Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas: it's time to lower our expectations

There gets to be a time every Christmas season when the magnitude and madness of it all hit home. Often, the first pangs occur when I’m driving home from work in the dark, making my way through the neighborhood streets to my house.  All of the outside decorations on houses, trees, bushes and lawns that just yesterday seemed so perfectly festive and cheery suddenly seem severe and too bright and frantic.  It’s like they’re screaming in desperation, “CHRISTMASTIME!  HAPPY!  MERRY!  HAPPY!  MERRY!” 

Obviously, the lights never change.  I’m pretty sure what’s really happening is my annual and inevitable trip, clawing and scratching, across the border from Trying to Make Everything Perfect for Christmas-ville to Yeah, It’s Not Gonna Happen-town.  It’s me who’s frantic and desperate.

Some years are better than others, but sometimes Christmas just doesn’t come together the way we think it should.  Sometimes there are circumstances – a new baby in the house (lovely in theory, but exhausting in reality), financial woes, the loss of a loved one or a hundred other things - that could really throw a wrench into the finely-tuned expectations of blissful holiday happiness.

 The holiday machine is a juggernaut of incessant demands on our time and our resources of money, energy and goodwill.  It enslaves us to perceived obligations such as attending parties and buying and baking and decorating and mailing – all in the name of getting into the spirit of things.   It’s when you’re dutifully doing it all but still aren’t feeling it that things start to get dicey.

Some panic and throw it into overdrive.  We’re sure that if we kick it up, we’ll get done all those things that “need” to be done and then it will finally feel Christmassy.

Some feel guilty.  We feel like we’re letting people down if we can’t get into full-on Christmas mode. 

And some forfeit any hope of feeling the Christmas spirit altogether.  It’s been a horrible year, and even going through the motions is more painful than anything.

I say Christmas doesn’t have to be glitzy and glossy and bright and cheerful at all, let alone all that, all the time.  I call BS on the notion that it’s an all-or-nothing proposition.   I say it’s time to lower our expectations for Christmas. 

Considering all we go through just to get by, day by day, it’s unreasonable to think that we should be awash in Christmas magic each and every moment of the season.  But, I think if we’re open to it, the Christmas spirit will find us every now and again.

I think it comes to us on the strains of a Christmas song that brings us, even briefly, a warm feeling of comfort.

I think it comes to us in a solemn moment when something inside us stirs as we contemplate the very first Christmas.

I think it comes to us in our dark corners at the end of the day, as we think about the ones we love and our hearts silently wish Christmas happiness for them, even if we don’t think we feel it ourselves. 

For me, this year, it finds me on the commute to the office every work day.  I’m strapped in with nothing else to do for 35 minutes than enjoy my playlist of very favorite Christmas songs.  As I auto-pilot to work, still relatively optimistic about the day ahead, I’m not distracted by my beloved-but-needy children or a business email or an overdue household chore.  Bing and Buble, the little drummer boy and the poor orphan girl named  Maria, the Ave Maria and Feliz Navidad – they bring me the Christmas spirit without asking a thing in return. 

Unfortunately, the evening commute isn’t quite the same.  I’m tired and possibly frazzled from the long day so far and have, still, to re-engage home life where I left off this morning.  And, I have to drive by those damned, obnoxious lights again.  They're still screaming, but I look the other way and ignore their demands for my immediate merriness.  I choose, instead, to relax and let the holiday spirit come to me as it will. And, inevitably, it will.

Here’s to letting Christmas find us in meaningful ways, whenever and wherever it can.  In place of feeling despair over impossible expectations, let us feel peace from expecting less.    

Merry Christmas to all.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Mercy me

There’s a mom I know whose parenting style has me confused. Some days I think she’s my hero and then some days she scares me and I’m glad she’s not my mom.
It’s because she’s so, SO confident in all of her parenting choices. I envy her conviction sometimes. She takes some of those really difficult situations, deals with them head-on, and never looks back. It seems like she has so much strength and perspective and vision to always do the right thing. 
I remember once, when her child was going through an especially difficult stretch, the mom resolutely handed out punishment after punishment until it was resolved. Ooooh, and sometimes the punishments were hefty! She once even took away her child’s birthday (let her look at her presents for days until her behavior warranted the privilege of opening them)! Someone must have asked her about it, because I remember her saying any punishment she ever gave her child was fully deserved. She was 100% unapologetic for her system of discipline.
Now, I like to think I run a fairly tight ship, too. My BS tolerance threshold is permanently set on LOW and when it’s breached, I can go from Nice Mommy to Who-Are-You-and-Can-You-Please-Release-Your-Demonic-Hold-on-My-Mommy Mommy in no time flat. I can hand out scathing punishments with the best of them. Okay, maybe not – I don’t know if I could ever be angry enough to cancel a celebration of the day they were born - but I’ve been known to issue some good penalties. And I’ve also been known to retract them.
I recently withdrew a punishment I imposed on our oldest son, within a half hour of sentencing. He got himself grounded because he didn’t meet one of my homework deadlines. Yes, the guidelines were set beforehand and yes, he was fully aware of the consequences of missing the deadline. He had extra homework that night, but the guidelines allow for that sort of thing, so he must have been goofing off. The penalty was justified. And, bless his little heart, he didn’t fight it. He sat right there through the angry lecture and took it.
Afterwards, I got thinking about it. He had been working for hours. Could he have met the deadline? Probably, with some laser focus and zero distractions. But, even lacking those, he really had put in a great deal of effort, and it showed, physically. His face was tired and his body was sagging. 
I normally advocate for following through with guidelines and consequences. (When the kids were little, it was never a bluff when I said,“I’m going to count to three!!”) But that night, even though I was completely in the right because 1) it was an established process and 2)“I said so, that’s why”, it felt wrong. He was normally very dutiful and never maliciously broke rules. He hadn’t handled the extra workload well, but didn’t truly deserve a punishment.
I went back in and rescinded the grounding. And, in answer to his look of shock and disbelief, I told him that I didn’t want to be the kind of parent who can’t see beyond all the rules and regulations. I also let him know that, just as he was going to make mistakes being a kid, there would be times when I would probably make mistakes being his mom, too. And I apologized for being unreasonable with that particular punishment and lecture.
Does that make me wishy-washy? Will I regret it later? Am I setting myself up to be walked all over with regard to following the rules? Will he lose respect for my authority? I’d like to think not. I am hoping what I showed him was 1) that the rigid edges of guidelines can sometimes be tempered when a situation truly calls for it and 2) that even if you don’t have to, because you’re the boss, you can still own up to and atone for your mistakes and 3) mercy.
So, I don’t know – is it better to always be confident that your parenting choices are right (even if it’s only because “mother (or father!) knows best”), or is it sometimes okay to second-guess your own judgment and go back to see if there’s a better way? Is pre-determined, justified, regimented punishment the best way to deal with transgressions, or is it sometimes okay to soften the blow, when there are other factors in play, in order to teach broader and more benevolent lessons?
It's hard to say. But my hat's off and this blog is dedicated to all of my fellow parents who are making their way through, the best way they know how.