I tried so hard. It had to be perfect. I would start with one outfit – a dress for my daughter, a button down for one of the boys – and then take so much care to build all the other outfits around it. Putting them together was like a puzzle. I would make 17 trips to Kohl’s or Old Navy, only to realize the shirt I really needed for their dad was at Target all along. But once I had those outfits finalized? I felt good. Accomplished. I knew we would look good. That was important to me… the perception.
Then came picture day. A date marked on the calendar with my favorite photographer months in advance, the timing perfectly coordinated between naptime, meal time and snack time so the kids would be happy.
They had to look happy.
We had to look happy.
We were happy… right?
The Christmas card would prove it.
Never mind the fact that I turned into a picture posing Nazi every. Single. Time. Never mind the fact that I made a shot sheet for our photographer, specifying the poses I wanted him to capture before we ever started, Pinterest examples included.
“Smile!” I would bark at the kids.
“Come on… You can have candy or ice cream or any damn thing you want if you just stop crying and take the picture…”
“What!? You stepped in the grass and got your shoes wet? Come on, buddy!”
“The baby fell and scraped her lip on the road? She’ll be OK. Let’s keep shooting. Third kid… right?”
And then a week or so later I’d get the disc.
They somehow always turned out exactly how I wanted… even though it was our little secret that the kids were in the middle of the meltdown of the century when he snapped the winning pose.
Next it was time to choose the card design that fit the picture or pictures we liked best. Keep the messaging simple. Let the love in our pictures shine through. That’s the perfect Christmas card.
I remember our first card attempt, four months after the wedding. We must have taken 75 different shots of our Chocolate Lab – with a Santa hat on, by the presents, in front of the tree, me holding her down, me enticing her with a treat. We finally settled on one of her leaping through the air with her tongue in the air, choosing the words “Merry and Bright” to go with the funny image. That’s happy, right?
Year two. I’d recently learned I was pregnant and we were SO excited. I would be roughly 10 weeks by the time we mailed out the cards – what better way than the perfect Christmas card to announce it to everyone? Except then I started spotting. And cramping. Then bleeding. With a glimmer of hope, I held back tears and forced a smile while the photographer snapped pictures of us in the snow, holding the sign with our “announcement.” Good thing we shot a few back-ups without that sign… just in case. Two days later, an ultrasound showed no heartbeat. Ugh. The worst emotional pain I’d ever felt in my 25 years on earth. But that year’s perfect card didn’t show it. Instead, it showed happiness because we had to celebrate what was right in our lives rather than focus on the hard stuff. Right?
Year three. Our 2011 card announced the birth of our first baby – with a picture of a sweet, 8 pound, 6 ounce boy sleeping perfectly on his daddy’s forearm. We were over the moon happy with that healthy little guy in our lives.
Year four. Our toothy one-year-old, our beautiful dog and us, on the bed. Smiling so big, announcing baby boy number two’s expected April arrival. That year was a happy one. Right?
Year five. A dirt road in Michigan. Us and our two boys.
Year six. The dog even seemed to pose for that shot in front of an old warehouse. I loved that card.
Year seven. We made it quick. Find a couple pine trees in the neighborhood. Work with the time of day we’ve got because, let’s face it, with a 3-year-old, 2-year-old and 6-month-old, you kind of have to take what you can get and move on. We settled on a pose that showed us close and happy. The perfect family.
Year eight. Mustard yellows. Navy. Greys. The boys really tried to play along, but their sister wasn’t having an ounce of it. She wouldn’t hold their hands. Wouldn’t pose. Refused to look at the camera. Fell and scraped her lip on the road. Wanted to eat. But somehow we cranked it out – and the pictures turned out stunning. Even the ones of the six of us playing in our bed, a bubble machine in full effect at stage right.
That was also the year our 125 Christmas cards almost didn’t get sent. Our marriage was in trouble. And we both knew it had been for a couple months. Why send a card when we weren’t sure if we would stay together? Why continue to present this false image that everything was OK when, in fact, that picture perfect union was quickly turning into dysfunction junction?
For whatever reason (I honestly don’t remember), we stuck those perfect Christmas cards in the mail and let everyone continue to believe we were a perfect, happy family. That’s just what you do, right?
Year nine. This is a rough one. By now most of our friends and family know there will be no card from our six member squad. In fact, I can’t even bring myself to send one from just me and the kids. This was the year our marriage fell apart beyond repair.
The weeks following our divorce drove me into an isolation and brokenness I never imagined I would face or feel. I avoided acquaintances at Target with a quick wave and a “gotta run!” when their body language said they clearly wanted to stop and chat. Friends told me to ‘be strong’ or ‘give it time’ but holy shit – I was a wreck. Genuine inquiries into how I was holding up almost automatically led to tears. Then I found myself apologizing all over the place and crying. Often in a professional setting. It was humiliating to not have control over my emotions.
As I unpacked boxes in my new home, one of our old Christmas cards – Year Three – fell to the floor. I stared at it, almost afraid touching that perfect little card with the tiny human being pictured on the front would cause me to shatter even worse than I already had.
Divorced friends assured me I was normal and my feelings were normal. My therapist told me part of my identity as a wife and partner was stripped away by the divorce, which is a big reason why I struggled. I’ll be better, she said, as I discovered and settled into my new identity.
After sorting through a ton of unexpected thoughts and emotions, I’ve somehow emerged from that weird abyss and am getting back to happy. Back to me.
Still, I wonder if we were really, truly happy or if it was all just pretend? A cute little façade while other couples commented they wished they could be a “power couple” like us… and they were so jealous because we “had everything.”
Those perfect Christmas cards of years past will never go in the trash. They’re boxed up in the basement, along with family pictures and other memories for the kids to revisit when they’re ready. Those memories belong to them just as much as their dad and me. They deserve to have those memories – cards included – regardless of the perception I was so desperately trying to convey.
As for perfection and the perception of “perfect?” I’ve finally realized it doesn’t exist. Relationships aren’t perfect. I’m not perfect. Life isn’t perfect. And pretending as though everything is eventually leads to a confusing black hole that swirls like a slow-moving cyclone.
So for me, moving forward means embracing moments that truly matter. It means setting reasonable expectations… for myself and other people in my life. It means slowing down and breathing – I recently spent 5 hours glued to my couch on a Saturday and didn’t regret a second of it. Moving forward means taking a step back from superficial friendships and reevaluating who I want in my life, in what capacity and why. It means putting more effort into being a mom and spending real, uninterrupted time with my kids. And right now – all of those things are exactly what I’m doing. One perfectly imperfect day at a time.
I'm a mom to 3 beautiful, spirited, elementary school-aged humans, I'm addicted to running + strength training, I have no filter & I work full time in the corporate world. But behind the scenes of all that is where it really gets interesting...