Not that (Christmas) Mom

It must be disappointing for my daughters, how I am not particularly adept at motherly school functions. I’m not the one who volunteers to organize the parties and send emails around about baking goodies. I’m not the cheerful enthusiastic I’ll-make-costumes mom. I love those moms, headless_with_palmI’m so glad they are exist at our school. But I’m not one of them.

Call me the do-we-have-to? mom or the oh-not-again mom. Each time I get a notice about a school event or activity that requires parental assistance, I groan. It’s not that I’m not delighted by the extra-curricular school events that break up their mundane scholastic routine. I want those things to happen, and in technicolor. I just don’t want to have to do them.

I don’t think I’m alone on this. I think many of us pitch in because we know we’re supposed to. It’s not that we want to be doing it, rather that we want to see it being done. But it’s taboo to say so out loud.

I could blame it on the new school. Just as the girls have had to forge new friendships here, I, too, need to put in the effort to make friends with the other mothers. This is happening to some degree: a bit of small talk waiting at the school pick-up, the exchange that happens when dropping a kid off for a play date or to work on a school project, the friendly women I’ve met at monthly coffees. But all these relationships are nascent, and still awkward. I miss what had become effortless in Paris where the school activities didn’t feel like a burden and there was always the invitation to go for a beer afterward, to catch up with pals while doing our parental duty.

But even though I may have relished the social aspect, I’ve always felt inadequate at these school functions. I’m the mom who hasn’t managed to buy the right school supplies or who doesn’t have the time to go across town to get that one book that’s on-order so my kid has to look on with another student and work from photocopies. I’m the mom that misses the parent meetings because I’m out of town on a trip or I have a conference call or because I didn’t see the note in my daughter’s cahier de correspondence. I’m the mom who doesn’t come to the Christmas choral concert because I didn’t understand that parents were invited, the mom who doesn’t quite understand the system, and manages to figure it out just a bit too late.

It’s always comes down to this: living up to the elusive perfect mom. I can picture her. When I was in my twenties imagining myself as a mother I looked just like her. Cheerful at breakfast in a business suit, shooing my heirs out the door to school and going to work, leaning in all day but simultaneously plugged in to the little lives of my children, scrutinizing their school, up-to-speed on all the goings on in their extracurricular lives. I turned out, instead, to be a lot sloppier. I’m much better at leaning back. And while I’m there, I tell myself I really should do more. I could do better.

~ ~ ~xmas_snowglobes

You know what kind of mom I am? The I-hate-Christmas mom. Every year I proclaim, to myself, and here on this blog, how I dislike what Christmas has become. I’m disturbed by the commercialization of the holiday. Each year it starts earlier and there are more useless things to buy not because they are special or thoughtful but because there is a marketing engine prodding us to buy more. Store shelves are stocked with unnecessary decorations and novelty gifts that have little to do with the spirit of giving and even less to do with the birth of Jesus. Except crèches are a big deal here in Catalunya, but then, of course, there are hundreds of different figurines to buy – some of them in scatalogical poses – to add to your standard manger scene.

I know we aren’t forced to buy any of this merchandise, but I hate that it’s ubiquitous. I hate that it feeds an insatiable desire in Buddy-roo, who is overwhelmed by all the gadgets on the shelves, screaming at her to want them.

Maybe I don’t hate Christmas. I do love the Christmas that we create in our family. I’m just repulsed by much of the Christmas that goes on outside our door. We try our best to keep the holiday grounded, the promises embedded in our responses to the girls’ wish-lists are carefully crafted to create reasonable expectations of the loot that Santa might bring. Though now that they know who Santa really is, they don’t buy the “Santa can only carry so much on his sleigh” argument. I keep pointing toward the family traditions. We unwrap the ornaments from their wrinkled tissue paper – the same paper that my mother wrapped them in for decades – and tell the story of that angel, or that red ball with my name on it, or the ugly silver lantern-shaped ornament that always hung on the tree, albeit in the back. We have our open-one-gift-the-night-before tradition and our Bloody Marys on Christmas morning, our one-at-a-time gift opening marathon that lasts all day, and sometimes even for days as we like to take a break to stop and relish the first presents we’ve opened. There are traditions from De-facto’s family and from mine, forged into the rituals of our nuclear family, and this is what I hope my children will remember years from now. Not that they did or didn’t get the Barbie house with its own elevator (they didn’t) but that we laughed and did Christmasy things together, whether that was making cut-out cookies at home, or going someplace exotic to treat ourselves to a family Christmas adventure we could share together.

