by Jennifer Phillips

I have a serious internal drama going on right now. It’s a little something I like to call, “The Battle for Special.”

This battle can stay fairly dormant until occasions arise such as holidays, special events, anniversaries, and “family days.” I can be perfectly content, minding my own business, and then one of these scenarios approaches and my internal drive says, “All hands on deck! It’s time to initiate “Operation Make this Day/Event As Special As Humanly Possible.” And then I turn into a crazy person.

Case en point:

My in-laws gave us one of the greatest early Christmas presents ever: an annual pass to three nearby theme parks. Now, I should preface this story with the disclaimer that I am obsessed with water parks. I would seriously go to a water park by myself and splish splash the day away in contented bliss. I realize this borders on creepy, but I could care less. Lazy river? Tube rides? Did you say wave pool?? I rest my case. Water parks are where it’s at.

So, a few weeks ago we loaded up the four children and headed to Wet N’ Wild for an afternoon of slip-sliding, and I should have been in heaven, right? Yes, I should have. But the battle started
raging as I began to obsess over how to make this the most perfect, best day ever. I snapped at the kids over which rides to ride first, I pored over the map to create the most strategic use of our time,
and I may or may not have pouted resentfully over the fact that I got first duty in Wet N’ Wild Junior with the littler ones.

My desire was a fun family day, yet my obsession over making it THE BEST day was actually causing me to move away from that desire and towards conflict instead. I was actually making everyone miserable. This is a problem.

The stories could go on and on . . .

“Brian, how dare you suggest we stop at McDonald’s for ice cream after a day at the beach? That’s not special enough. We must have gelato.”

Free Saturday at home with no sports, no birthday parties, no obligations? Insert me in a heap of anxiety over how we will maximize this special family day. I will make everyone go to the park when no one wants to go to the park. I will pull out Yahtzee to the “here-she-goes-again” groans of my boys. I will force a dance party and be the only one Shake(ing) it Off.

Shall we even talk about the holiday season? We shall.

Even though I’m as crafty as a turkey with a glue gun, and any baking attempt outside of my comfortable tried and trues results in disaster; even though I seriously have never scrolled through Pinterest, I feel this self-inflicted pressure to make the holidays unforgettable for my children.

Last year’s attempt at Thanksgiving “special.” Impressed? I, not a child, drew the crooked block letters. If you look closely enough, you’ll see that some of the items we were thankful for were carbon dioxide and sweet butt tattoos, my then six year old’s phonetic spelling of “sweet potatoes.”
You see, according to genius marketing and a barrage of social media, not only am I responsible for the physical and emotional well being of my children, but I am also responsible for making magic happen. I am a memory-maker. I must create experiences they will never forget or social services might as well come take them away because I am obviously negligent.

I’ve felt this pressure even more so in recent years since we moved to Australia. Gone are the familiar environmental cues of cold weather, pumpkin spice everything, and a gazillion Christmas parties to add to the Christmas build-up. Thanksgiving, shockingly, is not acknowledged over here. I already feel like my kids are missing out, because their holidays don’t look like mine did growing up, so I think it’s on me all the more to razzle-dazzle, convict their hearts with the reason for the season, and invoke a wide-eyed wonderment that leaves me patting myself on the back and saying, “Well done.”

So I scurry. I fret. I lament about what they’re “missing out on.” I double my efforts with crafts I stink at and gingerbread houses that always fall apart. I legalistically enforce a daily celebration of Advent. I cook a turkey in an un-airconditioned kitchen in 100 degree heat and we sweat buckets as we partake, all in the name of “special.”

What have I accomplished, really?

In her lecture series, Idol Addiction, (which I seriously cannot recommend highly enough. Life-changing. For real.) Julie Sparkman says, “How can you be fully present in life if you’re constantly worried that it’s all up to you?”

If you think it’s all up to you to create the perfect Thanksgiving, the perfect Christmas, the perfect birthday party, the most unforgettable family day, you may do just that. The food may be amazing. Your house may be adorned with every variety of snowman craft known to man. Your kids may have the cutest, most perfectly matched holiday outfits.

But at what cost?

If you’re like me, you will scurry around, ignoring and snapping at the very children for whom you’re creating this perfect holiday season, and you’ll actually miss it. You’ll miss the whole thing.

Isn’t this all so ironic? We celebrate a Messiah who came to earth because we were not perfect by actually trying to create perfection, or at least an appearance of perfection. And then another holiday season is come and gone and we actually weren’t really even there for it. Not fully. We were too busy “creating special.” We thought it was all up to us. So we irritably scurried and dictated, trying to make things just right. And then? We’re left with the short and long-term carnage that results from treating the people we love poorly through our fretful attempts to meet some invisible standard. We are naive if we think they do not pick up on the hypocrisy.

Our kids don’t want perfect holidays. They want relationship. They want us. They want to be pointed towards the God to whom we give thanks, and they want to be awed over the Savior’s birth, but not through the perfect craft or the most stunning Jessie tree.

No, our children will actually be drawn to Jesus when we release our self-imposed and media-imposed unrealistic expectations and rest in the One who came because we could not make things right ourselves.

Here’s my holiday exhortation to myself, and you: Do crafts if you like crafts. Throw parties if you so choose. Cook up a storm. But do it with the end-goal of relationship and connection and a Savior worshiped, resting in His finished work. And know that perfection, the “best holiday ever,” is not your burden to bear.

I say, serve that burnt pumpkin pie, sister. Display the table cloth stained by your kid’s Kool-aid, and actually show up, fully present for your holiday meal. If you think about it, wouldn’t you always choose relationship over perfectly baked pastry anyway?

We can continue to chase the elusive “special,” or we can choose to be fully present in the lives of those around us. After all, that’s where the real magic happens anyway.

I choose relationship. How about you?

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