What the Holidays Are Like When Your Family Isn’t Perfect

Not every dinner table will be merry and bright

table set for dinner

Before every major holiday, at some point, I find myself standing in the greeting card aisle of the grocery store. Or sometimes Target. Looking for one specific card. I need a card that is directed at my mother, but doesn’t overdo it. In a perfect world, this card would probably say something like “Merry Christmas Mom” on the front, and have a relatively vague platitude on the inside. “Wishing you happiness in the new year,” sounds about right.

Finding that card sometimes takes ten minutes (lucky!) but most of the time it takes closer to thirty or forty. Then, I put the card on the floor of the store, and I snap a photo of it—outside, then inside. I put the card back, and on the way home I repeat the same text message conversation, the only text message conversation, that my mother and I have every holiday.

“What’s your address, I want to send you a card.”
“I don’t have an address.”

My mother does have an address. She’s actually had the same one for a few years now; I recently learned that over the summer, after a series of unfortunate events. But we are in a standoff about addresses. I won’t give her mine, she won’t give me hers. And so after I make sure that, again, I won’t be getting her address, I text her the pictures of the card. This, and a phone call on each holiday, concludes our interactions.

Estrangement’s Not Pretty Enough For Instagram

As we drove home from Bryan’s parents’ house this past Thanksgiving night, bleary eyed and full, I checked my phone and realized that my mother hadn’t tried to call me. I’d also not gone through my typical song and dance of seeking out a card. There was no usual holiday phone call, from my mother or me, because this is the first holiday season that I will spend fully estranged from her, after the aforementioned series of unfortunate summer events. Our holiday talks never end in anything but tears, but in that evening moment, the absence of that phone call made me cry all the same. I flicked over to Facebook and Instagram, seeking distraction, but the flood of happily bonded families and perfectly set tables I found there only made me feel worse.

It’s so pervasive, the idea that everyone around you is having the perfect holiday. No one else seems bothered by splitting their time between houses, no one has angry relatives guilt tripping them for their lack of appearance at this or that holiday event. Everyone’s social media feeds light up, filled with curated moments: perfectly decorated trees, piping hot mugs of cocoa, matching Christmas sweaters for the entire family. Perhaps it’s because we perceive Christmas and the holidays as such a universal experience, one that’s meant to be shared. Or maybe it’s because we’re all trying to find some perfect moments amidst the mess. But sometimes, I find it isolating, and exhausting.

There’s nothing like the social media constructs of a holiday like Christmas to make you feel like you have to act a certain way, that your family must look a certain way. Don’t put your lights up before Thanksgiving; you don’t want to be seen as that overzealous person who loves the holidays too much. Put your Elf on the Shelf in a new pose everyday, with props of course, or clearly you don’t care about your kids enough. Volunteer (and tell people about it), or you’re not giving enough back to your community; you’re just embracing holiday consumerism. And my least favorite, an insidious theme of seasonal movies: reconcile with your family, because holidays.

The Grinch Who Stole My Perfect Family

No one wants to feel like a Grinch for calling out the obvious: holidays can be tough.

It’s something we can easily admit to ourselves, or even to those closest to us, but it’s hard to tell the rest of the world at large. Sometimes, while friends and acquaintances sit at home with their families, listing the things they’re thankful for or laughing with each other, we’re coming home to brokenness: a mother who won’t be there (for so many years running, you can’t even count them), a grandparent who may not last through the season, one relative or another in rehab, a sibling so emotionally absent they might as well not be there at all.

Or maybe we only come back to an empty apartment, undecorated, because why bother? In those moments, it’s hard not to wonder how on earth to find some sliver of holiday spirit amidst the bitterness that can sometimes be the reality of life.

Making your own Holiday Spirit

But the thing about the holidays, as an adult, is that it’s up to me to make them what I want. This is the life I have. It’s hard, but it’s real, and every day is an entirely new one, a chance to shape the future for myself. And the people that gather around me for the holidays—they don’t have to be there. I’m sure they’re dealing with their own bitterness, their own realities. But they showed up, and they’re making the effort to show how much they really care.

This season need not be defined by whether or not I’ll have a civil conversation with one family member. Instead, I can define it in a hundred different ways. In treasured Friendsgiving feasts, even this last one, where I sliced my thumb open and spent the whole night bleeding. In the quiet Christmas morning shared with Bryan, where we open our presents for each other and give the dog five too many toys. In the car rides to see our extended families, where I am reminded how lucky I am to not to have to fly out to see them. In hot chocolate and two blanket nights, and yearly Christmas time outings with my in-laws.

There’s always the opportunity for things to go wrong, but there’s just as much opportunity for things to go right. And so we show up. We open our hearts, and we make the holidays our own, as best we can.

Christmas Is Interesting, Like A Stick In Your Eye

As much as I can remind myself that I am not defined by my more painful family relationships, there will still come a point where all that heart opening and effort will still get to me, and where I’m going to feel like crap. Where I’m going to find myself a corner, or an empty room, and maybe cry about my family a little bit before I rejoin the party in the other room. Such is the nature of this bittersweet season, where making yourself vulnerable in order to find some happiness also means you open yourself up to a little hurt. Or maybe even a lot, unfortunately.

So if you’re finding it a little too hard to deal with the season, if you’re feeling a little lonely, if you haven’t quite figured out how to deal with the minefield of your own heavy reality, I raise my glass to you. It’s okay to not have it all together, every minute of every day. You’re welcome to share the corner I’m hiding in. Just bring some booze.

This post originally ran on APW in December 2014. We loved it so much we’re running it again!

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