Despite my self-proclaimed deficiencies as a mother in matters of school activities, I will take credit for my resilience carrying on a certain ritual: the baking and decorating of the Christmas cut-outs. Each year as I cream the butter and sugar that cutout_cookieswill make the dough, I nod upwards at my mother who would no doubt be pleased, if not entirely surprised, at my adherence to both the tradition and her recipe. It’s a demanding process: the rolling out the dough to the right thickness and maximizing the cut-outs from each batch – using her original cookie cutters – and baking them just enough, pulling them out of the oven before they brown. Then there’s the icing, though mine is made with butter instead of Crisco – what was in that anyway? – as her carefully typed recipe card called for, and the preparation of the sugar for decorating. Two drops of food coloring in petri dishes of granular sugar, ready to be spooned on to the freshly frosted cookies. When I was little there was a definite rule to how these cooked were sugared. Angels were blue and yellow, Christmas trees were green, stars were yellow. Santas were sprinkled with red sugar and the bells were done up in blue. I suggest this guideline to the girls but never enforce it. They have too much fun designing their own color combinations. And in the end, they all taste the same.

~ ~ ~

It doesn’t rain much in Barcelona but unfortunately it was raining last week on the day of the school’s Marché de Noel, which is a shame because the palm-treed courtyard is expansive and would have been a lovely venue for this Christmas market. But due to the rain, everything was scrunched together under a smaller covered area. I could feel the dread rising as I walked to the school, the rain dripping down off my umbrella. I gripped tight the Tupperware of cut-out cookies I’d brought to be sold at Buddy-roo’s class table. I wanted to be going anywhere but to this event where there’d be a hundred wild kids running around, amped up on sugary Christmas snacks, and table after table of items made by students that I’d be compelled to buy to support their effort but would end up cluttering my home and breaking any vows I’d made about buying unnecessary items just for the sake of Christmas. I disliked this activity at the other school, where I knew everyone and had my posse of moms to hang with. Going now as the new mom who hasn’t yet been integrated only made me feel more isolated.

I’m always a little lonely at Christmas. Even though it’s a time when world quiets down for the day and we cocoon as a cozy family. Even though I’m with the people I love most in the world, I always feel a little disconnected. Maybe it’s the pressure to have a lovely Christmas, when the truth is it’s a lot of work. Maybe it’s walking in and out of store after store looking forSanta_Buddha something meaningful to give to people who already have everything they need, and feeling fatigued and uninspired, just ticking off the boxes. Maybe it’s that song, the one I heard too often the Christmas my father died that takes me back to that sad, disappointing holiday. Maybe it’s every Christmas that passes without my mother’s newsy year-end letter – the one I used to roll my eyes at but now I’d give anything to read it – or my grandmother’s homemade rhubarb pie. The holidays are supposed to be happy, even if they’re not.

But you can’t wallow in Christmas sorrow with kids around; their expectation for joy is a big, fat, red wake-up call. So I snap out of it and dance around the Christmas tree, break out the paper and start wrapping, and roll out another batch of cookies. Or I just grab Buddy-roo’s hand and march into that schoolyard Christmas market, head high, whistling a familiar carol, and watch her marvel at the lights, the music and the shiny offerings laid out at the gift stalls, eyes bright and wide, taking in what is, for her, all that she loves about Christmas.


