How the Baby (Almost) Stole Christmas

I never found the holidays stressful. Sure, sometimes there were travel hiccups making it back to my hometown of San Diego from wherever I was living at the time. I always spent a bit too much on presents (for others and myself) and sweated my credit card bill the next month. But really, Christmas represented a time I got to go home and feel like a kid again, enjoying my parents’ festive decorations and my mom’s delicious food and warm hosting abilities.

And then I had my first son.

The stress began as a slow trickle when the adorable holiday cards started rolling in. I felt a nagging pressure to put one together myself, but just couldn’t find the time or motivation. My son was five months old and I felt like I’d just finished sending birth announcements and thank you cards for his baby gifts. Now I was supposed to make and print and mail another THING? Each new card that arrived made me feel worse.

Owen had hit a four month sleep regression, hard. I was handling it reactively, nursing him on demand through the night and then delusionally hoping it wouldn’t be the same again the next night (it always was). He was teething and not at all happy about it. And then it was time to do Christmas.

We got through the flight, and for a moment I felt the familiar sense of safety that always accompanied me through the door of my family home, but it was short lived. My husband, Julian, had to take one last work call. My parents were getting ready for their best friends’ annual holiday party and wanted to know if Owen and I could to stop by. My mom had mentioned it to me before, but my tired brain had forgotten. It was time for Owen’s nap so I begged off, feeling terrible.

The days before Christmas passed in a flurry. In addition to taking care of Owen, I forced myself to find time to take him to lunch with my best friend’s parents (they really wanted to meet the baby), to make cookies with my sister (it was our tradition), to attend Christmas Eve mass (it was important to my dad). I made weak attempts at helping my mom cook, but she and my sister handled the lion’s share of the food preparation. I tried to squeeze myself back into clothes that still didn’t fit, to put on makeup for pictures. To write heartfelt cards thanking my family members for all their help with the baby over the past months. To wrap presents.

Then, on Christmas Eve, when I was about to collapse, I saw it: the handprint ornament kit. I’d ordered it online and had it sent to my parents’ house, where it promptly got lost among the landslide of Amazon boxes. I had decided that it was of utmost importance I make an ornament with Owen’s handprint. It was his first Christmas! A commemorative ornament was required! And now it was too late. He was asleep and though I desperately needed to go to sleep myself, instead I broke down in tears.

I went up to the guest room and in the dark, with Owen sleeping in a pack-n-play across the room, I sniffled as I tried to explain to Julian why I felt so terrible. He tried to understand but he was exhausted too, and having a hard time grasping why I’d committed to so much. I dropped off to sleep feeling lonely and sad and not at all Christmas-y. Owen woke up crying an hour and a half later. And again two hours after that. And again at 5:30 am.

The next morning I had to drag myself out of bed. I truly felt like I was too tired to continue to live. Owen was just a baby, he didn’t even know what Christmas was! How would I ever handle this once it was time to create family traditions with him, buy him real presents, figure out how to handle the Santa thing, HAVE ANOTHER KID??? As I teetered on the brink of a full-blown Christmas panic, Julian went downstairs and got a cup of coffee for me. He changed the baby’s diaper while my sister came in and snuggled with me in the bed like we did when we were teenagers. As we went downstairs together we could smell the breakfast casserole baking. We were greeted at the foot of the stairs by my excited parents. My mom was beaming and my dad, ever the videographer, was recording Owen’s first Christmas morning on his phone. A feeling of calm coziness settled over me at last.

The next day we all found ourselves hanging around the house with absolutely no plans. How had I forgotten about these post-Christmas days? Julian and I left the baby with my family and went for a walk on the beach where I cried cathartic tears. We promised each other two things: first, we’d always try to prioritize our own sanity at the holidays and second, as soon as we got back up to the Bay we were sleep training that baby!

When we walked back into my parents’ house, my eye landed on the box containing the handprint ornament kit and I laughed. I opened it and rolled out the weird no-bake white material, then my mom came over with Owen and held him while I gently pressed his hand and then his little foot into the ornament. With a gold marker I wrote “Owen’s First Christmas, 2016” on the back.

When I hang the ornament, I remember not just how tiny and dear Owen was at his first Christmas but also a lesson I learned the hard way: there is no “right” way to do the holidays. The only wrong way is the way that grinds you down until the joy is gone. It’s still not always easy to say no to festive invitations or to prioritize real experiences over picture-perfect photo ops. This year will be my first Christmas as a mom of two, so I may slip a bit. But I’m going to try my best to follow my own inner compass because it’s my job to take care of myself, too. My children don’t need perfectly wrapped presents or commemorative ornaments; they need real, authentic joy, and they need me.

Photo inspired by Pinterest and taken by an exhausted shell of a human being

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