It's the Christmas season.
How are you holding up?
For me, it's only the second time since 2006 when I have not been either nine months pregnant or caring for a brand new baby in December. It's nice. I have the energy to function this year, and the work of Christmas is finally enjoyable again. I feel like I'm doing more than just surviving the holidays for the first time in a long time, thanks be to God.
But now that I can think, I am wrestling through a problem that, in previous years, I didn't have the energy to question. Until now, I just accepted it as the truth, but now I'm not so sure. Everywhere you go online, you see pictures, ideas, suggestions, and images of others' Christmas traditions. Why does it all make me feel like I'm flunking Christmas?
For example, take that picture of little kids in Christmas pajamas, sitting in front of a tree lined with gifts. When I see this ubiquitous image, first I wonder, how did that mom ever get them to all sit still at the same time? Without one brother tackling the other or a single child picking his nose? And how does she keep her toddlers from opening gifts and eating ornament hooks? I then think, obviously her children do not ever tackle one another, pick their noses, or surreptitiously open gifts. All of her aspirations for traditions must work, too. And I bet her living room is always that clean. Within about four seconds, I am convinced I am pilfering my kids' childhoods because I don't have a single picture like this one, and the woman behind the camera is a better mother than me.
Why do I care how her tree looks? Why am I so convinced her children behave better than mine? Why does her "success" seem to highlight, in bold neon green, my "failure"?
Because I am allowing others to tell me who I am.
Worse, I am allowing a picture - a literal snapshot of one second of a stranger's life - tell me who I should be. I am reading ideas as commandments, suggestions as a decree. Every time someone talks about making Christmas memories with their kids, some deep voice in my head, the same voice who tells me when my hair looks weird or my shirt looks stupid, begins pointing out how I'm failing as a mother because I did not do the same things they did.
You know what? It's a lie.
All of it. The stupid-shirt voice, and all of the assumptions I make when I look at that picture. If she is raising human children, her babies try to eat ornament hooks and her boys tackle one another. It's what children do. And if they are allowed in the living room, there is no way it stays clean all the time. Or most of the time. The truth is this mom is most likely just like me: she's doing the best she can, working constantly to love her children well and nurture her home the best way she knows how.
When I believe the lie, it hurts us both. It pits us against each other, and I feel defensive and judged before she ever opens her mouth. We have no opportunity to connect, no moment to really see and hear one another. There is no time for us to remind one another to relax, we're doing just fine, because I've already distanced myself from her. It's the only way to shush the voice in my head. So rather than connecting and encouraging another mother, I remain isolated and convinced I am failing at my own life.
Not only does the lie isolate us, it also undermines my own family, my own "success." I don't have a single picture of my kids sitting calmly in front of a Christmas tree, but I do have pictures of us outside together. Riding bikes, playing at the lake, stomping through the woods. My family values spending time outside together, and honestly, I'm pretty good at it. I can hike with a bunch of little kids and keep them all safe on the trail (a task that is more difficult than it sounds). I can pull two little ones in a bike trailer while riding a few miles and keeping up with two others. I can even decorate a Christmas tree with my crew and remain reasonably calm when the baby takes a bite out of an ornament and the middle two pitch glass balls at the wall. My family has its own culture, its own values, its own strengths. It's what makes us who we are, and I love who we are. But every time I look at a picture of someone else's family and begrudge my own, I undermine our strengths. I chip away at the value of our collective identity.
I'm not doing that anymore.
When you show me your pictures and traditions this year, I promise to be happy for and with you. Happy that the kids all sat still and looked at the camera, that your tree turned out just the way you wanted. I will rejoice that your home and family is coming together, and, at least for a minute, that your relentless efforts are working. And I will believe the best about you: You never once agreed with the voice in my head, and you never, ever intended to say anything about my family by sharing your own.
And will you do the same for me? When I tell you we celebrated St. Nicholas Day this year for the first time, will you not question why you ignored it? When I tell you we don't do Santa, will you promise not to mentally review, again, why you decided to keep that particular tradition with your kids? When I post Instagram pictures of lefse, the traditional holiday bread my husband and in-laws make every Christmas, do you promise not to let the voice in your head make you wonder, even for a second, if you should have a traditional holiday bread, too?
I want to love and serve one another this Christmas. We're all working so hard, friends. So very, very hard. We all love our families more than we could ever say. And we have all devoted our very lives to giving our children a solid, nurturing, happy foundation. I want to be on the same side this holiday season. I want to cheer one another on, smile at another's success and commiserate in failures. For this Christmas, at least, I want to tell the voice in our heads to shut up.
Will you join me?