10 Responses to “Not that (Christmas) Mom”

  • Short-pants Says:

    I don’t agree with everything in this post. My mom is awesome and her imperfections don’t disappoint me: hey, I can’t expect my mom to be absolutely perfect! I love my MaternallyDemented mom just the way she is!

    • Jen Says:

      Go Short Pants! I love your comment, and I must agree I love your maternally demented mom just the way she is too. Well, enjoy the wrapping and the unwrapping, it is so frivolous in many ways but it is so necessary in others, which is obviously what you were saying in your post and I agree with all of it, so i imagine S.P. will too at a later stage in her life, right? Ps: the viewing of the creche with and scatalogical poses at the old town Christmas market will become a tradition in your family, no doubt! x x

  • diana nazareth Says:

    I share so many of your sentiments, MD! And maybe you’ll be happy to know that the only thing that saves me if making pizzelle’s with my spy kids, a family tradition, passed down to us from my Italian grandmother. it’s the one thing that connects me in a more holistic way to Christmas and my kids. I haven’t read your blog in a while but now i can’t’ wait to do some serious catch up by the light of our Christmas tree. Happy Holidays to you and your family!

  • Isabelle Says:

    Je viens de tomber sur cet article, let me know what you think? http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/for-women-its-the-most-overwhelming-time-of-the-year/2013/12/20/a26461ae-668e-11e3-8b5b-a77187b716a3_story.html
    Each year I feel overwhelmed and losing all self confidence as I try to build those Xmas traditions that never come well?
    But Feliz Navidad! :-) Isabelle

  • Virginia Gowen Says:

    Oh, honey! None of us are perfect Moms! Why did your brain play that cruel trick on you? Think about this: Where does all the fun stuff in life come from? Mistakes, gaffes, missteps and so on. When was the last time you saw something perfect (short of artwork, that’s another story) and said “Boy this’ll be a great story to tell”. Love your blog with all my heart (and tears too). Merry Christmas to you and the family I have never met!

  • Eunice Scarf Says:

    I read your Xmas Mom post tonight, and then kept going through half a dozen other posts. I always want to forward your posts to half a dozen friends (I first wrote ‘dozed friends’!), or package them to pass on (this is when I want The Book): to Suzi writing about Mothers and Others in Barrington and to Kaethe with her pages of poetry swirling around two little ones in the college town of Northfield…But then I go back and read for my own sake, living vicariously a bit, since here in this home a dozen traditions had to be abandoned and another dozen invented that first Christmas after their Dad died. So I love reading the continuity which you maintain even with the chaos of a move…I love the attention paid to traditions we also have: sugar cookies with rigorous requirements of decoration, unwrapping each ornament from its own inherited tissue while telling its story, the protocol of one present at a time… After reading your post tonight, I got out the Norwegian lights for each window, a step I was going to skip this year. (And agreed with myself to make the meatballs once again from scratch tomorrow instead of using the store bought ones I had snuck into the freezer.) But now the lights are lit, thanks to you and your words. Mange tak! XXX Eunice

    ‘Through the year pain came and went/ Then came Christmas…’ Derek Walcott

  • Marinera Says:

    I love this post. So much of what I feel about christmas! I don t have my own children to “cushion” (amortizar?) some of the feelings, so I accepted my cousin’s invitation to his in-laws. I’m spending it still farther away from home: Hamburg! I made a point to myself that I was going to engage in another family’s traditions :) plus I brought all the ingredients to prepare one of my mum’s dishes… and I’m enjoying it. (This is a battle, enjoying my time despite my dad being sick, and re-reading your posts…helps!) Que pasen una muy feliz navidad con los tuyos MD!

  • Amanda Says:

    I’m not that mom either, though sometimes I try desperately to be.

    I’ll never forget seeing you in that hotel Starbucks. People talk about something being like coming home, seeing you, so lanky and deliciously sort of rumpled or maybe spiked(?), you felt like permission to be home—I was meeting you face-to-face at long last and I felt perfectly ok in exactly who I was.

    This post, as so many of your posts do, made me nod and weep.

    Wishing you and yours a beautiful year.

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