It's only appropriate to begin with a few small doses of reality...
Reality Check #1: I consistently set off the smoke detectors in my house when I cook. I tell myself it’s because of where they are located relative to the kitchen, but let’s be real… that’s not normal. My cooking sucks.
Reality Check #2: As I picked up my four-year-old from her Dad’s house a few weeks ago, she grabbed the screen door and said, “Come on and open up, ya asshole door!” I unsuccessfully bit my lip and tried to find a stern face, but still laughed a good three minutes.
Reality Check #3: The same 4-year-old got so mad at her BFF at their first sleepover together that she refused to look at her or speak to her… for at least half an hour. The other mom texted me at 9pm, asking how she should handle the drama.
Reality Check #4: I was on the phone with the guy I’m dating just a few weeks after we’d met when my six-year-old suddenly ran up to the phone and screamed, “Our Mom is a trainwreck!” That was cool.
Reality Check #5: I thought I was killing it as I bootlegged leftover Halloween candy and six water bottles in my purse through the doors of Frozen 2 with four children in tow. Joke was on my stingy ass when I somehow lost my wallet in the theater. Thank goodness for honest people though – I got it back the next day.
Reality Check #6: I recently transported eight cases of wine from point A to point B for work. But when I opened the back hatch of my SUV, an entire case came crashing out. I cussed as wine seeped out of the broken bottles, through the cardboard and onto the sidewalk in the rain. Then a colleague drove by and whipped out his phone to take a picture and I laughed… because that’s funny!
So before you confuse me with someone who actually has all her shit together, please read all of that again. I'm not writing this from my ivory tower or my soap box or my golden throne.
There was a time not so long ago when those same incidents would have sent me into a spiral. I would have found someone to blame. I would have been mad, negative, even hateful toward some of the people closest to me because something didn’t go my way. I would have let some silly, inconsequential thing ruin my day or week because that’s just how I used to live. But the truth is, I was hurting. I didn’t like who I was, and I was incredibly ashamed by some of the choices I’d made.
There’s that saying, “Hurt people hurt other people.” And it’s so freaking true.
Holidays were the worst. I took out anger and anxiety on people I loved. I took what should have been beautiful days filled with family and memories and I ruined them. Every. Single. Time.
After a while though, I realized that messed up person was neither who I truly am nor who I wanted to be. So I faced that unhappy person head-on. I went to therapy. I put in the work and dealt with the mess that came as side-effects of working through my shit. I sat with the pain and the guilt and the past that once bogged down that miserable girl and simultaneously made her want to take others down with her.
There were also some pretty important steps that I now realize helped me heal, which included holding myself accountable. And even though I didn't have some grand plan or end game in mind, sharing the how is important... because I now realize none of it happened by accident.
I set and accomplished a huge goal.
It’s funny how opportunity often appears at our lowest point. I was a complete mess on my living room couch the night my friend Cindy sent me the text, asking if I would complete a Half Ironman with her. Come to think of it, my emotional state was probably why I said yes without thinking it through. But crossing that finish line nine months later is one of the most prideful moments I’ve had in a very long time.
I looked inward.
My company recently incorporated employee engagement surveys at our corporate office. Some of the feedback suggested I needed to improve my management and leadership skills. Big time. First I cried. Then I got mad. Then I was defensive. But after self-reflection and coaching from people I trust and respect, I owned all of it. I realized much of the feedback was true, and some was simply perception that needed to be addressed. Either way, I had a lot of work to do… on me.
I walked away from a toxic relationship.
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in other people that we can’t see how much they’re damaging our soul. But somewhere in the middle of therapy and hundreds of hours of triathlon training and self-reflection, I realized I deserve better. So I blocked someone in my phone. I unfriended and unfollowed them on social media. I stopped talking about them. I took away their power over me and gained so much self-respect.
I focused on my kids.
Last April, I took my kids on a spring break beach vacation. Just the four of us. I booked it, planned it and paid for it myself. I thought we were heading to a tropical location with 80-degree temperatures and sunshine for days. But high temperatures that week were mostly in the 40s and low 50s with lots of rain. I knew the kids would reflect my energy. So I made new plans and changed my expectations. And you know what? My littles had no idea our vacation was supposed to be anything different than what it was. We had the BEST time. That trip became a huge turning point for me when it came to learning how to connect with my kids emotionally.
