Welcome to the holidays! It’s a time of joy, cheer and family! Except…sometimes, it’s not.
The days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s can be enormously sad and stressful for women in the middle years of their lives. We aren’t often willing to acknowledge this though, much less talk about it. As a matter of fact, right about now we’re all supposed to be wearing aprons and smiles, because the holidays are the happiest time of the year for everybody–including us. Right?
Our American culture has created a strong narrative for the holidays.
Our media, traditions and cultural norms bombard us daily with the message that we, as women, need to meet certain expectations. The holiday season is when we’re really expected to perform. Here’s why: the happiness of other people is at stake. It’s often considered our responsibility to create the perfect holiday environment for the people around us.
We’re expected to decorate the house, cook special recipes, choose perfect gifts and host people inside of our perfectly clean homes. We’re supposed to create a spirit of family among people who often don’t get along, and sometimes won’t even speak to each other unless a holiday or a funeral is involved.
This time of year naturally highlights all of the blemishes in our homes and relationships.
The twinkling lights on the tree often illuminate imperfect marriages and estranged relationships. Grievances we willingly overlook during the rest of the year seem to come back to life in the pressure of the holidays, because society tells us that “family” always means unconditional acceptance and love.
But many times, that’s not the case, is it? Family can be an enormous source of both pain and rejection, which is something many people don’t like to admit. So we carry along, lying to our friends and coworkers about how we’re feeling, because we don’t want to stand out from the norm. It’s easier to pretend, both to ourselves and everyone around us, that we’re as happy as they are during this time of year.
Except for this: maybe they’re not really happy, either.
Comparison is a huge, ugly beast during the holidays.
As Midlife Women, we’re already battling with comparison. We’re always going to be surrounded by women who are younger, or more successful professionally. Our own homes are filled with photos of us when we were younger, showing off fewer lines on our faces, and fewer pounds on our hips. We catch sight of ourselves in a mirror and suddenly gasp–where did the time go? When did we start to look like this? Family photos are part of our daily environment, so we can never escape this proof of our younger selves, and how we used to look.
Our Facebook feed suddenly becomes an endless stream of families posing around turkeys and Christmas trees. Some women don’t add to that stream of smiling faces though, because they are hoping to hear from their child. Their child may be spending Christmas with friends, or the new family they’ve just married into. More sadly, some women might have a child who has gone astray, and they live with a pain about their offspring that is rarely shared with others. Holidays create painful hope for these women, as they sadly wait for contact that may never come.
Women who never had children, for whatever their private reason, have to find their own unique place inside of this holiday chaos.
No matter who you are, Beautiful–I want you to hear me well: it’s okay if the holidays make you sad.
In fact, it’s perfectly normal at this stage of your life. Holidays, you see, are designed primarily for young children. Holiday traditions instill a sense of shared history in the youngest members of our society. Dressing up for Thanksgiving pageants at school and whispering into Santa’s ear provide moments that help our children build a collective sense of culture and community.
Naturally, if you don’t have any young children around, it’s easy to feel left out and lonely during this time. Or if your family is non-traditional in any way, you might buy into the lie that something is wrong.
Don’t let this happen to you, Beautiful.
Self-Care is more important than ever during the holidays .
It’s important to make sure to treat yourself very gently if the holidays cause you sorrow. You absolutely do not have to feel guilty for needing to tone down the scale of your holiday season, if that’s what feels right. It’s also okay to reject any unrealistic expectations others put upon you during this time of year. Whether it’s buying instead of baking, not putting up a tree, or reducing the number of gifts you present to the people around you–you’re allowed to participate on a much smaller scale than you have in the past.
It’s fine to avoid movies, music or other triggers that bring you memories of more robust celebrations. You don’t have to feel guilty if you’re not willing to put up decorations, or cook the massive varieties of food you’ve always presented. If you want to do these things, that’s fantastic–just don’t feel that you have to. Because simply put–you don’t.
Here’s why: behind you are years of work that you put in for the joy of others.
For years, you scrimped and saved so your children could have the gifts they wanted. You allowed your mother-in-law to boss you in your own kitchen while she made her famous stuffing. You smiled at the cheap drug store perfume you opened on Christmas morning, knowing it had been purchased the day before. Over the lifetime of your family, you did what needed to be done to ensure their holidays were happy.
You did it all, Beautiful. Well done.
It’s time to relax if you want to.
Listen carefully, please–now is the time to go spoil yourself.
