Managing Mental Health Through the Holidays
Planning and Mind Over Matter Helps Through Rough Patches
Today is December 1, which is usually the first day of Christmas for me. I have always been quite stringent in insisting nothing Christmas before the first day of December, but once the day arrived, the boxes, bins, music, and munchies all quickly filled the house. But not this year. For the first time in my life, I will not be celebrating the holiday season. All the Christmas pigs will remain in the attic, no socks will be collected for the homeless, cards will not be mailed, a tree will not be trimmed, lights will not adorn the house, and no gifts will be purchased. I do not plan to wish anyone Merry Christmas, attend any parties or events, watch any holiday movies, or listen to any holiday music.
None of this will be easy, but it is a choice I have made to protect my own mental health. I learned last Mother’s Day that since my mother and daughters have alienated me, occasions hit me hard. Therefore, I need to mentally plan for them. There have been several occasions since Mother’s Day, including Father’s Day, all three of my daughter’s birthdays, my grandson’s birthday, Thanksgiving, and my birthday. None of these occasions has been easy, but by planning for them and by consciously putting ‘mind over matter’ I got through them. I made plans to keep myself busy and distracted, and when thoughts of celebrations past entered my mind, I commanded myself to think of something else. On every one of those days, I cried, more than once, but overall, they were all good days spent with old friends and/or extended family. And my husband is always close at hand as we learn to navigate these new, somewhat lonelier times, together.
I knew that Christmas was going to be the toughest day of all to get through. Last year the problems already existed, but it was easy to pretend COVID was the reason we were not together as a family. I had hoped by this year we would have resolved our problems. But after how badly Mother’s Day affected me, I knew I had to make plans for this Christmas.
Since my first Christmas as a mother, the holiday has been all about my children. I always wanted the day to be magical and memorable for my girls. I do not enjoy shopping in general, but I love Christmas shopping because I truly enjoy gift-giving. And I loved spoiling my girls. And we did. Every year. But not just by buying them stuff. I love gift giving because it is personal. Except for flowers which I love, I have never been one to give generic gifts. Chocolates, booze, gift cards, and cash are general no-nos for me. I like to personalize gifts, combine something homemade with something store-bought. I give things that are needed, or luxury items desired but unaffordable for the receiver. I give sentimental tokens and gag gifts that reflect inside jokes. I give gifts to people because I enjoy doing so. I have no expectation of a gift in return, and I have never asked any of my children for a gift. When they asked me what I wanted, I always responded with the same answer, “a clean house.” (Which I never got.) Stockings also always overflowed with the most unique things I could find. I even started making my own Christmas crackers so I could put high-quality things in them. And our Christmas table had room for all. There are few years where the same combination of people sat around our table – several of our daughters’ friends spent Christmas dinner with us over the years, along with extended family.
I put a lot of work into it every year and always thought our daughters enjoyed it, appreciated my efforts, and looked forward to it. It turns out I was wrong. Sadly, nearing two years since the first signs of cracks started to appear in our relationships, none of our daughters nor my mother have provided us with a reason for them alienating us. However, our daughter-in-law wrote me a letter several months back, in it she wrote:
“Christmas is always a stressful time for Jen and I when it comes to the O’Connor (Ed. Note: that is our family) side of the family. … it has just been clear gifts gifts gifts is what it is about. So, we gave in last year and just got everyone gifts to avoid the stress we feel about it all. When asked in a group message what (our granddaughter) needs, I mention a few things… I was shocked when not just from you and Jim but Hollie and Meagan all got some electronic toy. I think these kinds of types of toys teach instant gratification and I want my child to actually use her brain. But in all honesty, I don’t care what people choose to gift her, if giving a gift is a joy for you then I don’t want to take that joy away… but you did see the list. Don’t ask me what she needs and then go out and buy the exact opposite… it is a total FUCK YOU LAURA!”
Needless to say that was a bit shocking to read. (It was a 7-page letter and most of it was like this.) And there is a lot to unpack, but in the context of this blog, I was extremely surprised to hear our daughter Jennifer found Christmas stressful with us. And I was stunned to have my gifts, (the electronic toy was one of dozens of gifts we gave to our granddaughter that year – her first Christmas) described as a “total FUCK YOU” to our daughter-in-law. I don’t even know how someone can equate a gift to a FUCK YOU! But her letter was the first time I was made aware that perhaps my daughters viewed Christmas and gift-giving differently than me.
Then in a Mother’s Day blog written by our middle daughter (my oldest biological), she wrote: Although it’s only been the recent past few years that I’ve truly started to understand it. Mother’s Day along with other holidays have always been hard on our family.”
This was another sucker-punch for me. I never thought holidays were hard on our family and had no idea others thought they were. I thought I was planning and celebrating occasions for them, not forcing them to participate. Also, other than Mother’s Day and my birthday, holidays were never about me. And even Mother’s Day focussed more on my mom than me. I made all the plans for my mom, and my kids tagged along. Even after they left home this is what took place on Mother’s Day. And there was little fanfare for my birthday. It falls nine days after my daughter’s and Thanksgiving is tangled in that mess. Every other holiday was about my shopping, cleaning, cooking, hosting, gifting, etc. for everyone else. In a previous blog, https://www.midlifemadness.ca/post/i-don-t-impress-them-much, I write about how my desire to impress them might have been interpreted as me setting too high expectations for them. But I fail to see how this can lead to a desire to completely cut your mother out of your life. Especially if I am willing to acknowledge where I may have misstepped or failed.
Regardless, what reading those comments did was bring to my attention that the things I was doing that I thought were special, were viewed by those I was doing it for, as something else altogether. My intentions were misunderstood, and my motivations were redefined as bad. Despite three decades worth of photos that show smiling, laughing kids, and my overflowing memory of good, loving times, my adult children see and remember something else. It is heartbreaking.
So, no Christmas this year. They leave me no choice anyway. I have no way of contacting two of my daughters, and the third has made it clear she wants no contact. I have tried with my mother, but even as she acknowledges she has handled things poorly and says she does not want to hurt me, she continues to shut me out of her life and hurt me. The idea of decorating my house, pulling out all the memories, and then sitting alone amongst it all, is too painful to think about. At this point, it is difficult to know if I will ever celebrate it again. We are leaving town on the 24th and will not return until the New Year.
I truly was the absolute best mom and daughter I knew how to be. And having spent too much time analyzing and reevaluating everything I did, I still believe I was a pretty good mom - my daughters are my best evidence. I thought I was creating traditions for my daughters and providing my mom with a loving extended family to be part of. I continually struggle to understand their extreme reactions and cruel treatment of me and my husband. I have spent a fair amount of time reading psychological texts about the silent treatment and family alienation and ostracization, and it is widely considered a form of abuse. It is also recognized that it can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts in the person who is being alienated. The silent treatment is used as a weapon because it makes the person who is being silent look innocent while doing maximum harm to the victim. And the more upset and emotionally the victim reacts, the more the person being silent can say “see, you are the problem. You are out of control.” It is a classic form of gaslighting. The fact that my mother and daughters are doing this to me, is something I will never recover from.
However, although I may never recover from the hurt, I have committed to being okay. The best way I know how to do that is by planning for potentially difficult times and controlling my thoughts. I cannot live in my memories, and I cannot worry about never seeing my children or grandchildren again in the future. All I can do is live today the best I can, and I hope that I wake up tomorrow to live another day the best I can.