I put myself first.
I knew if I stood a chance of crossing that Half Ironman finish line, I had to take better care of me. I focused on self-care – including eating better and sleeping more. I also built (or, in some cases rebuilt) positive relationships. I stopped settling and decided to spend my time doing what makes me happy. If a situation doesn’t have a feasible positive end-result or if my gut feels weird, I walk away. I’ve never felt more free
It’s worth noting none of this has been a straight line. It was messy and jagged with high points and super low ones. It also took time – more than 18 months – and a lot of really hard (and heart) work on my end. For real.
At one low point in the past year, I wanted to quit my job.
At another, I cried myself to sleep several nights in a row.
At yet another, I screamed at my mom and accused her of not being there when I needed her most.
And at another, I had a hard conversation with someone I'd hurt. Even though it brought that person intense pain, I was finally able to forgive myself and let go of massive guilt I’d held on to for years. I allowed myself move forward.
Therapy helped me work through all of those "things" from my past. It taught me how to sit with the hard stuff and how to do the heart work - to heal my heart from issues I'd avoided and not dealt with previously.
The heart work included lots of solo time. Instead of going out on empty dates or giving my energy to superficial relationships on weekends I didn't have my kids, I chose to stay home. It wasn't fun, but was what I needed at the time.
I write all of this because I know someone out there needs to read it. If someone you love is going through a hard time, please love them harder. They need you (even if they say they don't).
If you’re at the bottom and you feel alone, sad, scared or just plain pissed off, I get it. Those feelings seem to suck a lot more this time of year, but I promise it gets better. You will feel better and do better and be better and love better. It is possible to become a better version of yourself.
But you have to keep moving forward. You have to be willing to put in the heart work. And you have to know you're worth it.
About 14 months ago, a few weeks before our divorce was final, Justin and I sat down on our bed to talk. The kids were asleep and the house was quiet. Too quiet. At some point during that conversation, he calmly launched into an analogy about our marriage. It spoke to me. And it devastated me.
When we first got married, Kelli, I felt like we got into a car, fastened our seat belts and started out on a journey, he began. At first, it was awesome. I really felt like we were on this long journey together. But then I came up behind another car and had to slow down. What do you always tell me to do when that happens? he asked.
Pass it, I said softly, intrigued by where he was going with this.
Pass it, he repeated. Hurry up. Go faster. Pass the next car, you aren’t going fast enough.
I stared at him.
Kelli, you always had to go faster and do more. You wanted the perfect job, you got it. And you were so good at it. Then you wanted a better job, a nicer car, kids, a bigger house… you wanted it all and we got it all. But it wasn’t enough. You kept speeding up. For a while, I thought I could keep up with you and for a while, I really wanted to. But then I got tired, he continued.
I was quietly crying by this point, processing his words.
Kelli, all I wanted was to slow down. I wanted to stop and enjoy the ride. I wanted to sightsee with you. But you never would.
He went on to tell me he was worried I would never slow down. He said he had genuine concerns about how that would affect my relationships with our kids and other people in the future.
That conversation haunts me because, in many ways, he was dead-on. It was also one of the deepest, most sincere talks we’d had during our entire marriage. And it happened much later than it should have.
You see, I have a knack for doing life aggressively. I excel at filling my plate with so much stress, work, stuff and super high expectations that I slip into autopilot. When I’m in “go mode,” I know one speed… running toward everything that keeps my walls high and away from what’s important.
Over the past year, I’ve worked on pumping the brakes and slowing down. But that’s a challenge because when it gets quiet, I’m forced to sit and deal with feelings and emotions I’ve never faced. So then I speed back up, piling on work and stress because there’s comfort in forging ahead. I’ve learned it’s such a dirty little cycle. Can anyone else out there relate?
Exhibit A: Hudson’s birthday party. I’ll preface this by saying the past twelve weeks almost murdered me. Crazy projects at work. Running kids. Trying to get to the gym. Calls (yes, more than one) from the principal’s office. Halloween costume shopping. Delivering dessert to the PTO teacher appreciation luncheon (I caved… the boys are in a new school and we all love it). Saying yes to the occasional date. Forgetting to pay bills (my mortgage in October… whoops). This, my friends, is all things Mom Life.
