anxiety, guilt and angst playing full throttle in my brain.
I know “they” say you’re not supposed to zone out on your phone while you are parenting because you’ll miss all the richness of life while you are scrolling through Facebook or tweeting about parenting stress.
Fuck that too.
Sometimes all you miss is the nastiness of your kids chewing with their mouths open and talking about farts while they eat grilled cheese.
It’s okay to miss that. Really.
Anyway, I took out my phone and started flipping through Twitter to pass the time while the kids were in time out and we were not chopping down a tree. I found two things from a fellow blogger.
The first: “Anxiety mantra. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Live alongside the unpleasant feeling, without giving it respect and it will reduce.”
The second: “Anyone struggling tonight, please remember life is fluid. How you feel now is not how you’ll feel forever.”
I believe @butterflymum83 was tweeting about perinatal depression, but her words applied to my situation as well because I was indeed anxious and struggling.
Her words lent me some support and perspective.
Support and perspective are two of the things I’ve found I’m most hungry for as a parent, because they are two incredibly difficult things to find and maintain when you are in the forest of behavior, legos, snot, doll clothing, tears, and plastic food.
Kids are loud, messy, smelly, frantic, unpredictable, and unreasonable little creatures. They are these things so much more than I ever imagined they would be. Living with them and their constant chaos is not for the faint of heart. For a highly sensitive introvert like me, it can be really hard to remember that all the noise, mess, and stink is par for the course and not a sign that I am failing at life because it all makes me so uncomfortable.
It’s really hard not to take things personally. It’s really hard not to tell myself that my kids had a bad day because I am a crappy mom and I set off their behavior with my own bad attitude or crapulence.
I felt really sad and mad about not going out to get the tree. I felt really disappointed in the kids and in myself. And as I set a bad example and sulked about it all, I realized that the only thing I ever really wanted in life was to be a mom and now the only thing I really want is a break from the responsibility and stress of it all.
Please don’t misunderstand me; I love my kids. There are no words that can aptly describe the hurricane of adoration that rips through the core of my being when I see their faces or hold their sticky hands in my own. There is no sense in even trying to describe the depth of my obsession with them, how it keeps me up nights.
I even love their stinks, although I could live with a little less of their chaos.
Sometimes are just fucking rough.
I thought of all this as I washed off my makeup, and watched it swirl down the sink in a slimy stream of shimmering suds at the end of the day.
I’d given up on the Christmas cards. One less thing to do, anyway.
Sometimes the best you get out of parenting is making it through the day and climbing back into bed.
Sometimes the most you can say is that you all stayed in one piece.
I recognized in her words the allusion to a familiar, hollow sense of things after all the paper is ripped away, dinner is eaten, and there is little left of the meticulous holiday prep that took weeks to assemble and but a few hours to descimate down to pie crumbs.
I recognized the ironic emptiness in that limbo after Christmas, and told her as much in my comment.
After our fairly secular Xmas, I often feel content with my gifts, and happy to have a few days off from work, there is also a sadness as we prepare to take down the tree, and pack it all in until next year. It seems so far away, but will be here before we know it.
Looking at the empty boxes and bags strewn about among new socks, scarves, toys, and gadgets, I also feel overwhelmed by the task of putting things back to order.
Then there is the long, cold, dark march through winter.
While there are heaps of songs about preparing for and enjoying Christmas, there are no seasonal songs, at least not to my knowledge, about what comes after Christmas for those of us highly sensitive types. If there were, they would probably be written by the Cure.
At my job we get about six holidays in the fall and winter, and then there is nothing until Memorial Day. Sure, I take a random day off here or there, but it is a pretty bleak stretch.
It is also the time when, as a social worker, I see mental health issues become the most pronounced. Kids, parents, and teachers are all sick of one another. Children are edgy from being cooped up inside and not getting enough exercise. Heating bills rise as the temperatures drop. No one wants to go outside. The bills from Christmas are coming in and no one can seem to catch a break.
Sometimes watching the depression and struggle of others causes me to fall victim to similar feelings of loneliness, helplessness, sadness.
It feels like we all get a little snow blind in the winter, lose our perspective and fumble to find the path.
While I find the first couple snows charming, and love to watch my children fromp around in the stuff, I’m not particularly into winter. I don’t ski or snow shoe or skate, so there is really no love lost between winter and me.
I’m not religious, either. I do not believe in God or Christ, as such, although I think there are many sacred miracles and wonders in the world. I wonder sometimes if I were a “believer” if there would be something more for me in the season. I know Christmas is supposed to bring the “Light of the World,” and since I was raised in the church, I know that this light brings comfort, structure and community for many.
But it just isn’t for me, and I’m just fine with that. . .
What I am getting around to saying, is that it feels like after we take down our trees and strip the house of all the lights, things can feel pretty bleak and barren.
I wonder if there are any ways to bridge the gap between the spectacle of the winter holidays and the splendor of spring?
I’m not into New Years Resolutions, but I am thinking about starting a new blog. Someone once suggested that winter is “the season of the blogger” because we are all cooped up and have extra time for reading and writing blogs. The Season of the Blogger. I loved that.
I kind of want a space to do a little more creative fiction writing, poetry, prose, etc. I also would like a forum to put up some of the weird and profound stuff I found while moving a couple months ago– pieces I wrote in college or in my early 20s when I was studying writing, my brain ablaze with imagination, sexual energy, and emotional torture. It might at least give me a portal into which I may escape during the hum and drum of another endless New England winter.
