Photo by Ryan
Last night we celebrated Christmas with our three girls. Then I cried.
Well, it didn’t happen quite like that. We opened presents, ate a scrumptious lasagna dinner, and played with the new Wii together. Then the girls snuggled in sleeping bags to sleep next to the tree, while Jason and I snuck downstairs to play a bit more Wii. Eventually we went to bed and turned out the lights, and that’s when I cried.
My girls are going to be with their dad for Christmas this year, just like they have been every other year since 2004, the first Christmas I survived as a mother without my children. They’ll be away for a full week, in fact—far away in South Carolina. And although I’ve gotten through it before, somehow it seems to get harder, not easier. Divorce, not surprisingly, makes a mess of things.
There are some nice perks, of course. Several of our friends like to say how lucky Jason and I are to have regular “built in childcare” (aka ex-spouses). One of our friends often jokes that he and his wife need to figure out how to get themselves an ex-spouse they can regularly send their kids to.
The bitter and the sweet go hand in hand
Divorce isn’t something I like joking about, really, but I see what he means. Every other week Jason and I have four kid-free days together. We cook expensive food and eat at about the time we’d otherwise be herding the kids up the stairs to put on pajamas and brush teeth. We go out to dinner and don’t have to calculate the cost of the meal and a sitter’s fee. We drive up to Chicago and spend the weekend going to hear bands we like and eating burritos at 2 a.m. In general, we refuel, and strengthen our bond as a couple. We are lucky to have that built-in time to make it happen, and to know that our kids are happy and safe, with people who love them as much as we do.
But there’s another side to that coin, of course. We don’t get to choose when we see the girls and when we don’t. Sometimes we miss important moments with them, and fairly often we just plain miss them, in general. Being able to peek in at them while they’re sleeping, smoothing their hair and kissing their cheeks, is one of my favorite nighttime rituals. On nights the girls are away, their beds seem to flaunt their emptiness—we go to bed lacking that day’s final glimpse of warm fuzzy jammies, hugged stuffed animals and peaceful, sweet expressions.
And Christmas. If you have children, Christmas without your children seems almost not worth celebrating.
I know that it is worth celebrating, though, so I’m forced to pause and wonder how to approach this aspect of my life. Living a divided existence is not at all what I wanted for myself or my children, but it’s something I can’t ignore or change. So how do I deal with it, and be a wise and loving mom in the face of it? What can I learn, and how can I grow (even though I usually just want to feel sorry for myself)?
One thing I can learn from the sadness is compassion. Being sad helps me be a bit more in tune with others who might be missing someone they love over the holidays, or who might not even have someone to love. I get a taste of the emptiness that can accompany a person’s heart, especially this time of year.
Along those lines, missing my girls at Christmas makes me grateful for what I have. I’m a mother. I birthed two amazing children who are a joy to be around (well, most of the time), and I’ve experienced the joy of incorporating a stepdaughter into my family. Sure, I endured a difficult first marriage and survived a divorce, but I emerged on the other side, better in many ways for the whole experience. And even when my daughters are away, I’m not alone. I have Jason in my life.
Taking the mess and making something good
Finally, if I really want to be pragmatic and philosophical about my sadness, I can see an important lesson to be learned. (I know—I must be really desperate to find some sweetness to pair with the bitter.) I think the sadness can help me better understand what God’s love and redemption, in relation to our own messes and mistakes, really look like.
“Redemption” is the kind of word that makes lots of people squirm. It just sounds all old-school and high-churchy—even bloody, sacrificial and downright unpleasant. But since my divorce, and my turning away from God and ultimate return, I’ve become rather fond of the word. It has some real salience in my life.
What I’m learning is that being redeemed isn’t about magically “recovering” and walking away from the messes you make, with a clean slate. It isn’t about everything being shiny and perfect. Redemption, from what I can tell, is about gathering the pile of mess to you and offering it up, to see what beautiful new thing can be made from the wreckage.
It’s like crafting a delicious meal out of an assortment of whatever you can find in the fridge, or creating a beautiful work of art from objects found at the dump or in a recycling bin. It’s embracing what you might at first want to throw away, and looking at it in a new light, using new tools to fashion it into something stunning.
That is, after all, what Christmas is all about—even more fully, I suppose, when some sadness is involved.