So for Hudson’s Lego-themed party, I ordered invites, gave Justin a handful then never sent out the rest. Friends and family on my side all got invited via text message. Ugh. (Do I at least get points for it not being a group text?)
But that’s not the worst part.
Our kids live for custom birthday cakes. Over the years, we’ve done fire trucks, garbage trucks, unicorns, baseballs, beach scenes and all sorts of 3-D cakes the kids pick out on Pinterest. It’s our thing and it makes them feel really special.
You’re high, by the way, if you think I made any of those cakes. I’d screw that shit up in the first 30 seconds. We trust and pay the experts. It’s money well spent. For real.
I booked the baker in August. Then closer to the party date, emailed a picture of the cake Hudson wanted… the number 6 with a Lego construction theme all around it. She asked me what number cake pan she should order and I confirmed a 6. Justin offered to get and assemble the Legos, because, well… I suck at that building and engineering business.
But the night before the party, we had a problem.
The baker had emailed a picture to show us how the cake turned out. And it was PERFECT. Except… the bright colored fondant Lego blocks were wrapped around the number 6.
And Hudson was definitely about to turn 7.
Since it was too late to bake a 7, she offered to turn it into a circle. Justin made a few tweaks to the construction site plan and SUCCESS! Hudson never noticed anything was weird. He was enthralled by the Legos and asked if he could keep the giant crane. He loved it. Phew.
That’s the story of my epic cake wreck.
But two days later, the cake wasn’t even a blip on the radar.
Disoriented and in pain, I was walking to an ambulance.
It felt like a dream.
I had my purse. My phone.
Why was my car against a tree? Why were people staring?
As I sat in the ambulance, a paramedic asked if it was OK for him to take my driver’s license out of my wallet.
“Wait, what happened?” I asked, wincing as I sat my hand down on the top of my thigh and felt pain shoot through my leg.
“You were in an accident. We’re headed to the hospital to get you checked out,” he said.
No. It was a great Monday morning. I’d prepped dinner for that evening so I could quickly feed the kids before putting them in the gym daycare and squeezing in a quick workout. I got the boys on the bus, dropped off Lyla, knocked a couple things off my work to-do list for the day and this was all before 8am.
There was no time for an accident.
I still have no memory of what led up to the crash or anything immediately after it. According to the police report though, we both had yellow lights and I turned in front of another car that was going 45 – 50 mph. The impact sent hot coffee flying through my Honda Pilot, deployed airbags down the entire passenger side and totaled both vehicles.
I don’t remember calling Justin from the front seat of my car and asking him to tell the medics not to take me to the hospital. I don’t recall telling them I just needed to sign the paperwork to refuse medical treatment because I had so much to do at work.
I don’t remember refusing to get on the cot when they asked me to… even though I had airbag burns on my hands, a painful bruise on my thigh and a concussion from hitting my head. As my SUV was loaded onto a tow truck, I texted someone from work to come pick me up so I could go home and change clothes before knocking out the rest of my work day.
Not realizing how out of it I was, I pounded on until about 1:30 that afternoon when Justin and I met up to buy new car seats (they’re supposed to be replaced after a significant crash). As we walked into Target, he looked at me and said, “I don’t think you’re OK. If you’re not going to be checked out, I think you should at least consider taking the rest of the day off.”
He was only about the 20th person to say that to me since the crash happened. But I could hear the concern in his voice, saying slow down without using those words at all.
“OK,” I replied, shrugging my shoulders as I took out my phone to email my boss and my team.
That was two weeks ago. And here I am… removed from the cake and car wrecks.
So grateful my babies weren’t with me when the crash happened.
Up to my ears in insurance claims (a first for me).
Navigating the process of buying a new car (also something I’ve never had to do by myself).
Trying to learn from how I once again allowed myself to become so intoxicated and distracted by the chaos of life.
Forcing myself to take a step back.
Finding perspective in a place somewhat foreign to me, as I lean into a strong dose of GRACE… something that was once missing from my life. It’s a word I only ever heard as a little girl in church, or the song Amazing Grace… until someone on my team at work used it about two years ago during a difficult conversation.
“Kelli, please understand what’s happening in my life and why it’s hard,” she’d said. “I don’t handle situations the same way you do and it’s OK that I don’t. It’s OK that we’re different. But I need some grace from you. And I think you should give yourself some too.”
