Letting Go of My Need for Holiday Perfection

Christmas Wreath Gate
Our front gate.

Although I love being a mother, I have never easily managed the more traditional domestic tasks that come along with the role, like meal-planning, cooking, or housekeeping.

But when it comes to planning and executing a most excellent Christmas season for my kids, I am like the lovechild of Martha Stewart and the Energizer Bunny, if that person drank a whole lot of Red Bull and coffee.

My extreme love of all things Christmas didn’t come out of nowhere. My parents were both nuts about Christmas as well, and now that I’m a working parent myself, I realize fully just how much time, trouble, scrimping, saving, and late-night assembly went into their annual Christmastravaganza.  Just to give you some idea of how hard my parents (who were both employed full-time at very demanding jobs) worked to make Christmas as magical as possible for my two younger siblings and me, I will share with you what happened one year, when I was seven. Right after we kids came downstairs to see what Santa had brought, my parents suggested that my six-year-old sister Betsy, four-year-old brother Robert and I step out onto our front porch. When we did, we discovered that Santa had delivered REAL PONIES — tiny little miniature shetland ponies — hitched up to a real pony cart, all waiting for us out in our front yard.

(Yep, true story! Talk about a hard act to follow …)

While Santa has never brought my kids flesh and blood livestock (yet!), he definitely does my kids up right each year. But to me as a mother, Christmas isn’t just about making sure my children have a wonderful morning on December 25. It’s about four weeks of special traditions, carefully selected and placed decorations, and a mood of joy, fun and anticipation in our household leading up to the big day.  Each year, I work really hard to try to make every detail of the holiday season special and memorable for my kids.

Basically, I want the entire Christmas season to be absolutely perfect for my children each year. I want them to remember the holidays with the same sense of wonder and joy and optimism that I remember from my own Christmases growing up. Whatever efforts my parents exerted behind the scenes to pull those holidays off the way they always did were never evident to their three kids. To us, it looked effortless and yes, magical. And that’s what I strive for as well.

But this year, as I’ve rushed around trying to get the house and the yard decorated — adding a tree upstairs for the first time, toddler-proofing our main downstairs tree, adding some new traditions into the mix, finding and creating special ornaments to remember my oldest son, and rehanging the outside lights —  I’ve realized that if I’m not careful, I can let my desire for holiday perfection overtake the goal itself, which is for our family to have fun together, enjoy the season, and relax. I think that because I have a pretty demanding career, and because I do struggle with so many other traditional “mom skills,” the fact that I am actually pretty good at creating a whizbang holiday season for my kids has come to carry tremendous emotional power for me. I am realizing that Christmas represents much of my aspirational mothering, all tied up in a red bow and compressed into only four weeks each year. Given the importance that creating a wonderful holiday season carries for me, I have to be careful not to lose perspective.

Last week, for example, I kept trying to schedule our traditional tree-decorating evening at home, and I was insistent that every detail had to be the way I envisioned it or it couldn’t happen. All fourx kids needed to be home for the evening, and awake, and not too tired to participate. The special personalized ornaments that I order each year for each child had to have arrived.  The cousins needed to be free that night to join us. There had to be hot chocolate and a fire in the fireplace, and … and … and …

But all week long, my carefully planned, traditional family tree decorating event simply didn’t come together the way I wanted. On one weeknight, my 16-year-old had to work at her part time job, and two other nights, my 13-year-old had evening basketball games. The special ornaments were slow to arrive, and our four-year-old fell asleep at 7pm on the one night we actually considered attempted the tree decorating. We had to delay it yet again, because we certainly couldn’t decorate without her.

As night after night passed last week without our tree getting decorated, I was becoming quite irritable and frustrated with the delay. And then it was the weekend, and I was still having trouble finding a time when all of us would be home at the same time, awake at the same time, and available to decorate the tree.

Finally, early Saturday evening, the moment came. All four kids were home. Everyone was awake. Cousins were there (minus one). I had food on hand for a real meal we could eat together before beginning the decorating. Tree was in place with lights strung. I was ecstatic … until it all fell apart.

We all had a yummy meal together, but 18-month-old G began melting with exhaustion while still in her high chair. Jon scooped her up and took her away to rock her to sleep. One down, but I was determined the rest of the group would hold together til we got the job done. But all of the other kids, big and small, were also drifting. They were tired, and all they wanted to do was lie on the sofa together after supper and watch Elf for the millionth time.

I was apoplectic! This ISN’T HOW WE DO OUR TREE DECORATING! Everyone is supposed to help and be involved with hanging all the ornaments, slowly and one at a time, with me handing them out. Usually, the kids agree to this program, and willingly help out, following my directions. They have many ornaments with their names on them, for example, and usually each of them wants to hang their own ornaments.

But here I had a pile of tired kids, glued to the TV, showing NO interest in actually assisting me in unwrapping and hanging the ornaments on the tree. Plus, the youngest one was now AWOL and almost asleep.  Nobody wanted to actually help me decorate the damn tree! ARGH!

I stood there, boxes of tissue paper-wrapped ornaments at my feet, feeling overwhelmed at my inability to micromanage this specific piece of our holiday season, when I suddenly noticed what was actually right in front of my eyes. The couch a few feet away was full of relaxed, healthy, drowsy siblings and cousins, curled up together watching one of the best holiday movies ever. There was a fire in the fireplace. The tree was twinkling with lights, ready to be decorated. My awesome husband was in another room, rocking our baby girl to sleep. The house was warm, cozy and full of love.

This is what the holidays are about, no matter how the ornaments get hung.

So as the kids snuggled and watched Elf in front of the fire, I began unwrapping each ornament all by myself, carefully placing them on the tree, one by one, all the while reminding myself that I am blessed, and that a truly perfect holiday season is actually made up of all of the imperfectly precious moments like these.

Since the tree decorating incident, I am really working to consciously let go of expectations around how the holidays are “supposed” to go. Traditions can evolve. Plans can be flexible. And I can relax, because the kids seem to be having a good time, even if the baby Jesus in our creche seems to be missing his lower limbs. How that happened, I am unsure, but I am trying to let it go …


How about you? Is there any area of your life as a parent where you feel the need to overcompensate in some way, or be perfect? How do you manage your own unreasonable expectations? Tell me in the comments below.




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