I wrote this piece almost three years ago, after a particularly stressful year. As I was shutting down my old blog, I thought it was worth saving. Given how crazy things seem to get this time of year, I think this message bears reminding. So I am tossing it out to you again so you can remember to give yourself and your people a bit of a break this Christmas.
I used to teach Psychology to highschool students. I had never actually studied Psychology in university, having balked at the idea of being just like every other Psych/Soc girl who had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. So, years later, I found myself teaching Psychology/Sociology/Anthropology to Gr 11 students who also had no idea what they wanted to do with their life. I stayed one chapter ahead of the crowd, and soon realized that I would have loved to have taken those courses in university. Nowadays, I read about cognitive development, neuroplasticity, archetypes, gender roles or groupthink JUST FOR FUN. I am actually very pleased that the course is offered, because it provides students with an introduction to subject areas that are completely new to them. And the content is incredibly valuable for anyone who might be interested in being alive and well when they grow up.
Our mental health unit included a section about stress – that ubiquitous topic that seems to make the cover of every magazine in the grocery line. We defined stress as the difference between expectation and reality. If your expectation for anything is way up here (imagine me gesturing dramatically) and reality turns out to be way down here (again with the gesturing), the space between is inhabited by stress. The greater the distance between expectation and reality, the greater the stress. This concept was a new one for me, and it comes back to me from time to time when the stress becomes just too much to handle.
We’ve come through a very stressful year. It started with the stress of fertility treatments which actually didn’t take as long as we thought but were still painful and awful. And so pregnancy was celebrated, but even that didn’t last as long as we anticipated. Baby Henry arrived suddenly at 25 weeks, a full 3 1/2 months early, and our stress hit new heights. Five tumultuous months in the hospital took their toll, but we were careful to manage our stress. The support of family and friends, the prayers of people from near and far, the hospitality offered by Ronald McDonald House and a strict sleep schedule allowed us to survive the ordeal without any breakdowns or illness on our part. And then we brought a cranky, screamy preemie home from the hospital and discovered that really, the challenges had just begun. As Christmas drew near, I thought the stress was going to take me down. And then I remembered the definition.
It turns out that the Buddhists have it right. If you lose the desires, you no longer suffer. In other words, if you lower your expectations, reality is perfectly satisfactory. I am a woman of great expectations. I am known to regularly shout “I have standards” to my husband who, more often than not, does not. And most of the pressure is put on myself. I know that I am not alone here. It is a common ailment among women. For most of the women I know, Christmas sounds like this: do we have the right coloured ribbon to go with that wrapping paper…. when am I going to get the baking done…. do we give gifts to the French and Art teachers too…. can we give the same gift to both of our dads…. is the freezer full of enough food in case people drop by…. live wreath or fake one…. is it too late to redo our Christmas card family picture…. where can I find white Poinsettia…. is this the right mulled wine recipe…. and so on and so on. And we do it to ourselves, because no man has ever gotten worked up about Christmas, EVER. And so, I decided to learn from my own lesson and change my expectations.
I let go of Christmas this year. Not entirely, but enough. People still got gifts, some even on time. I am still handing out our Christmas cards and it’s the end of January. I bought baked goods when needed and pulled out old Jamaican patties from the freezer when people dropped by. I let the clutter pile up and food supplies dwindle. I put out just the basics in terms of decorations, and only because I had a burst of energy one day in November that coincided with a rare nap on Henry’s part. I didn’t over-schedule us. In fact I didn’t make plans at all and just let them happen. I couldn’t plan much anyways, with a child who was only predictable in his unpredictability. And letting go was beautiful. There was no space between my expectations and reality, nowhere for stress to creep in and take over. No standards meant no stress. And that was when I realised it.
This is what it is like to be a man.
In the words of that brilliant philosopher, Phil Dunphy – Welcome to a place I call Relaxistan.