That was a turning point in my relationship with that person, in such a good way. I’ve re-played her words in my head a lot and – in that time – worked to figure out how to find the grace she suggested for me. It’s been a process.
Here’s how my sweet friend (and incredible writer) Mandy recently described it in a Facebook post:
Grace. For myself, for my family, for my friends, for our country. It’s a new concept to my little brain and it’s been life changing. It looks like forgiveness to myself when I’ve said something wrong. Love in the toughest moment. Breathing out instead of yelling. Napping instead of laundry. It’s knowing that people are good and may not feel so good right then. It’s grace. I’m here for it.
I recently bought a little porcelain sign at Hobby Lobby with that word on it. I put it in the giant greenhouse window in my kitchen, where I see it when I walk in to make the kids breakfast each morning and when I flip on the light after coming home from a long day at work.
Grace reminds me I’m human. Grace reminds me I’m never going to be perfect. Grace reminds me to slow down. Grace reminds me I can’t go back and change any of the proverbial “wrecks” in my life (there have been so many), but I can move forward and forgive myself for those mishaps and mistakes.
And you know what? It’s time.
THIS is our happy place. Like every other 30-something mom I know, that sign is hanging in a prominent spot in my home. Except, I’ve come to realize “happy” is not a specific place at all (more on that in a second).
You see, I dove into 2018 thinking I needed to find someone to replace the void in my heart after divorce. Someone to tell me I'm not damaged and that I will be OK. Someone to tell me I'm doing a good job juggling life. Someone to tell me I'm a good mom. Someone to give me a big hug at the end of a really hard day and promise tomorrow will be better. Someone to stop this terrifying free fall feeling of, Who am I and what in the actual hell just happened to my life? Someone to be my happy place.
So to find Mr. Someone, I tried filling my free time with dates and meeting new people. I bravely ventured into the scary world of online dating. I also went out on a couple dates with guys I've known a long time.
As it turns out though, my Mr. Someone was not at a shitty dive bar on a Sunday afternoon (the scene of a horrific first date). He wasn't at a cute little brewery in St. Joe (the scene of a different first date that never turned into anything more because... well, yeah). He also was not at Hacienda during one horrifically hilarious lunch hour (more on that and other lovely little dating disasters in a future post).
Turns out… those “someones” were right in front of me the whole time. In my home and my heart.
Since I do have time away from my kids when they're with their dad, I've had more quiet moments than I'd like to reflect on my relationship with them. You guys, they’re so little. SO. LITTLE. And yet, they’ll probably never know how much they kept me afloat and forced me to keep going over the past 18 months. In the very best way possible, they gave me no choice but to get out of bed in the morning and plaster a smile on my face.
Especially when life got really hard.
Yes... they fight.
Lyla bites. (Yeah, for real.)
Sawyer wakes me up at 3:30 in the morning with a massive bloody nose or in a frantic search for his pillow that is inevitably hidden somewhere in his bed.
Then I find Lyla – chillin' on the couch like it’s her job – at 3:30 in the G.D. morning… watching Disney Jr. Or at 6:30 a.m. (this has been going on for a few weeks now), passed out cold with the TV blaring in the background. I thought only old men fell asleep like that?
No wonder she’s so crabby and tired all the time…
But in the middle of all that chaos and an already full plate as “Kelli the working mom,” I didn’t realize how much I really just need my kids. And they really need me.
At some point, my focus shifted from trying to find him… to rediscovering them.
I stopped to breathe this summer for what felt like the first time in forever.
We take early morning bike rides (sorry neighbors, for the fire truck and police car siren noises as we zip by at 7:15 on a Saturday morning), trips to the blueberry ranch and then use those blueberries to bake muffins. We spend 95 degree Sunday afternoons slurping down icees at Four Winds Field, have Friday night picnics in the back yard, take Saturday trips to the beach, explore the Farmer’s Market, snuggle up for popcorn and a movie at home, take in a matinee at the theatre, play games on the deck, catch fireflies, feed the fish at the zoo. We make every second count.
At night when we wind down and read books together in my bed, we often talk about the best part of our day and those parts of the day we might do a little differently if we could. Oftentimes, when I ask about the best part, one of the kids will reply, “Spending time with you.”
Holy. Melt. My. Heart.
