I’ll take a side of sadness with my cheer

by Kristin on December 22, 2008

in God & church, hope & doubt,Love, family & community

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.

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  • Elaine Tolsma-Harlow

    Wishing you many unexpected blessings this Christmas. I have found that the Christian walk is all about grace, redemption & hope. It helped my survive cancer & its awful consequences & I found lots of unexpected blessings.

    God’s grace is bigger than our blunders and the failures of everyone around us. Our hope in the future can seem pathetic but without hope what is left?

    Oh yes, & make sure you pick up Mario Carts for the kids on the wii. Olivia seems to take really joy in beating me in a car race! I have become very comfortable finishing last!

  • http://angelaharms.com Angela Harms

    You’ve said this beautifully.

    When mine were little, one of them picked up a kids’ picture book about divorce, and I explained that such a thing would never happen to us. Hmph. Now mine are gone for three weeks during the summer and a week in January, and it breaks my heart every time.

    Thanks once again for sharing your journey.


  • Arathi

    Hey there — lovely post. Sending you a big hug — I am sorry you’re sad. I do understand — even if I don’t experience the exact same thing…


  • Marty Wondergem

    This was a great post Kristin. Blessings to you and your family.

  • Mark

    Grace and Peace Kristin.

  • http://www.mothering.com/candacewalsh Candace Walsh

    This is beautiful, AND I relate.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Elaine, Angela, Arathi, Marty, Mark and Candace (and the many people who contacted me on Twitter and Facebook): Thank you for your warmth and compassion, and for connecting to different parts of my story in your own unique ways. Having a supportive community–and knowing I can be open and share, even before I have it figured out–makes a world of difference. Peace and joy to all of you this season.

  • Dawn

    “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.”

    I think you just knocked 6 months off of my therapy. My shrink will be so bummed. I’m going to go have a cry now, but in a good way. xxo dp

  • http://www.jungleoflife.com Lance

    What an honest, raw, emotional post. And, it makes me realize – even more – that I need to cherish all the “moments” I have with my children. See, having them around all the time, kind of like anything else that is always there (could be money, car, spouse, food, etc., etc.) – I take my kids for granted. And I’m sure I don’t appreciate them like you do yours. And there is something beautiful in that – in really appreciating them. Know that.

    And my hope for you, Kristin, is that your Christmas is joyful, and that you really have the opportunity the love that is around you…

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Dawn, reading your comment made me both laugh and tear up a bit. We all need more free therapy during this economic downturn! I’m so glad my stories can help. There’s no better reason to write them.

    Lance, I know I took my kids for granted, too, before my divorce, and there’s still so much in my life that I take for granted. I’d like to say I’ve been cured of that disease, but I’m afraid it isn’t possible. It’s such a part of being human. Other people’s stories do help put things in perspective, though, and I’m grateful. Thanks for your encouragement and joyful Christmas wishes.

  • Alli Butler

    You miss your girls at Christmas because you make wonderful memories every day. To that end, Christmas can be ANY day and EVERY day. Count your blessings and hug your babies while ye may. :)

    Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

  • Jill

    Ah…my first Christmas in the land of the divorced–I can definitely relate to this! You’ve said it eloquently!

  • http://TrackBack Joi T.

    Wow, Kristin, this really tugged at my heart in a huge way. Thank you for being so open and vulnerable and honest!
    Love you,

  • http://www.roseyposeyconfections.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    Oh this is hard for me to read, Kristin. I feel like I got to stand outside your house and look in, which is so bittersweet. As you know I am having to consider the possibility of divorce and this post makes my heart sink at the same time that it gives me hope. Thank you, as always, for your honesty.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Cheryl, thank you for your honesty, too. I know you are going through a really difficult time of confusion and indecision. I don’t know if this is a comfort at all, but I really don’t believe there is one “perfect” path for you to find and choose. There’s hard work and heartache and hope down every possible path—and also God’s redeeming love. Try resting in that peace for a while, since you’re feeling overwhelmed, and see where it takes you.

  • http://www.playward.com jenny ward

    thank you for your honesty. reading this made me feel not alone- i appreciate how much you look for the gifts in such a challenging life lesson. i relate. and i thank you with all my heart
    keep expressing…..