I’m not big on New Year’s Resolutions, but if there’s one thing I need to improve on it’s my inability to let go of how I think things should be. The holiday season is definitely that time when I struggle the most with this. Ever since the dissolution of my marriage the holidays have become a rollercoaster of emotions. Even after 3 years, I have to accept that my “new normal” is basically not having a “normal” traditional, carbon copy holiday experience every year moving forward.
“It’s just a stupid day of eating.”
That’s what I told myself to try and keep it together as I choked on tears and embarrassed that I was even bawling my eyes out at 8:30 am on Thanksgiving morning. How did I get to that point so early in the day? I looked at pictures sent from Kyle showing Lucy and Jack fishing with the picturesque view of Lake Tahoe in front of them. And then it actually hit me that they were there and not here with me. I didn’t have Lucy creep into my room with her hair all disheveled and her cheeks flushed as they normally are when she wakes up. There was no Jackson on the couch to greet me good morning and ask, “so mom, how did ya sleep?” when I came down the stairs. What I did have was Chloe patiently waiting in front of my bedroom door; silently pleading with her body language to let her out so she can go pee (8:30 am is late for us).
Instead I cried for ten minutes, and poor Chloe had to wait until I was done.
That was the beginning of my first Thanksgiving without my kids. And it was hard.
I know, I know…millions of people go through this. And maybe for some it’s really not a big deal. But it matters to me that I wasn’t with my kids on one of my favorite days of the year. Because deep down inside I know it’s not just a stupid day of eating. It’s a day for family and friends, kitchen craziness, bountiful tables, proclamations of gratitude that sometimes evoke a tear, and then later probably second guessing if you really want that 3rd piece of pie. And in my household it’s the holiday music playing with punctuations of laughter from Sophie, Jack, and Lucy. It’s the wholesome chaos that I’ve grown accustomed to as a mother.
I thought about just staying in bed for most of the day, but that also didn’t feel right. I decided on a hike with my trusty companion, Chloe. I packed up a small backpack and hit the road with the windows down and music blasting. I don’t think anyone can argue the therapeutic benefits of music, animals, and nature - especially when combined.
We landed in Lands End, a place I had never been. I knew as soon as I got there that I made the right decision. Though my dad had alternative thoughts about my choice, advising me, “just stay away from the edge would ya?” But I was not the only person who had the same idea. The coastal trail was busy – full of families and couples who probably wanted to be active before putting themselves into a self-induced food coma hours later. In any case, we all had our reasons for being there. Mine was to explore a place I’d never been, take my mind off of what was bothering me, and get my senior dog some exercise.
After walking/hiking for about an hour we came to Mile Rock Beach. Chloe and I carefully climbed through the rocks until we came to a big enough rock with a surface equipped to handle both of our butts.
And then we sat. We watched the waves come in and out and wash up right below us, almost to the point where I thought we could get splashed. Having passed so many different people on our way to this little beach, we finally found ourselves alone.
I had my music. I had my animal. And I had nature.
It was what I needed. I didn’t cry (surprisingly), but instead just listened to the calming ocean sounds and rubbed Chloe’s ears as she ever so gently rested her head on my lap. It’s like she knew her human was having a rough day.
[By the way, I’m fully aware how cheesy this all sounds.]
But in that moment I was thankful to have found this perfect coastal escape with my perfect dog and my perfect playlist. I finally felt ok for the first time that day. And somewhere in Tahoe Kyle was with our kids and his family enjoying a holiday that they’ve been unable to spend together for several years due to his work schedule. I’m sure he had some perfect moments himself.
Then there was Christmas: this year I had them both Christmas Eve and Christmas day, but the two years before that I did not. My reaction to my first Christmas without the kids was similar to my first Thanksgiving without the kids – lots of crying and self-pity. Up until the divorce, Christmas consisted of three separate families cramming into my parent’s 4 bedroom house, filling it with lots of bodies, laughter, and love. I remember the first Christmas without the kids my parents and I scrambled to find last minute restaurant reservations for the three of us since my brother and his family would spend the holiday with my sister-in-law’s side. It was the first time we didn’t have a home cooked Christmas dinner, and it was a tough one to swallow.
