A few weeks ago I sat at a big table for a committee meeting, and we went around the table from person to person for “Check-in” before the meeting began.
One woman said: Things have just been so crazy. I’m accepting the fact that there aren’t going to be any Christmas letters this year, and that’s okay. They tell a lie anyways, right? [we all break up laughing] Like, ‘Everything’s greeeeeaaaaat! Except it’s not, I’m freakin’ out over here, but I hope you’re having a good time…’
We are all familiar with the uncommon pressure that the Holiday Season puts on us: to be happy, to make nice, to at least appear as though we have our sh*t together even though nobody ever does.
Christmas letters are one of the most tangible ways we are pressured to put a perfect foot forward for the Holidays. There are certainly wonderful things about the Christmas letter. They provide a chance to celebrate together, even across great distances, our successes of the year. It is an opportunity to check in, to stay in touch and maintain our loving relationships. But when I read a Christmas letter, I cannot help but see between the lines and wonder what all was left out and why.
Last year about this time, a friend and I started joking about what our Christmas letters that year would say if we wrote them. We had both had uniquely difficult years, filled with struggles and failures, and we just about peed our pants laughing over the parody Christmas letters. I liked the thought so much I went home and actually wrote one:
This year, Lauren left her abusive partner after she discovered she was pregnant and moved back in with her mom. Her ex, after following her back to her hometown and stalking her for several months, finally left and stopped calling. To date, he has sent her $43 in child support, and it doesn’t look like there’s any more coming.
It’s less painful to write about the failures of that year because they are further away, and easier now to laugh about.
This year, there are plenty of joyous things to share: Like getting a job that I love and then and then a second job; like moving into this really wonderful little apartment in a neighborhood where I have always wanted to live; like celebrating my son’s first birthday, first steps, first teeth, first day at school, his budding beautiful personality; like my growth into writing, starting a blog, publishing my first piece and then my second; the brilliant and loving community I have here and the new friendships that have been born, the old friendships that are still steady and strong.
But there’s plenty of things I’d want to leave out: Like how we’re still not quite making ends meet, or how my jaw is always sore because I’m having nightmares again and grinding my teeth in my sleep, or how lonely I am in this little apartment by myself or how I have been hurt by people I love and how I have hurt them, or how futile it feels to try to build a barrier, however temporary, between my child and the world we live in, or how I do not always have hope. Even the little things, like how I still can’t make a decent pancake and I never put the laundry away without letting it sit for a few or five days, or how sometimes I look at the dishes in the sink and just can’t bear to wash them, or how many cups of coffee it takes to get me through from dawn to bedtime, or the fact that even as I am writing this I am eating chocolate cookie dough directly out of the refrigerator with a spoon.
Even as I write the list of things I would leave out of my Christmas letter, I am leaving things out. Things that are too shameful and disappointing to write down, even in a post about sharing the shameful and disappointing parts of life.
A Christmas letter is something like the rest of social media, it is a chance to share a carefully curated version of your life. But if we only ever show the perfect parts, we create a false and destructive reality for ourselves and for everyone else. What I have been asking myself is, what am I leaving out and why?
There are many good reasons to leave things out. We have boundaries, we have parts of our lives that are personal and private. It is as though we know that not every part of us will be safe with everyone, and so we show only the parts that have been burnished to a hard and shining surface. It’s okay to protect yourself this way. It’s also okay to admit that everything is not always great, even at Christmas.
This is the closest thing to a Christmas letter I’ll write this year, and if you must know the truth: this year has been a mess. It has been a beautiful, terrible, mixed-up, full, lovely, awful mess. I have grown, and I have just barely survived. I have loved mothering, and I have hated it. I have been filled with hope, and I have been filled with the emptiness of despair. I have learned patience and I have learned where it ends. I have felt surrounded by love and support, and I have felt the ultimacy of my isolation. I have not been certain that I could do it, I have been certain that I could not do it anymore, and I have done it, somehow, anyways.
Perhaps my greatest achievement this year (and it is a tenuous grasp I have on this knowledge) is the acceptance of the fact that we will always have both, that the hope and the despair run right alongside each other and are mixed up all together, and that if we are to have a full life we will just have to accept the mess.