Expectation feeds frustration. It is an unhealthy attachment to people, things, and outcomes we wish we could control; but don’t.
– Dr. Steve Maraboli
It was my very first Christmas as a single mother. My precious girls were over 1,000 miles away from me, separated from our traditions and the mom who adored them. We weren’t making cookies together and putting them out for Santa. I didn’t stuff their stockings that night or put out the Santa gifts. I couldn’t even stay at my own home and deal with the searing pain of not being with them on our favorite holiday. I left the state and stayed with friends.
People surrounded me with love and reassurance and understanding and that knowing pity from having experienced the same thing. So many people cared about me. I had invitations for parties and events and shows. And I was miserable. My loneliness was so palpable that I was sure people could see the scarlet F on my coat—FAILURE as a mother, a parent, a family-maker. No amount of rationalization made it better. Without my girls and my perception of family, the emptiness was nearly unbearable. This, of course, made worse by the fact that my girls were horrendously unhappy being with their father, my older one being the saddest. I still have those emails from 7 years ago where I attempted to help him soothe her, including the one and only time he admitted in writing to being the one to cause the family’s destruction.
Power Disguised as Hopelessness
Whether you have had to walk away from an abusive marriage, a parent, a church, a close friend, or a child, you know precisely what I’m describing. It’s that excruciating lump in the center of your being that you’re sure you could reach in and pull out if only you had the superpower to heal yourself. But we don’t realize we do hold that power. It’s disguised as hopelessness.
That loneliness was revisited upon me each and every time my children were with Captain Crazy. He did the equivalent of wining and dining them, taking them places and trying to sound like Super Dad, after sending me a bill demanding money for taking them on visitation. I was virtually despondent and divorced myself from the feelings only by filling my every moment with something to do. I would stay up until I was quite literally so exhausted I fell into bed fully clothed at 3 or 4 am. Those times when I couldn’t reach them while they were with him were torturous because I just wanted to know how my babies were, what they were doing, what they had for lunch.
As time marched on and their relationships with their biological father evolved with their maturity level, I was working hard on myself. At one point, I realized that even though they were not having visitation with him, I was still haunted by those feelings of loneliness on holidays and at special occasions. The hard truth revealed that I was lonely for something that never was: my wonderful, loving, picture-perfect family.
But I didn’t fail. Neither did you.
Failure and Fear
Failure and fear color every decision we make as survivors. We are convinced we’re failures and we fear making decisions that will make us even more so. The family holiday portrait turned out to not be postcard perfect. And that freaking hurts.
It struck me one day while listening to Anita Baker:
I can remember stories, those things my mother said
She told me fairy tales, before I went to bed
She spoke of happy endings, then tucked me in real tight
She turned my night light on, and kissed my face good night
My mind would fill with visions, of perfect paradise
She told me everything, she said he’d be so nice
He’d ride up on his horse and, take me away one night
I’d be so happy with him, we’d ride clean out of sight
She never said that we would, curse, cry and scream and lie
She never said that maybe, someday he’d say goodbye
The story ends, as stories do
Reality steps into view
No longer living life in paradise-or fairy tales…
My parents were very happily married for 25 years until my father died. My dad’s parents were also separated by the death of my grandfather and my grandmother never remarried, often speaking of him in the present tense. My mother’s parents were oil and water, but were married 50-something years when my grandmother died. These were the examples I had. Holidays were full of baking and gifts and craziness and loads of love.
What the hell had I done wrong?
Save for making a series of fear-based choices that kept me with an abuser.
No, the loneliness wasn’t really loneliness…it was the sting and emptiness of perceived failure.
Replacing the Old
I started my own traditions, including the one where I forgive myself for everything I had previously labeled a failure. My girls and I rewrote our story with volunteerism and new recipes and the annual boxes full of Bath and Body Works goodies. We stopped trying to make it what we thought it should be based on some Hallmark commercial visual and made it what we wanted. Christmas night often involved hordes of teens descending on my house to eat piles of food and play games. We became radical non-conformists, concentrating instead on what we wanted, not what society expected.
And we became joyful. Deliberate. Free. We didn’t fail, we built. But we had to break down the old constructs first.
Recently, the Georgia Dome in Atlanta was demolished in favor of the new Mercedes Benz stadium. The Dome hosted the Olympics in 1996, a Super Bowl, hundreds of concerts, basketball games, football contests, and even the tractor pulls. It went down in 12 seconds after the demo team activated the explosives. It reminded me clearly of the exact process of eliminating my holiday “loneliness”…I had to build something new and better and more suited to my needs and purpose, then break down the old one. Or, as my boss says, don’t throw away your old shoes until you get new shoes! I
t’s okay to keep those traditions until you make new ones.
One by one, I replaced my expectations and habits with things that just simply made me happy. No one was looking over my shoulder or setting those expectations for me anymore. No one complained when I opted to make roast lamb instead of turkey. Nobody fussed when I ditched pumpkin pie for cheesecake (okay, pumpkin pie cheesecake, but whatever!). There was no objection when I pared down to one holiday tree that was full of nothing by my kids’ collectible and handmade ornaments, instead of the multiple trees with color themes.
Also, I bought my pies instead of baking them.
I’m never lonely anymore.