I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations. With 2017 over (saints be praised), I find myself looking ahead with hope that things will be better, that I will feel better in 2018. Christmas was a bear. Nothing seemed to go quite right. After years of Currier & Ives-meets-Pottery Barn-level holiday execution at great expenditure of energy and money, I had kind of a shitty, half-assed, not at all Pinteresty holiday.
The tree was wonky and fell over three times before I got it sorted. I almost gave up and threw the whole damn thing out. Because of this, it wasn’t even decorated until a few days before the actual holiday. This felt bad. My daughter was low-grade angry and walking around with a chip on her shoulder, particularly where her younger brother was concerned. This also felt bad. I didn’t have the energy or desire to do the full holiday decorating to the house. My brother-in-law drank too much and my niece was a bully to her future sister-in-law at our family gathering. It was supremely uncomfortable. Money was tight and getting gifts for all the people I was somehow still responsible for (how does this happen?) was really stressful. I didn’t get to see people I wanted to, some parties didn’t happen, and I couldn’t go to a volunteer event I really wanted to. And work exploded. And… and… and… Everything just kind of sucked. And I wondered why nothing was like it used to be and why I was totally lacking in that warm fuzzy Christmas feeling. Why wasn’t I doing better?
I had promised myself that when Christmas Day came, I was just going to relax and enjoy the day however it played out, knowing that the kids were going to spend part of the day with their dad at his place. That I was going to be cooking on my own. That hordes of family weren’t going to descend on me with noise and silliness and togetherness. Knowing all that, I was going to take things as they were. And, as it turns out, I had a good day.
After Christmas dinner with just me and the kids, I sat back over a glass of wine and realized no one was going to clean up the food or do the dishes or invite me to go sit down because I had worked so hard to make everything so nice. I was sulking to myself about this. I wanted it to be different. I missed “the good old days.” And it hit me. Everything wrong about my holiday was about my expectations.
I was probably expecting too much of myself to think I’d be able to charge through the holidays with my historical energy and enthusiasm just a few weeks after my divorce was finalized while simultaneously covering some of the worst of the affair history ground. Even without those two enormous factors, this was my first year with a child in college. All the normal things we would do together leading up to the big holiday were pretty much out the window because we weren’t together. Change can be hard sometimes. Despite thinking I was giving myself a pass and generally planning on letting myself off the hook, I was still hanging on to the idea that I had to slay at Christmas in order to prove (to who? My ex? Anyone watching? Myself?) that I was doing GREAT!
I was probably expecting too much of my daughter to think that this time of year would be any easier for her than for me. She knew her dad was cheating before I did. Why should she be okay or over it when I wasn’t? And this was new for her. The same issues around not being home to get ready for Christmas had piled stress on her and now she had somehow become responsible for buying gifts for each of her parents. Something that would have happened anyway, as she transitioned to adulthood but was additionally laden with her own perfectionist tendencies to make sure we each had a “good” Christmas, post-divorce. So not fair, goddamn it.
I was probably expecting too much of all the other people in my life who have their own shit going on, to keep things exactly as they have been or to know I could use a phone call or a hug or whatever, without me telling them.
I just wasn’t in the Christmas spirit. And why should I be? I’m nice to everyone all the goddamn time. Why do I have to be even more nice now? Why was I buying in to the pressure to spend, spend, spend? I was depressed but I felt like I shouldn’t be, just because it was Christmas. I’m not allowed to be depressed at Christmas. How was all that Chrsitmassy shit going to get done? But wow, have I been depressed. And I was searching for the elusive feeling I used to have this time of year of doing something special, the glow of lights and magic (and there was magic. I truly miss this) and snow and stories and eggnog and wassail, and fires, and homemade shortbread, of being part of something bigger, a family, of being loved.
And there it was. I was not feeling loved. Probably because I had fallen off the self-care wagon a couple of miles back and hadn’t noticed until that moment. And way down deep under that was my old saw. I was not being loved because I was not lovable. No one is ever going to love me. There’s always something more important or more worth choosing than me. I know it's bullshit. It still gets me when I’m not paying attention.
Every time I get stuck it comes back to that. And that stuckness is why I’m telling you my Christmas expectations story. Because I think those expectations for ourselves and for others – that we should be over it, that we should be feeling better, that we should be stronger, that we should still be able to do and think and be like we used to “before” it all went down – that they should be able to understand how we are feeling, that they should know we need help even if we don’t ask, that they should just know how to help even though they have the emotional range of a filing cabinet. I think the holidays, which are so laden with expectation, brings that conflict into relief. I find I struggle most when I resist reality as it is or when I wish for or expect people or situations to be different. (Expectation: Christmas should be magical. Reality: I am too fucking tired to Christmas this year.)
When I look closely at my own expectations, hidden deep down is the old, old fear: I am not enough. If I make this crazy, amazing Christmas, then my family will have to see I’m lovable. They’ll have to love me. My husband can’t give me what I need emotionally because I probably don’t deserve it. Sounds crazy when you state it out loud in a complete sentence, doesn’t it? If I prove myself in these ways, they will HAVE to love me. It's nutty, magical thinking. And I think it's in there because we first learned these things when we were little kids. If you grew up in any kind of dysfunctional family system (and if you are here, chances are you did) you learned that love was conditional upon you performing in some way or that it was unpredictable or that people you cared about didn’t ever care about you quite as much. Those stories (or agreements) stay with us. We play them out over and over until we see them for what they are.
Turns out Christmas sucking and getting stuck is a gift. It’s a chance to look at the stories I am telling myself and the magical thinking I am laying on myself about my worth and maybe getting somewhere different with it. I get mad about it. How am I back here? How am I still fighting this? When will I finally be over this? When will I finally believe I am enough for good and all? Well. This stuff, the trauma of infidelity, the hurts from our childhood that infidelity reminds us of, the expectations of the holidays and the ways we think we’ve failed are all pointing to the soft spots, the wounds we need to tend.
Christmas isn’t the same. That’s ok. I can make new traditions. I can still remember that I have people in my life who love me and value me, even when I don’t do that so well myself. My marriage, my life isn’t the same. That’s OK. I can make a new path for myself. I can still remember that I have people in my life who love me and value me. I’m not that same. That’s OK. In fact, I think that’s a really good thing. That goes for you too. Things are not the same. If you are rebuilding, your marriage will not be the same. You are not the same. He’s not the same. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this is ok. That it is, in fact, a good thing. And don’t forget that there are people in your life who love you and value you, who see you, even when you can’t do that so well yourself.