Ah, the holidays, also known as The Most Wonderful Time of the Year and The Hap-happiest Season of All. For some, the season conjures up feelings of jubilance and fond memories of beautifully decorated tablescapes at large family celebrations. For me, the season triggers uncomfortable emotional terrain and expectations that are tricky to navigate.
I am an only child, so my family often spends holidays alone. It always makes me melancholy when I hear others excitedly discussing their big family plans or see photos of extended families gathering together.
Like any birth order scenario, there is a wide variety of experiences, and only children are no exception; many relish the solitude of being solitary. But not me. An extreme extrovert who longs for connection, I’ve always hated being on my own and felt a hole in my life without siblings. Throughout the year, I busy myself with a robust schedule and lots of friends to stave off the feeling of loneliness. But the holidays make it difficult because everyone else is busy making plans with their extended families, which seems to magnify that we are not.
Without siblings, our gatherings generally consist of just my immediate family — my husband and me, our kids, plus my mom. There is no need to sit at the large dining table because we all fit around the small little kitchen table. I always glance around the table and feel a stab of sadness at our tiny gathering that is no different from any other day of the year because we have no additional guests to share our special holiday meal with. Despite being utterly grateful for the precious faces at our table, I can’t help but feel a longing for another seat (or two or three) to be occupied by some siblings.
I suppose you can’t miss what you’ve never had, but in these moments, I truly do. I miss the siblings I never had like phantom limbs. Their absence is palpable and makes me yearn for a collective with someone I will never have. I can’t help but imagine how much livelier and more festive the holiday would be if I had brothers, sisters, and cousins for my kids.
During the season, the media bombards us with imagery of holiday cheer. The scene always seems to include a large family gathering, extended family happily huddled together drinking eggnog and making silly faces. The idea of it makes my heart ache a little. The barrage of jolly-looking photos friends post of their gigantic families on social media are tough for me to see without feeling some kind of ache for that life.
Am I romanticizing large family gatherings and (possibly inaccurately) assuming the grass is always greener with siblings or a huge extended family? Perhaps. I’m aware the idyllic picturesque holiday doesn’t ring true for everyone; for some, large family gatherings are the source of tension and angst. What might look like a bustling and boisterous party might be a chaotic and tumultuous gathering of people with differing world views and how to cook the turkey. I know plenty of folks have dysfunctional relationships with their siblings and dread such occasions. But on the same token, many have lovely relationships; their sister or brother is a built-in best friend for life. Those always-forever-no-matter-what sibling relationships are what haunt me.
Perhaps I expect too much from the holidays. By putting pressure on myself to have a “perfect” holiday — the one in Hallmark movies, with a multitude of laughing family members hovering by a fire, merrily singing carols — maybe I’m doomed to fail when things inevitably don’t live up to those unrealistic expectations.
I’ve realized having a more fluid and flexible idea of what a holiday should be is helpful. For some, that is a celebration with a bajillion extended family members. But for me, it looks like a smaller, more intimate gathering and creating new traditions with my children. One isn’t better than the other; they’re just different. I’m doing my best to reframe what it’s supposed to look like, and allow the holidays to be our own, regardless of what we see in other’s living rooms or curated social media feeds.
A wise man (Charlie Brown) once said, “It’s not what’s under the Christmas tree; it’s who’s around it.” I suppose the holidays will always make me pine for them, the siblings I’ll never have. But what I do have is nothing short of miraculous — three extraordinary kids, an adoring partner, a pantry full of Nutella, and more than enough gratitude and love to make the season truly merry and bright.
Christina Crawford is a Dallas-based writer, guacamole enthusiast, and mom to three feral little boys. She spends her days putting out fires (actual and metaphorical) and trying to keep goldfish alive. Her words have appeared in Newsweek, HuffPost, Health Magazine, Parents, Today Show Parents, and more. You can follow along on Twitter where she writes (questionably) funny anecdotes about her life at @Xtina_Crawford