“I don’t get it, “ I rant. Bob’s washing dishes while I toast pecans with one hand and whisk eggs and maple syrup with the other. Ula works at crimping a pie crust at the kitchen table and Saoirse is at the spice drawer, putting together a blend. “We cook and clean every day for our family. We cook and clean for the cafe. And now we get to do all this extra cooking and cleaning. ….And they call it a %^&*ing holiday?”
It’s the night before Thanksgiving, the official launch to what will be a grueling six week period leading up to my favorite day of the year, January 2nd, when the tree will be gone, the gifts are put away, and our world will hopefully fall into soft, peaceful, silent snow.
The holiday season has been the single greatest disappointment of married-family life for me. As a kid, it all seemed so magical: the family visits, my mom home from work baking cookies, the friends we went to see, the anticipation of Christmas morning, the thrill of the gifts.
But as a mother, I’ve learned the dark side: the personal responsibility I bear for determining (and either making or overseeing the production of ) all the homemade gifts that are given out; the gifts that are to be bought; the holiday greeting card ritual; the careful menu planning and food preparation to strike that balance between celebration and nutrition; the orchestration of hoilday traditions into one massive over-booked calendar. It is true that Bob is a hero about keeping the dishes washed, running errands when directed and helping with the housework. But as the mother, commanding the holiday ship still falls to me.
“I think you’re working too hard.” Pat comes into the cafe every Saturday morning with her husband. She reads a book, he reads the paper, or they visit with neighbors. I admire their commitment to ritual pleasures. It was right after last Christmas when she put her book down and we had this conversation. It began when she thoughtfully asked me how my holidays had gone. My only answer had been, “I’m exhausted.”
Pat’s a librarian. Her voice is soft, but uncannily firm. “You’ll have a lot more fun if you can be okay with things not getting done.”
I raise an eyebrow at her.
She continues. “Let other people do some of the work.”
I think about one of my other girlfriends, a type-A organizational powerhouse. She maintains lists, schedules and to-dos for everyone in her family. She doesn’t just delegate. She administrates. I try to step into that position mentally.
“My family already thinks I’m a controlling bitch,” I confess. “I’m not sure how well that would go over if I started ordering them around.”
“No. No. Don’t control,” she corrects me. “Just leave the roast on the counter. When someone asks what time you’re going to eat, just smile sweetly and tell them where the roast is. They’ll figure it out. You’re not a controlling bitch if you’re just enjoying yourself.”
But I’d have to be okay with the roast never getting cooked.
Pat’s words stay with me for the entire year. What she’s suggesting is a conscious, gracious ineptitude. My habit has been to observe the holiday workload that I bear, then push through it grudgingly, trying to hide my resentment with all my competencies: I’m a great cook, a productive person who gets lots of things done, a caring person who manages to think of everyone…
But my commitment to showcasing those competencies means I put on a holiday show, nothing more.
I try on this idea of gracious ineptitude. What if I just didn’t bother/didn’t get around to it/let it go? BUT, gave everyone the hugs and kisses and effusion of love that the season celebrates?
The love may come easier if the resentment can melt away. And it may not come with the requisite conversation that everyone feels they have to have with me:“Wow, Shannon. Look at all you’ve done.… How do you do it all? You must be SOOOO tired….”
The holidays would be so much easier if I didn’t care when we ate, what we ate, how we ate, who was greeted, or who was gifted.
In light of my conversation with Pat, this year, Bob and I sent around an email announcing to our family that we were too tired to host Christmas. We would go wherever, do whatever. The only thing we want is some quiet time beside the tree with our girls, a pan of sticky buns and two pots of coffee. It doesn’t really matter what day. Saoirse and Ula concur. And happily, Mom and Dad offered to host the family dinner instead. With all the people who will be joining them, someone is likely to put the roast in the oven. If not, there’s always leftovers in some form at home in our fridge. We won’t go hungry.
But will I make the chocolate truffles and the homemade socks? Will I get the cards done? Or will I put my feet up, spend more hours in the woods , read more novels and watch more movies?
Honestly, I don’t know. What Pat proposes is harder than it looks. My contribution to the holiday feasting and gifting is about honoring the relationships that I value with other people. This is the unwritten cultural code. Devotion to the rituals is an expression of love and family commitment. A failure to uphold them is cause for alarm.
But Pat isn’t proponing throwing one’s hands up and crying “I’m fed up!,” inciting guilt and resentment. It’s about staying in love and staying committed; just surrendering the super-woman identity.
That’s a place I want to get to. But maybe it takes years to master all that gracious ineptitude. For now, I’ll just keep looking for opportunities to drop the ball where I can, replacing whatever falls away with more love in my heart.. But after ruminating on this for a year, if the holiday roast goes un-cooked, I’m prepared to settle for a bag of (organic, non-trans-fat) chips and a martini. Because, like every year, January second is just around the corner.