When I mentor aspiring project managers, I push my own personal golden rule of sand-bagging: “Expectations are the single greatest factor in the perceived success or failure of any project and one that you can set at the beginning.”
When it came to Holidays, those expectations aren’t wholly set by us. They are a product of how we grew up. They are molded by a barrage of outside messages from advertisers, consumers, influencers….”friends.”
Christmas is the “most wonderful time.” That’s the message I lived, growing up. I baked cookies and making homemade candy with mom and siblings, with sounds of Crosby and Sinatra ringing in the background. We’d always do Christmas puzzles, finishing a piece or two with each trip through the room. The anticipation of presents was only bested by the promise of a night with my cousins, aunts, and uncles, where we’d eat, talk, and play games all night. It was a time without school, filled with activity, but free from stress. We never truly experienced need and my dad led an annual family “Christmas project” to help those, who did.
My first year with Cailyn warned of change. When she awoke from a nap on that first Christmas evening with my extended family, she was surrounded by a home she didn’t recognize, filled with loud sounds, tons of people, and overwhelming senses. At the time we didn’t understand why she cried, inconsolably, for nearly two hours. I held her and walked around the house, completely emotionally disconnected from the activity. There was a familiar pit now growing in my stomach. It told me that something was different. Something was wrong.
We now attend only one Christmas outside the home. My mom sets up a room for Cailyn to get alone time. Amber and I acquiesce to all of her demands, knowing we’ll have a bill to pay later because she doesn’t understand we’ll have to say “no” again when we’re home. We often drive two cars, because one of us often has to leave with Cailyn early. As I drive home, I see houses lit up with cars stacked in rows. I see people walking in and out, playing as a family. I remember the unencumbered joy and belonging I felt as a child…
Because you can’t understand how lonely a village can feel, until there’s no room at the inn.
Each year I shop for my daughter and I’m completely confused. Cailyn has anxiety in public, screaming and kicking when we try to take her to the store. When we look at gifts online, she gets frustrated and wants them immediately. She’ll obsess for weeks on end, so we’re often left to guess.
“Will she play with it? It’s expensive. What if it sits around the house?”
I see other parents with little girls, picking out dolls, jewelry, technology, and crafts. Meanwhile, I’m looking at toddler toys for a nine-year-old aspiring woman, nearly as tall as her mother. Sometimes I resent the other families, so I try try not to go out. I’m often rude and condescending; annoyed as I push through the aisles of seemingly happy people.
Every Christmas I pull a “giving tree” name of a girl around Cailyn’s age. Maybe I want to help her and her family. Maybe I want to pretend for a moment that she’s mine. Whatever the case, I watch myself balancing on this razor’s edge of philanthropy and shame. It’s my tradition nonetheless…
Because you never realize your envy smells like the pigs, until there’s no room at the inn.
Cookies and candies never last in our family. Often, we decide not to make them. If Cailyn knows we have sugar in the house, she’ll want more until they’re gone. Afterwards, she’ll beat herself up and scream for an hour out of frustration.
Christmas songs aren’t novel, we hear them all year long. Cailyn is obsessed with the same album and requests it in July as much as December. We know every minute musical detail and it don’t invoke nostalgia or Christmas spirit…only repetition and memories of sadness.
Cailyn is out of school for the Holidays, which is more stress-inducing than free. She doesn’t understand she’ll have to return again soon so the months after Christmas each year is filled with notes from teachers.
“What happened? What changed? Send a helmet. Rough day.”
We read the notes each day for weeks…sometimes months. We know they’re coming from the scratches and bruises on our daughter’s face. We’d do anything to help but everyone who loves her is helpless. We can’t seem to soothe the anxiety of change. Last year, the timing of the holidays made us miss church for multiple weeks and Cailyn wasn’t able to cope with returning. We were called back from service weeks in a row because she was a danger to herself…we now attend separately, switching off and on weeks with our son.
Each year invites a new demon into our home. A holiday switch inevitably flips and turns our lives dark overnight. We don’t cut loops on a paper chain or cross out days on a calendar in anticipation, but rather in apprehension. The next shoe will drop, the next depression will begin, and the next hole will emerge.
Because you’ve never been so afraid of where you’ll wake up until there is no room at the inn.
Christmas in our house looks Instagram-worthy. Amber’s decorations are always first-rate. The tree and fireplace is perfectly coordinated and the presents are stacked just right. We take photos and videos as best we can, but Cailyn gets overwhelmed and stays in her room. She cries when we try to open more than one present and doesn’t want to do it with her brother, who is loud when excited.
Each smile created by my son’s joy is dulled by that perfectly stacked pile just feet away. It’s one where a smiling little girl should sit. It’s like one of the beautiful puzzles I’d worked on as a child…but with a single piece missing.
This year, Amber was decorating again the day after Thanksgiving. I snapped at her when she asked for help. I didn’t want to participate, I just wanted to complain. After a bit, I dutifully performed my errands with a terrible attitude and made her day miserable in the process. While she was at the store with Dalton, I was asked to finish and “fluff” the tree in the main room. As I moved around the tree slowly, I began mumbling aloud.
“I freaking hate Christmas. I don’t know why we bother with this crap.” I went on and on until my eyes welled up with tears. “God. I don’t want to go here again.” I started to pray. “I can’t live like this. I can’t make it through another winter like last. You’ve got to do something here, because I can’t keep watching everyone living the life I’m supposed to have…the one I used to have.”
It was then I was reminded of the reactions I’d received to my blog posts this year; The people, who thought we “had it all” and thanked me for being so open with the struggles of Autism. I began to recall others, who shared stories with us and how I found fellowship in that transparency. I started praying for people I knew, for whom Christmases meant financial worry and debt. I prayed for people, who had sickness and an uncertain future. I listed some people we’ve lost in the past few years, and the families who would be left with an empty stack of presents in their minds on Christmas day.
In that moment, I realized that we weren’t so different from others. The weight of expectations is something we all bear this time of year. The monkeys on our backs and elephants in our rooms should be shared with those we love as freely as the elf on our shelf. A broadcast of hope for the broken should outshine the perfect little lies we all frame and filter for our followers…
Because I never realized that we are all Christmas projects…
I never understood how much we all need a savior…
I never appreciated that a little child could light my stinking stable…
…until there was no room at the inn.