This holiday season I have been reflecting a lot about my childhood, my experience with both parents, and the impact my experience has had on me as an adult. I wanted to put some of my thoughts together and share my experience to help parents heading into the holiday season. I may not be a parent, though I do think this perspective may help some make positive shifts while it is still possible.
We’ll start with a little bit of background. My parents were separated before I turned 1, and let’s just say… it did not end amicably. I grew up with holidays, birthdays, and all other special occasions being duplicated at each home. As a kid, I loved that because it meant more gifts, more turkey dinner, more fun, etc.
As I’ve been undergoing my own personal “re-construction” through therapy, shadow work, and other healing modalities this past year, I’ve come to some realizations about the differences in each home life. This difference is not limited to the holiday season, but that’s where we start.
On my maternal side, the tradition was to go to my grandparents’ house on Christmas eve and open gifts with my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, and my cousins. This was often awkward and tense, as the relationship between my mother and her parents had always been strained. Beyond the Christmas eve tradition, I have very little memory of the holidays at my mother’s. We opened gifts and I got ready to go with my dad.
On my paternal side, the tradition involved a lot of family activities. I remember leaving mix out for the reindeer and cookies out for Santa, spending quality time as a family, and being allowed to open one gift before bed in anticipation of Christmas morning. Christmas day involved opening gifts, breakfast as a family, playing with the gifts, and going to my other grandparents’ house for Christmas dinner with my aunt, uncle, and cousins on that side. It was always lighthearted and fun.
Do you see some of the main differences there?
Fast forward to adulthood, I came to the realization that I had been raised by an emotionally unavailable mother due to her own unresolved trauma. By someone who grew up with abuse and was never taught unconditional love. As a result, she thought showing love meant spending the most money… a false belief she instilled in me, which I’ve worked to eliminate.
When I would come home from my fathers’ and shared what I had received, it always seemed to be a competition. In fact, that was the first question I heard after being with my dad’s side of the family last Christmas. I got the traditional eye roll with a comment on how cheap my father was after sharing. For the first time in my life, with this new perspective and awareness I’ve cultivated, I commented back that the gift wasn’t what mattered.
As I reflect on all of this, it made me look at it from a bigger lens: my entire childhood.
I spent very little time with my father, only every second weekend and one evening a week. And yet, the time we did spend together was meaningful. He was present, he did things with us, he took us to the beach, the park, the playground. We went on family vacation every summer for a full week staying at a family cottage. We made memories.
When I reflect on my childhood time spent with my mother, I have a blank page in my mind. I don’t remember much of significance. When I ask about things we did together there are only two experiences she can name, both from a time when I was too young to remember. The reality is, I can’t remember experiences that I never had.
I was often told how infuriating it was for my mother when I put my father on a pedestal as a child because she was the one that had me full-time. I was reminded of how much she had to spend on me with my father getting off easy. She couldn’t understand why I valued him as much as I did because she was comparing her “investments” to his.
Just a week shy of 29, I understand it for the first time.
In case you missed it in my rambling: My mother focused on the financial investments of the holiday season (and parenting in general). My father focused more on the time investments.
As a child, the focus on the financial was never fulfilling. The gifts did not make up for the loneliness and isolation that I felt in having a mother that was emotionally cut off and didn’t have time or energy to spend being present with me. She placed all emphasis of the holidays and special occasions showering me with gifts, thinking that was love. What I really needed in that time was her presence and active involvement.
As a grown woman reflecting on her childhood, I can say with certainty that I cherish the memories made over the gifts. I don’t remember the gifts my mother got me as a child, no matter how expensive or flashy. And yet, I’ll always have the memories that I made with my dad and that side of the family.
Moral of the story!
Please do some reflecting of your own if you are a parent. Consider the approach you have been taking with your child(ren) thus far and if it may need some adjustment. Set priorities.
That is important at any time, though especially for the holidays. There is absolutely nothing wrong with spoiling your kids if you have the means to do so. However, don’t let that be your primary method of showing love.
Don’t let your kids grow up with no memory of their childhood holiday experience with you because it was centered solely around gifts. Create your own family traditions, even if its a single parent/single child family unit. Spend quality time together. Be present.
Make sure they FEEL loved through your actions and the memories you make together, and not just from your words or the gifts you give them. Words hold no meaning without reinforcing action, and the high of getting a gift goes away fast.
Memories are the true gift.