I remember a year I had big expectations and along with them, a big discovery when they were decidedly dashed. My daughters, my mom, and I, 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 Sophia 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 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. In my smallish living room, it looked like the giant tree it was. My 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. But wait, the saw had gone with my former spouse. I struggled with sweat dripping to make scissors and a kitchen knife work.
We made multiple trips to Home Depot and Target for more and more lights to get the tree covered. There was endless bickering between my girls about where each ornament should be perfectly placed. After what seemed like days of decorating the tree, we finally sat back to bask in the soft glow of our perfect tree.
That is, until my daughter Anna decided to straighten the tree skirt. She wedged herself behind the tree. The tree, in all of its massive glory, was too heavy for my 6th grader’s arms to hold. 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 the tree stand. I called for Sophia and she 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 panicked from the middle of her shower. Anna started crying. Sophia was shivering. My arms were shaking. The shame of my yelling in stress at my daughters was slowly seeping over me. We were too tearful and tired in that moment to laugh at the prime time comedy in which we had been placed.
That night, Anna said, “Mom, I ruined our whole night.” I replied “No Anna, you made a memory that will last us a lifetime.” We all laughed at how ridiculous everything was about this tree and how much we loved it. This tree in all of its imperfections, frustrations, and failings was a lesson in letting go of our expectations for an ideal moment and finding the beauty in bonding (and laughing hard) over a total, but perfect, disaster.
In my own life and in listening to my clients year after year, I have found that during the holidays we are particularly susceptible to striving for perfection in every magical holiday moment. We set and live for unrealistic expectations. Once divorced, our December days with our children are limited. These days become more precious and our perfection-prone parenting kicks into high gear. Our need to shelter our children from memories of years past with extended families and their parents all joined together in celebration skews our good intentions. 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. What I actually remember are the times I was being present enough to take it all in. 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 is the memory that stays with me. The imperfection is what made the moment so dear.
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. 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. During the holidays, in the season of pending or post-divorce, embrace the imperfections, pull yourself present, and smile at your perfect mess.