You’ve spent years wrapping presents for other people, so it’s time to buy yourself a Christmas present. Choose something no one would ever buy you, and enjoy the novelty. Get a big bag of Christmas candy, and don’t offer to share it with anyone, because it’s just for you. Take a solitary walk in the woods, or book yourself a manicure.
Despite what all of the Christmas commercials say, you are allowed to feel sadness during the holidays. Just don’t let it overwhelm you. Instead, dare yourself to start this conversation with your girlfriends, and ask them if they are feeling sad, too. You’ll be astounded how many women at this stage of their lives put up a facade of happiness, when really–the holidays cause them great pain.
Start new traditions, if you can’t maintain the old ones any longer.
If people in your family no longer speak to each other, or can’t physically be present for whatever reason, don’t stare at an empty chair. Find new ways to engage with the world. Create new traditions, perhaps of service or charity. Focus outwards instead of inwards, and draw closer to the people who remain nearby. Find new ways you can participate in the many celebrations going on around you, without comparing how you used to do things.
Invite coworkers, or people you only know mildly well, to holiday concerts or events. These will be conflict-free sources of community engagement, where you can participate in the season without having to be around family dramas. You’ll be making new memories for yourself, with neutral and pleasant people.
Let the people closest to you know how you are feeling.
Be honest with your partner about what’s really in your heart. Let that person know you are having trouble getting in the spirit of the season. Be upfront if you’re feeling sad, lonely, unappreciated or unneeded. Tell those closest to you you’re going to make reservations instead of dinners, and that it’s time for someone else to worry about the dishes for a change.
Tell them whether you need quiet, or you need company. Share with them what you’re really feeling, and refuse to buy into the holiday lies about hearth and home. Don’t be bullied–by anyone, including society itself–into pretending your life is covered with glitter, and you’re surrounded by sugar plum fairies.
Allow moments of quiet joy to slip in by blocking out your unrealistic expectations.
Tragically, we’ve let our holidays be assaulted by commercial enterprise. A couple of weeks ago, people around me were complaining about having to wait in line to vote. Last night, some of these very same people were sleeping in a parking lot, just so they could be first in line for a cheap television on Black Friday. Sadly, our holidays have turned away from emotions and towards possessions. They’re now often measured by things, or accomplishments, rather than by shared time or experiences.
Please ignore the Pinterest-perfect templates presented during this time of year, and instead appreciate that we are all here, together. Sometimes we’re sad, sometimes we’re lonely and sometimes we’re disappointed by the people around us. But we are all real, and not the airbrushed fantasy relentlessly presented over the next two months.
I challenge you to be real this holiday season.
I dare you to ask for what you really need. Whether it’s physical, emotional or spiritual–I dare you to go after it. Let go of the holiday template. Push aside the fantasies, scripts and ancient expectations. Believe you are valuable enough to define the holiday season that is right for you.
Even if that means gently closing the front door and politely waiting for it all to go away.
Sing the Christmas carols if you want to. Eat the brownies. Cry at the sappy movies, participate in the gift exchanges and wear the ugly sweaters. Or–allow yourself to privately weep over the pictures of your children when they were still small, and dwarfed by that retro Christmas tree. Push aside some of the frantic holiday energy if you must, and ignore your memories of the time everyone left Cheerios out for the reindeer. Do whatever you need to make it through the incredibly stressful, shared experience that is the next month and a half. You don’t need to apologize for a thing.
Instead, allow yourself to be surprised by the genuine joy and kindness that this season creates.
Drop money into every Salvation Army bucket you see, and make friends with strangers waiting in the lines with you. Donate to Toys For Tots, and buy yourself a bright red lipstick to match all of the Poinsettias popping up everywhere. Politely say ‘No, thank you’ if it all gets to be too much, and never feel the need to explain yourself or your modified holiday boundaries.
Yes, it’s okay to be sad this time of year, Beautiful. Allowing your real feelings to come through is the only way you can get rid of them, in order to make room for the genuine joy that is awaiting.
Because that’s what this season is really all about My Friend–joy.
So take a deep breath, tidy up your eye makeup and go find it.
Joy is awaiting you–I promise.
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**Chanler Jeffers has seen many extraordinary things over her lifetime. An adventurer, survivor, overachiever and advocate of kindness in all instances, she has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE), and is a member of their Circle of Champions. She has had the good fortune to live and travel all over the world, grew up as a military dependent and was a single parent for many years. She has survived cancer, and gently shaped countless people over her years on this little planet we call home. Follow along as she shares her knowledge, her experience and her love. Oh, by the way–one more thing. She’s married to a Bass playing rock star, lucky girl.