This year Kyle had to work Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the two days after. Though I was ecstatic to spend Christmas with my babies again my heart felt heavy knowing that Kyle would not. Divorce or not, this is a consequence of having a family with a first responder. There are many holidays and birthdays that will not be spent with families, and that’s just how it is. But knowing that is always a possibility doesn’t mean it is any easier for him to be away from his kids, or any easier on the kids to be away from their dad.
So I offered to do the only thing I could think of to make a hard situation a little more bearable – we will come to him at the fire station.
Keep in mind, this is the first time I stepped foot inside the fire station since the divorce, which also means it’s the first time the kids have visited their dad at his work in three years. Visiting their dad was somewhat of a normalcy for us back then but given the circumstances would have been rather awkward. Thankfully, there were no such feelings when we came over that night.
We ate a delicious Christmas Eve dinner, rode the firetruck around the million dollar neighborhood to admire the Christmas lights displays, and ended with the kids opening up presents that had been waiting for them under a conservatively sized Christmas tree at the fire station. It was nice.
As Kyle helped me buckle the kids into the car my sweet, sweet Jackson said to his father, “seeing you at the firehouse tonight was my best Christmas gift.”
I’m pretty sure my heart was ready to explode at that very moment.
And just before I drove me and the kids home Kyle and I hugged, wishing a Merry Christmas and thanking each other for allowing that Christmas Eve dinner to even be possible. That was also nice.
This is the part where I get sappy again. Brace yourself.
I know that as hard as I think the holidays can be I have so much to be thankful for. That sentiment isn’t lost on me, but sometimes I just need to allow myself the safe space to feel what I feel. Because what makes the holiday season meaningful to some of you can sometimes be the same things that break me down. I thought I’d be able to send Christmas cards this year, just me and the kids. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Maybe next year.
But on that especially hard Thanksgiving Day this year, I’m thankful for the many friends who reached out to make sure I was doing ok.
I’m thankful for the generous offers to have me join their family’s Thanksgiving dinner.
I’m thankful for my family rescheduling our Thanksgiving dinner to the Friday after so that I could enjoy it with my two children, instead of crying self-pity tears into my mashed potatoes.
I’m thankful to my parents for letting me wallow and give me the space I needed. Because as it goes, I’m not the only one affected in these situations. My parents spent their Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve doing a whole lotta’ nothing. Except my dad got to watch football in peace and my mom didn’t have to do any dishes, so I’m sure they were quite thankful for that.
And as hard as it can be, I’m most thankful for the ability of me and Kyle to get through the holidays without hatred and anger. I’m thankful that we maintain a relationship that allows for us to still spend Christmas Eve together, even if for just 3 hours so the kids can enjoy time with both of their parents.
And one day in the future when we’re sitting around the dining table giving thanks on Thanksgiving I can’t wait to hear Jackson and Lucy proclaim their gratitude for that as well. And then I’ll be crying into my mashed potatoes after all.
Jackson, the modern day Tiny Tim, put it best when he commented how the best Christmas gift was the time we all got to spend together. It doesn’t surprise me that my sweet seven year old son can really put things into perspective. He’s wise beyond his years like that.
On the drive home that Christmas Eve night, as I listened to the melodic Charlie Brown Christmas album and the kids slumped over in their sleep, I felt an internal conflict between wishing the holidays weren’t such an emotional circus and a certain resolve that I have to let go of what I thought my life would be. There’s just something about the holidays that generally seems to emphasize what it is you don’t have. Nothing about my current situation is where I ever thought I’d be at my age. Splitting holidays was never in my life plan. And I somehow need to get over that.
With the New Year less than a week away, I officially decided that my resolution for 2018 is to refocus my attention on things that matter most. To let go of those expectations I have held onto for far too long, but also giving myself some time to adjust.
It’s all about…perspective (thanks, Jack).