|photo by Tara M. Owens|
For the 2013 holiday season, I am hosting a blog series called Hurting for the Holidays. Twenty-six amazing guest writers are sharing their hearts, hurts, and helps to help those of us who carry an internal ache to navigate this celebratory season. Find all posts in the series here, and participate via social media through the hashtag #HurtingfortheHolidays.
“It doesn’t say to do it this much, but it’s just not coming together.”
My husband pulses the food processor a few more times, almonds, dates, anise, plums, sugar, and a myriad of other things whirling around the bowl.
Bryan is a culinary explorer. Hand him ketchup, he’ll ask how it’s made. Then he’ll hunt out all of the ingredients to make it himself. (Ketchup, by the way, is harder than you think.) His list of self-taught staples includes everything from beer to bread, from vanilla extract to gin and back again.
Last year, he decided to figure out what sugar plums were made of, a valid holiday exploration, I thought, since “Twas the Night Before Christmas” has the eager tots drifting off with visions of them dancing in their heads. They must be something to desire, then, mustn’t they?
Depends on your sugar plum, it seems. Sugar plums through history run everywhere from hard sugar candy to an amalgam of plums, apricots, figs, fennel, caraway and other seeds. Bryan, to make it difficult, opted for the latter.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how our hearts gravitate during the holiday season to activities that mirror the states of our souls, our families?
I’m part of a blended family. I have two adult step-daughters and a step-son, the latter of which doesn’t speak to us. The eldest and youngest are married, so I’m also a grandma (I prefer the French-Canadian Mémé, because I’m on the young end of being a grandparent.) And we’re in the process of trying to conceive ourselves.
Approximately a third of all weddings this year produced blended families, with millions of parents and kids living in various types of blended family arrangements. And, for the most part, we’re not talking about it. (Do you know how many books there are on Amazon about being a step-mom, books to help navigate the challenges and step into these churning places with hope and humor? Eight. That’s right, eight. And not all of those eight are all that helpful, I’ll tell you.)
I know why.
Navigating a blended family has its challenges at the best of times. As step-mom, I’m always asking myself how I love well without pulling the loyalties of my step-daughters away from their mother, how I support them in their own journeys while respecting that I have my own, too.
During the holidays, though, being in a blended family feels a bit more like being in a blender. And talking about it? Processing the longings for children while chasing around my two-year-old grandson or joyfully (truly, joyfully) hosting my beautiful pregnant step-daughter? Not going to happen. It’s enough that I deal with my own issues of performance and perfection, the ways that I strive to make the Christmas-that-isn’t-on-Christmas-Day gathering just as special as the actual day.
These are the places that the holidays make me feel more than a little, well, nuts.
A year and a half ago, God put up a mirror, asking me to take a look at the ways I was chasing down love and approval by trying to make our blended family, well, just a little smoother than it was at the time. I may not have been doing it outwardly, but inwardly I was rushing around in my head, trying to make sure that I reached out enough times, that the girls knew that I cared, trying to make every encounter we had beautiful and stress-free. It was a shocking reflection, when I’d been priding myself on how relaxed I was as a step-mom, how I made way for all the other family obligations and never insisted on my own schedule, my own priorities.
God and I had a chat, that day, and I realized I’d made an idol of family, our family in particular, and that I was sacrificing my heart to that idol, over and over and over. But that day, instead of carving up my coronary center one more time, I took my heart gently in my hands and apologized to it. I told it I was sorry for all the crazy-making and the ways I put pressure on myself and others to have something like “normalcy” when our family is far from normal. I let go of the expectations, and took a deep breath.
It was a discipline, and still is, not to bend over backward, but the day after I’d had that conversation with God and myself, I was picking up a few picture frames in IKEA, about an hour from home. As I was perusing the bins, who walked by me, not five inches away, but my two step-daughters, my son-in-law and my grandson. Those of you who have been in IKEA know that finding anyone inside the massive store is difficult even if you’re planning on meeting there, but these four has convened from an hour and a half away in different directions. They didn’t know I was going to be there, and I didn’t know they were going to be there. It was like God smiling at me and saying, See, I can arrange this if you’ll let me.
I’m not saying that gatherings have been stress-free since then, and I’m not saying that I’ve totally given up on the striving (I do like to default back to it, I admit.) But when I stopped insisting on things going smoothly, there was a lot more joy and a lot more rest. It’s not going to be perfect, because in blended families our brokenness is right near the surface. Bump up against us, and we’ll bleed, easily, quickly.
I know Christmas this year will be part joy and part disappointment, and maybe that’s part of the living in between that I’m going to lean into this season.
Bryan has finished another batch of sugar plums, carefully stacking them in a pyramid for presentation. I pop an outlier in my mouth and chew. And chew, and chew, a chew. They’re not smooth, these things. They’re nutty and complex, chunky and heavy. If given a choice, I’d prefer the shortbread my mom dips in chocolate each Christmas season—they’re softer and remind me more of my Christmases past. But these blended candies are becoming a tradition in our blended family, and I think they have something to teach me, after all.
It's easy for me to think that Christmas should be simple. As Tara wrote, however, reality is not smooth, but complex. Heavy, at times, and hardly ever simple. I appreciate how she gently reminds us that this is okay. That it is okay for family dynamics be messy, for holiday preparations to feel like a slog, for Christmas to be "part joy and part disappointment." What does Tara's phrase "living in between" mean for you?
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Tara M. Owens, MTS, CSD is a spiritual director, author and speaker with Anam Cara Ministries. She loves journeying with others as they walk with God, and pressing into the questions together. She has a book on spirituality and the body that will be published by InterVarsity Press in 2014. She lives in Colorado with her husband, Bryan, and their rescue dog, Hullabaloo. You can follow her on Twitter, email her or join the Anam Cara Facebook community.