I’ve realized my kiddos crave my attention and love our time together more than anything else. This is what carries me through the toughest, most emotional days – there have been a lot – THEY carry me. Yes, this is major progress. But I still have some work to do in the whole "working on me" department.
My close friends know I have demons, or at least one huge battle I just can’t seem to overcome right now. We’re talking about really hard stuff I'm not ready to share on my blog (not yet, anyway) or in a public forum. It’s my biggest, most painful vulnerability that – for whatever reason – has a tight grip on me and won’t go away.
It's crazy though how the more I share those dark parts of my life with people I trust, the more I learn they too have deep, haunting struggles. Marriages in trouble. Infidelities. Debt. Eating disorders. Quiet battles with addiction. Nagging bouts of depression. Someone very close to me recently disclosed she has terrible anxiety about getting in a car and driving anywhere further than the grocery store, so she often has to stay home and miss out.
We all have that something…
But we also have a choice to let the bad stuff consume us or to keep fighting through it.
A year ago, I bought one of those silver mantra bands that simply said “Choose Happy.” I wore it all the time as a constant reminder that I needed to push through the hard and the hurt to do what’s best for me.
Then earlier this month in the chaos of a typical Tuesday evening with the kids, I lost that bracelet. I got home and realized it wasn’t on my wrist when I knew I’d had it earlier in the day. At first I was really bummed. Then I thought about where we’d been – the county fair, making more memories together.
First I had to find my happy. And I’m finally learning how to choose it.
WANTED: Full-time Kindergarten Parent Specialist. Must have experience dealing with massive amounts of administrative work on top of a full-time career + parenting schedule.
Responsibilities include: packing daily snacks (fruits and veggies only… school won’t allow anything else due to allergies), signing the damn planner every night, recording the number of minutes I read to my kid each day, checking for teacher emails, keeping tabs on the school Facebook page and dodging the sweet PTO moms. Must keep your cool at all times. Must not let anyone see you lose your shit. Serious inquiries only.
May the odds be ever in your favor.
It really felt like Kindergarten bliss. Kissing that big kid goodbye and watching him climb up those giant school bus steps last fall. I blinked back a couple tears that first day but was otherwise emotionally OK with the transition. Aside from a few six-year-old boy issues – you know, following directions and keeping his hands to himself – he was (and still is) so happy. He LOVES school.
But me? I am so damn overwhelmed!
I should have taken my first clue last fall when the PTO started sending emails and Facebook pleas for treats for teachers during parent-teacher conference week.
Ummmmm excusemewhat? Isn’t that why we do teacher Christmas presents and gifts at the end of the school year?
If I know I’m going to have a long, hard day at work, I pack my lunch. And snacks. Nobody bakes shit and rewards or thanks me for doing the damn thing and being (mostly) nice to people. It’s my job… and I get a paycheck every two weeks to prove it.
Do you know what I get after a long, hard day at work? Three kids. Who are hangry, tired and need my full attention. While I run around to get them all dinner (just getting everyone to agree on the same thing every night is agony), I might get to hover over the sink for a second to shove in a few bites of whatever I managed to whip up for their dinner. Who doesn’t love freezer burnt corn dogs and fresh apple slices?
Real talk: I sincerely believe our educators and PTO have the very best intentions. But I struggle with the fact that being a kinder mom is literally a second job after I work all day, do dinner, baths, lay out tomorrow’s clothes, brush teeth, read books and give 5,000 goodnight hugs and kisses. I cringe each night as I open my boy’s backpack to new paperwork, a new form to fill out, an invitation to the weekly tea party with the PTO (shoot me now), a reminder about a pajama or spirit day (don’t forget to bring $1 for charity!) or a plea to help in the lunchroom. I also know from conversations with other working (and stay-at-home) moms with kids of all ages, I’m not the only one feeling certifiably insane because of it all.
And before you think I’m trying to crucify or attack his teacher, principal or the school he attends, please understand I am not. I know their job is tough. I wouldn’t survive 10 minutes in a classroom of emotional, jacked up 5 and 6-year-olds. You’d find me curled up in a ball in the corner. Sobbing. Ugly crying. Begging for a barre class, a Starbucks latte and my mommy. Seriously.
Back to the PTO for a second. Three things:
And to give you a little idea of why the parent element of kindergarten is so exhausting, let’s take a look at this week as an example.
