The problem with the holidays is that they are all about the expectation of grand scale happiness and joy. Maybe that’s what makes this time of year so magical for some – and so very challenging for those who are not feeling at the top of their game.
Why I’m Done With Trying to Create Fancy Holiday Celebrations
For eighteen years we’ve managed to pull it off, but I’m feeling like maybe it’s time to raise the white flag. The pressure to sit down to elaborate meals, dress in festive outfits, uncomfortable shoes and engage in acceptable conversation for a prolonged time while consuming food that may or may not appeal is not easy for the average person. It’s next to impossible for my daughter, Erin, who has an autism spectrum disorder, and for our family by extension.
Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. But how do we avoid this when the holiday season requires us to do just that? Same songs, same traditions, same deadlines, same dread.
Admittedly, I begin every November with the belief that somehow this year will be different – Erin will arrive at holiday gatherings with no language, sensory or behavioral issues to speak of – and the boys won’t fight in the car or on Christmas morning. But I know how the story ends. And, not to refute Einstein, it actually makes me feel more deflated than insane.
This year I’ve decided to accept, to embrace, maybe even smile at the inevitable outcome whatever it may be – and to pay closer attention to what happens inbetween. This year I’m going to shift expectations, focus on the smaller moments and the silver linings that having a special needs child offers.
While the impending holiday season fills me with a fair amount of trepidation, it also makes me appreciate the average, run of the mill meals and gatherings when the goal is not highly wrought festivity but maybe just a chance encounter with a good time – no spills, no elbows, no tears.
A few nights ago an extraordinary thing happened. Our family sat down for dinner together – at the same time. While this is an increasingly rare event for many families – for ours it seems even more so. Most nights Erin eats an hour or two before her three younger brothers and is showered and watching Barney on her iPad before they file in from their sports and after school activities.
But that night for some reason we all sat around the table. Someone asked someone to pass the butter and it was passed. Someone complimented dad on the bolognese and he said ‘thanks.’ Erin asked for another bowl of pasta, did not upend it and listened to the boys talk real and fantasy football.
The meal was so fantastically ordinary, it was magical.
I tried really hard just to savor the moment but couldn’t resist the urge to say: “This is really special. We’re all here and it makes me so happy.”
The boys didn’t really know what do with that – nor did my husband, and Erin was kissing Pablo, her service dog – but I think they heard it and knew what I meant. Given the upheaval most meals and days bring, what impresses all of us most are the quiet, the typical, the mundane moments when life feels so very typical.
When you have a special needs child – or sibling, joy is often unexpected. A rainy day suddenly brightens when your language delayed son says: “The sun is hiding.” Your teenage daughter dresses independently for the first time and you’re ready to break out the champagne.
Or everyone gathers around a table, shares a quiet meal and you can’t help but think, wow, and whisper thank you. You didn’t expect any of it – and it is wonderful.
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Eileen Flood O’Connor is a mother of four, the oldest of whom has an autism spectrum disorder. She writes often about special needs families and siblings. Her writing has appeared in The Week, The Huffington Post, The Mighty and local print publications. She is currently working on a collection of essays about the joys and struggles of life with a special needs child called Eating Pizza Backwards.