When Malinda was 8 or 9, Cabbage Patch Kids were all the rage, so of course she asked for one for Christmas. For weeks, her parents worked to minimize her expectations: the dolls were expensive, she recalls them telling her, and hard to find. But that Christmas Eve, she remembers, a yellow cab pulled up to her family’s Brooklyn brownstone. Out popped the driver, in his arms a Cabbage Patch Kid wearing a Russian faux fur hat who’d “just flown in” from overseas. Malinda ran to the door to meet the man, and the doll, unaware until many years later that her father had orchestrated the entire event.
Thinking back to that night—the “perfect” Christmas—Malinda feels nostalgic and grateful. Then she feels immensely guilty. She hasn’t done anything even close to that creative, or thoughtful, for her 7-year-old son, maybe ever. Sure, he’ll receive lots of presents this year, nearly everything on his list. He’ll get to see his grandparents and cousins, decorate a big tree, eat as many cookies as he wants. But, she wonders, is all of that enough? Is that really the best she can do?
These days, guilt is a nearly unavoidable part of parenting. That’s because our feelings of adequacy and success are often tied tight to our children’s everyday lives. We feel bad when we can’t, or don’t, give them everything they want; we feel bad when we give them too much. We feel responsible for their every emotion and experience. We feel terrible when they’re unhappy or disappointed, even when those feelings have nothing to do with us. And we can’t help but compare our parenting to that of others: Are we doing a better job than other people we know, than our own parents did? Or are we doing worse?
Pile on the general sense of stress the holidays inspire in many of us as we try—but don’t always succeed—to make time for everyone and everything (and do so in an beautifully effortless Martha Stewart-worthy way) and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a holiday guilt-fest. We over-shopped; we couldn’t afford what we’d have liked to. We worked too much; we’re out of a job. We didn’t take them to see Santa; we took them to see Santa. Our tree was too small. Our cookies were too sugary.
Our feelings of self-doubt are, naturally, compounded by what we see happening for other families. Alison, a mother of three, worried how her kids would deal with the fact that they were the only ones in the neighborhood who wouldn’t be spending the school vacation in Stowe. Tara, mom to rambunctious 10-year-old Seth, wondered why her child seemed to be the only kid around who didn’t make an effort to behave during the holidays; then she berated herself for all the yelling she’d been doing. Whatever the perceived deficit in our kids, our situation, or ourselves—and we nearly always perceive some deficit—the blame, we think, lies with us.
Jane loved that her 9-year-old, Nicholas, still believed in Santa Claus. Until the afternoon he came home from school in tears. “Some of the other kids in his grade had made fun of him for still believing,” Jane remembers. They called him “stupid,” a “baby,” among others. For weeks, Jane couldn’t shake the feeling that she herself had brought this torment on her child. “All I had wanted to do was let him hold onto the magic of Christmas for as long as he could,” she says. “Instead, I felt responsible for not preparing him for what other kids might say, and then guilty for having allowed myself to enjoy the fact that he still believed.” Instead of putting the onus on the other kids, Jane blamed herself. Nicholas, meanwhile, forgot about the incident a few days later.
What you need to remember this holiday season: Your job as a parent is to give your child love and support. It’s to help them feel cared for and safe. It’s not to give them a “perfect” holiday, whatever that even means. And it’s certainly not to beat yourself up at every turn. Kids, let’s remember, are for the most part resilient and hopeful. They’re going to have the experience they have no matter how we try to alter it, create it, manufacture it. And they’re going to remember what they choose to remember. Chances are, for example, that Malinda’s Cabbage Patch Christmas wasn’t perfect in her parents’ eyes, because when is life ever perfect? Maybe there was a money struggle. Perhaps they had been fighting. Malinda could have remembered what was wrong about that Christmas. Instead, she remembers what was right.
This year, remind yourself that you do a lot for your children every single day. Keep your efforts turned inward, and resist the temptation to use others’ experiences as personal motivation even when it seems like everyone else is giving their kid the perfect holiday. Maybe you’re the family who organizes a huge outing to chop down the 8-foot Frasier fir, but maybe you’re the one who picks a Charlie Brown tree from the supermarket parking lot. Maybe your Elf on the Shelf “forgot” to move for three whole days, or your holiday cookie output comes courtesy of Nabisco. Maybe that’s okay. Resist the urge to buy into the idea that everyone else has more time than you do, or is making better use of the time they have. Instead, remember that the holidays might be magical, but they’re not magic. They don’t change the circumstances that define your life any other time of the year. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Use these days instead to teach your kids some important holiday lessons. That it’s what they have—and not what others have—that counts. That it’s what we do with what we’ve got, and with who we’ve got, that creates the holiday spirit. That just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean life is suddenly perfect. In fact, the happiest holidays for the entire family can be the ones during which parents give themselves, their kids, and everyone else the gift of compassion. This holiday season, give yourself a break.
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