SUNDAY: Email from the PTO about ANOTHER frigging fundraiser (this time at Skyzone. Later this week..), a plea for help in classrooms (here’s looking at you, stay at home moms), an ask for parents to help with the school yearbook, a solicitation for box tops to raise money for the school, an invitation to next month’s adults only fundraiser auction and a request for auction donation items. Can I also mention the email I just got from my kid’s teacher less than a week ago, asking all parents to send in something for the classroom’s gift basket being auctioned off at the same fundraiser?
MONDAY: Email from teacher letting us know we need to send in 20 valentines next week. No Candy or Sweet Treats allowed! Ok, it’s Valentine’s Day. I get it. And I’m on it… kind of.
TUESDAY: Email from teacher about a biography due later this month. We need to work with our kindergartener to learn about an important African American either in the library or on the computer at home. He needs to draw a picture of that person and write a biography. So does his teacher realize I also have a 2 and 4-year-old? And it’s pretty much impossible to be on a computer with a bossy toddler in my face at all times? Just thought I’d throw that out there.
TUESDAY: Second email from teacher about supporting a fellow teacher (who I happen to know and adore) in her “Dancing with the Stars” fundraising mission for the local homeless shelter. All students are invited to “dress up like a star” TOMORROW. Freaking tomorrow. As in, this email jumped into my inbox at 4:12 in the frigging afternoon and I’m supposed to figure something out by 7 tomorrow morning. Oh yeah, and he needs to bring a dollar if he wants to participate. And... the class that raises the most money gets a special surprise. You’re killing me, smalls!!!!!
WEDNESDAY: Snow Day! Except… while my kid chills at daycare all day, I’m at work. Getting emails from his teacher about the eLearning assignments he has to do. Yes. Online homework during snow days. In Kindergarten. (I’m also fielding similar emails for my preschooler, for what it’s worth.) One line in the kinder email encourages parents to “get in some extra snuggle time” on the snow day. That part may have sent me into a brief rage while I was, you know, WORKING!!!! And I cried a little because I felt guilty for not being home snuggling my babies. But seriously. What in the actual?
WEDNESDAY: Facebook post saying today’s Dress Like a Star day is now moved to tomorrow. Cool. Except I’m drowning in eLearning and #momlife, so my kid is going to school in whatever mismatched sweatpants and ratty t-shirt he picks out for himself. “Don’t worry honey, you’re a star every day!” I told him as I ushered him onto the school bus Thursday morning. Thank God he’s six and still buys it when I say shit like that…
THURSDAY: No emails from teacher. Something must be wrong. What’s happening? But before you go getting all judgy-mcjudgerson on me, I’m not a total bitch. I did put together a gift basket from my work for the school auction today for my PTO mom friend to pick up.
THURSDAY: Wait for it… 9:57pm. A phone call, text and email from the school corporation (yes, I'm signed up for all 3). Apparently a snowpocalypse is imminent and tomorrow is another snow day. Yippee. And another eLearning assignment we get to do this weekend. Awesome.
FRIDAY: Today I expect an eLearning email from his teacher with instructions for the weekend. And then probably the weekly newsletter she sends most Fridays.
That’s no less than SEVEN emails in a week. On top of the school Facebook page and any other correspondence that comes home in his folder or planner.
I think someone omitted the kindergarten mom chapter from What to Expect When You’re Expecting. For real!
No one is holding a gun to my head, demanding I get involved. No one is making me feel guilty about the fact that I do nothing extra to help. While I sometimes feel bad that I can’t do more or help more, I seriously can’t. And last time I checked, I pay taxes to support the public schools my kids attend. So why are you asking me to collect box tops and come to the auction?
Look, my close friends already know I’m an absolute train wreck who puts up a good front. A guy friend recently told me, ‘You’re not a complete wreck… you just kind of careen real far to one side when the track takes a sharp curve and then you have to lean back really far to right yourself again.’
Ok, back to work now (aka prepping for my weekend of eLearning fun).
If you need me, I’ll be in deep hiding from all the ticked off teachers and PTO moms who read my blog. Come at me, bro!
I may also be writing. I just might go for that Kindergarten Mom How-To book. I swear that shit could be a best seller…
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, tiny humans, I'm addicted to running + barre, 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...