The thought of starting another blog and growing another audience is daunting, but it would give me something on which to focus and goals to set for myself. Might be fun. . .
In the mean time, I am going to try to be extra mindful of that nagging little feeling of emptiness. It is so easy for us to feel full to the brim when we are looking at our dazzling tree with all sorts of colorful gifts stacked up beneath. But it should be equally as simple, should we choose, to feel full with all our blessings, whatever they are. Being in the moment, with ourselves, with our love, with the bare trees outside our window, with air in our lungs. . .
It all should be just enough.
How about you? How do you find yourself feeling after the bustle and hustle of the holidays? How do you spend the winter? Have you ever started another blog, and if so, do you have any tips for me?
Stop, think and breathe.
Take more walks.
Speak my truth.
Don’t take car selfies.
Write more poems.
Allow myself to be swept away when I see the ocean.
Text Dad photos of the kids.
Call my sister.
Tell people I love them.
Sit still, and when I feel I can sit no longer, sit longer.
Do not worry about bedtime.
Make mindful purchases and try to save money.
Live fiercely and quietly.
Don’t try to explain.
Drink green tea.
Wear jasmine perfume.
Buy green cleaners/makeup/soaps.
Nap whenever there is a chance.
Watch the children play.
Stand back when they fight so they can learn how to solve their differences.
Do things slowly.
Forget the time. Be late, even.
Don’t worry about dinner.
Let him know.
Believe in abundance.
Don’t get anxious about carbs or protein or sugar or caffeine or yoga or cross fit or the mom across the street.
Live one moment at a time. Then live the next. (I’ve done it before, and I will do it again.)
Let go of expectations.
Ask for help.
Drop the storyline.
Believe in just enough.
Eat more cheese.
In keeping with this week’s theme of awkward and painful family issues at the holiday, I am re-sharing this post which I originally published on Momaste last year.. It is a post that is very raw and important to me. . . so as always, I would greatly appreciate your feedback and comment-love. xo, CJP.
Every time I hear a tune from the Muppets Christmas album with John Denver, I remember those cold drives up over the Berkshires in my father’s VW van.
There was no heat or seat belts in the old thing.
My brother and I would curl up under piles of blankets in the back, or fight to sit in the front seat where a tiny trickle of heat flowed from a dusty vent. We were very small, maybe seven and five, but back then there were no laws about seat belts or how old you had to be to sit in the front seat. I was the older of us, so I usually got the first turn sitting up front.
Our dad would play the Muppets and John Denver on a little, rectangular cassette player with rectangular buttons that you pressed down. He would play it when we drove up to see our grandparents at Thanksgiving, and then again a few weeks later when we went up to see them again the day after Christmas.
My parents divorced when my brother and I were very young. It is strange to me now to think how quickly we adjusted to the rhythm of splitting holidays. My brother and I always argued with each other, but there was a vague camaraderie on those chilly trips.
There was the game we played in the car to see who could count the most VW beetles- the old ones that had the trunk in front. Bathroom stops at Friendly’s where we would get hot cocoa. There was the smell of soup when we arrived late at night. Jokes about Grandpa’s fruit cake. Afternoons in the parlor with endless football games on television. There was the kangaroo story our Grandmother read to us. Our early morning excitement to find snow had fallen while we slept.
My brother does not celebrate Christmas anymore. He is gone. I haven’t spoken to him in probably five years. For a while he lived in an Otrhodox Jewish community in New York. But the voices started again, convincing him that those Jews were not doing it right. He was missing for a few weeks, then resurfaced on the other side of the country.
Every now and again, I wonder what might be the average life expectancy of a homeless schizophrenic?
But that question is way too real, so most of the time I don’t think about it at all. I mean, I don’t think about him at all.
There is no one else with whom I share those memories. But if I called him up to recollect, I’d get a stream of religious ideation having nothing to do with life on earth.
On our way to get our Christmas tree this year, I told my husband and kids about the Muppets and John Denver album when one of the songs played off my ipod in the car. I told them about how we would listen to it in my dad’s VW van, how the cheerful Muppet voices stole some of the freezer burn of the trek. So now they know about it, but they weren’t there. They don’t remember the click of the tape recorder, or the scratchiness of the songs because they had been recorded off a real, vinyl record.
It is dubious my brother even remembers those things. He went through a few courses of ECT to treat pervasive depression some years back, and one of the side effects of that therapy is memory loss.
They aren’t even the best memories. Some are downright scary and sad, like the time he spilled hot cocoa on his leg in the car, and it scorched through his pants, scalding his little legs with second degree burns.
Maybe these things are not worth remembering.
But still. . .
John Denver’s voice, clear and earnest, brings me the pleasure of what might be a happy childhood memory.
I wonder what it would be like to be a normal brother and sister on a holiday, giggling about how much Grandpa liked his fruitcake with a sliver of cheddar cheese. Why did we find that so amusing in the first place?
Before I put those memories back in cold storage, for just a moment, I am going to admit how much it really sucks that he’s not here, that he’s no longer my brother, and that his illness robbed us of the chance to sit back with a spiked eggnog and recollect as my kids played under the tree in our warm, happy home.