When Things Aren’t Picture Perfect

Some people get excited by the holidays, totally jazzed to spend time with all their family members.

Some folks don’t. Old haunts, history, or less-than-stellar encounters with family can make this time of year a difficult one. And meanwhile, the whole world goes on and on about how much fun the holidays are, but your stomach is a pit, knowing that you’re going to spend a lot of time and energy trying to avoid conflict. Instead of feeling relaxed, your guard is already up.

I’ve been in both these camps. Before I had kids, the holidays were (mostly) fantastic. But add in kids, divorce, coming out, ________ (fill in your issue here) and life changes a bit. What was without stress before may not be the same anymore. Try bringing your girlfriend to a Thanksgiving dinner where your family has also invited your ex-husband. “Awkward” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Instant Stressathon.

Then there’s the idea that everyone should dress formally or in the “selected” color. Yeah, not doing that anymore. I stood there one Christmas Eve, snapping a photo of my two boys in their Christmas ties, and then looked at the big red eyes on my younger son, who had been crying because he didn’t want to wear the starchy shirt, the dress pants, or the tie, and I thought, “This is stupid. I’d rather that he be happy than fit some expectation of my family.” And so life changed. For the better, too, I think.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love my family and I love the holidays, but I love them even more since I learned to adjust. It’s okay to do things your way. It’s okay to breathe deep and walk outside. It’s okay to volunteer to sit at the “kid’s table” because the grown-up table makes you nuts. It’s okay to let your Asperger’s kid wear a flannel shirt and track pants because it makes him happy for the day.

What matters is not how others judge your behavior, but how you make people feel. If dressing up makes you and your kids feel great? Do it! If not, don’t. If staying all day at Uncle Ed’s makes you happy? Do it! But if you can only handle a few hours, do that instead. If you know that nothing offered at the holiday table will fit your nutrition requirements except the turkey? Eat the turkey. Smile. Be kind to your family members. And then go home and cook a steak and some Brussels sprouts.

Life doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to look perfect. The meal does not have to be perfect. And God knows your kids are not going to behave perfectly. Throw “perfect” out the window. It was a dream anyhow. Be real. Be happy. Be kind. Hug the people in your life. They won’t be here forever. And when you’re stressed out? Breathe, forgive, and rise above. And remember, it could always be worse. You could be doing thrusters.*

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“There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ family. Every family is different. I don’t know why people even talk that way.” — The redheaded kid above, eight years after this photo was taken.

*Thanks to Eleanor Brown for the inspiration. You can find more phrases like this in her new book “WOD Motivation.”

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