We set off on what I declared to be a great family adventure. We were going to romantically tromp through a tree farm and cut down our own magical Christmas tree. And we did… sort of. In reality, the trees were pre-cut and Anna sighed at the lack of snow on the ground. We tried our best to ignore the frosty wind making our faces and fingers hurt while we searched for the perfect tree. But boy did we find it.
When we got home and the tree barely fit through our front door, I realized all too soon that the tree looked quite a bit smaller in the open muddy field in which it was displayed. Now in my smallish living room, it looked like the giant tree it was. My two daughters and I could barely manage getting it upright in the tree stand, only to find out I needed to cut the top off to make it fit. Fine. Off with her head.
After what seemed like days of decorating the tree, complete with multiple trips to Home Depot and Target for yet even more lights to get the tree all covered and endless bickering between my girls about where each ornament should be perfectly placed, we could finally sit back and bask in the soft glow of our perfect tree.
That is, until my daughter Anna, a few days later decided to straighten the tree skirt and wedged herself behind the tree. The tree, in all of its massive glory, was too heavy for my 6th grader’s arms to hold onto and down they both went. Water and pine needles were everywhere. I rushed to assist and got underneath to the base so Anna could help me reset it in the tree stand. Sophia ran downstairs to assist. Ten minutes later after struggling and becoming tree sapped and pine-needle poked, I pulled myself out from under the tree to find my Sophia dripping wet and naked, having come running down in the middle of her shower when she heard all the raucous noise downstairs. Anna started crying. Sophia was shivering. My arms were shaking. It was one let down after another.
That night, Anna said, “Mom, I ruined our whole night.” I replied, “No Anna, you made a memory that will last us a lifetime.” And we all laughed at how ridiculous everything about this tree is and how much we love it. I will never forget this tree in all of its imperfections, frustrations, and failings.
I have found in my own life and in listening to my clients year after year, that during the holidays we are particularly susceptible to striving for perfection in every magical holiday moment and setting unrealistic expectations. Once divorced, our December days with our children are limited, and thus all the more precious and our perfection-prone parenting kicks into high gear. Add to that our need to shelter our children from memories of years past with extended families and their parents all joined together in celebration. Divorced parents tend to overdo it. I am just as guilty as the rest.
But this ill-fitting, ginormous, and tilted tree reminded me that rarely do I recall perfect moments. I remember the funny, the fallible, the dysfunctional times. I remember the times I was actually being present enough to take it all in. I will never forget sitting on my couch with my girls several hours after what will now forever be dubbed as the 2015 Christmas Crash and laughing until tears streamed down our faces.
In all of our messiness, life unfolds. No doubt, divorce is one of the messiest times you will muddle through, but I promise you that as you do, your life is still unfolding. And now you are on a new path, having not been able to ignore the painful parts any longer. Your new life will not unfold just the way you plan either. There will be days when the landscape was not at all how you imagined, when nothing fits, and when your dreams collapse around you no matter the might with which you try to hang on. This holiday, in the season of divorce, embrace the imperfections, pull yourself present, and sadly smile at your perfect mess. For after all, it will be cleaned up and tucked away as a memory in your not too distant future.