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Appearances are Bullshit: On Breaking Free of the Perfection Prison

I love Christmas lights. Adore them.

Every year the kids and I drive through neighborhood after neighborhood admiring the beautifully glowing homes and exclaiming over our favorites (and our…less than favorite - a giant Minion inflatable? Did you lose a bet?)

Buying my own home this year meant that for the very first time ever, I was responsible for putting up the Christmas lights all by myself - me, the woman who gets nervous standing on a step stool in the kitchen (when it comes to grace, mine is exclusively a character trait, not a physical one). But Christmas magic is my jam and I’m more a kid at heart than the kids themselves, so I dove in headfirst, as I usually do on these projects (“And ADHD takes the lead! Anxiety rounding the bend at a close second!”)

I measured, shopped, hauled out the extension cords and my Dad’s old Christmas light ladder (which Scott graciously gave to me after it somehow survived the fire - love you, Dad) and pieced together everything I knew about exterior illumination, which I learned almost entirely from Clark Griswold (see “projects, headfirst”).

I was completely exhilarated and more than a little bit intimidated.

And very, very cold.

When I was married, Christmas lights were my husband’s territory. I could (strongly) suggest design choices, make runs to Target or Lowes for an extra string or a longer extension cord, but I’d certainly never attempted to put lights on the house myself.

But in the last year, I have done a great many things I had never had to do before; this is the first time I’ve ever been single or lived alone at any point in my adult life. And with every new achievement, I grow more proud of myself as I discover new skills and capabilities I never dreamed I had - or thought I could have.

I blame my fiercely independent mother (although in fairness, my brother put up her Christmas lights).

Sometimes It’s easy and fun, like changing out all the cabinetry hardware. Sometimes I get my ass handed to me (what the f*&k is up with curtain rods? What is the secret? Do yours stay up?)

Like with Christmas lights.

When it comes to holiday lights, I’m a decor snob. Warm lights and cool lights together? No. Blue here, green there? Absolutely not. Solids and multicolored? Why? Why would you do that?


You probably did that because you went to Costco and impulsively bought the tree and lights and wreath while Thanksgiving shopping with the kids, and then later bought more lights at Lowes but didn’t turn them on until they were already hung on the house and it was dark outside and your hands were numb and your back hurt and that’s when you discovered that they didn’t match.

I’m guessing.

To everyone out there who has gone to the trouble of putting up lights and done their best only to have them turn out…not quite as you’d planned, I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I judged you.

I’m sorry my children judged you, especially the small one; his tastes are particularly refined.

Rest assured, I have received my comeuppance.

Oh, and about those inflatables and mismatched lawn ornaments at which I have always turned up my nose? I get those, now too.

Your kids probably got really excited about them and their joy meant more to you than any design plan you had in mind. Next thing you knew, your entire front porch was ringed in candy cane lights - cool white, even though your greenery is ringed in warm.

Again, just guessing.

There was a moment when my mismatched lighting scheme and unevenly spaced candy canes felt like a failure, but it was only a moment. I was so pleased, so proud, so excited about making my kids happy, about seeing my little white house lit up in all its Christmas glory, that I really didn’t give a good goddamn whether the lights matched; they made me happy.

It wasn’t always this way.

I spent many years - too many - caring what other people thought of me and measuring myself by their yardstick. I didn’t see myself through my own eyes; I saw myself and my life through the potential judgment of everyone else’s. That was, until just about every fear I had about ostracization and abandonment - not fitting in, being rejected, being different, being alone - came true.

And I survived.

I thrived.

I never wanted to be 42 and divorced; never dreamed it could happen to me. I never wanted my children to be the product of a divorced home. It still hurts to say goodbye to them on the nights that they’re with Scott; to be unable to greet them when they wake or kiss them before they sleep. On top of the grief, there is guilt and heartbreak, and at one time there was deep shame. This is not how I expected my life to look. This is not what I wanted for any of us.

Neither was the life I had before the divorce - or the marriage and behaviors I was modeling for our children.

No matter how it looked from the outside - and it looked very blissful, I know - what was inside wasn’t healthy. It was harming me - physically, mentally, spiritually - and would have ultimately caused significant harm to my children as well. But the need to hold on to what I thought my life would be like, what I thought I needed and thought I could endure, was incredibly powerful; I could not survive losing another family.

The fear of being left behind again, being alone, once again being the misfit kid without a family was paralyzing. So was the fear of what other people would think. We’d been Scott and Allison for over 20 years. Who would believe me if I told the truth? What would people think?

Who would still love me if I made choices that didn’t fit their perception of me? Where would I fit in if I wasn’t part of a couple anymore? Would the world see me as a failure? I certainly saw myself as one. How could I possibly undo an entire life I’d intentionally created, participated in, and shared with the world? How could I even consider it?

Until finally the question became, “How can I not?

Many of us measure our success by how our lives look on the outside. We are even more tightly bound by how well our lives match the vision of what we expected our lives to be.

It is the expectations of others that put us in a box; it is our own fears and expectations that turn those boxes into prisons.

It’s common to blame social media but the reality is that keeping up appearances is as deeply ingrained a part of our culture as baseball, apple pie, and the Star Spangled Banner. And so we tell ourselves that maintaining the ideal status quo will bring happiness and satisfaction, while others (arguably the weakest or least healthy among us) knowingly eschew joy and satisfaction, driven instead by the false sense of security and superiority that keeping up appearances provides in place of true fulfillment.

We all know them.

And however much we may sometimes envy their hair or their home or their external achievements, no one wants to be them.

But whatever the reason, whatever our intent, still we deny truths and live in discomfort and betray our integrity and do all kinds of things that kill our souls in order to maintain appearances, or meet some set of expectations that we have imposed on ourselves, leaving no room for growth or change or the unexpected challenges and changes that come with being alive.

Most of us do this without malice or intention, or sometimes even awareness; we do it because of what we fear and what we hope, and what we’ve learned - and haven’t. We are just trying to meet a need.

If there’s one thing I know to be true, it’s that we are all just trying to be loved.

But this game of expectations and appearances is a game you can never win because the goalposts are constantly moving and the game never stops. There’s always a new expectation, a new critic.

Sacrificing your happiness and what’s best for you or your children so that your life will meet some arbitrary set of expectations - yours or someone else’s - is a formula for misery and dysfunction.

Change is painful. No one knows this better than I do. It’s very hard to let go of what you thought was going to happen; how you thought things would be. But when everything feels like shit - when it is complete shit - there are usually only two choices:

Appearances. Or authenticity.

Choosing isn’t simple (neither is living with your choice), but the options…are. And the good news is that whichever one you choose is totally up to you.

It is always up to you.

I spent most of my life trying to fit in - not conform, it isn’t in me - but trying to belong; desperate to be loved; to be lighthearted and happy like everyone else, instead of orphaned and abandoned and broken. To be small and sweet and easygoing instead of tall and outspoken and sensitive and assertive (read: LOUD).

I’m fine; it’s fine. Everything is fine.

That’s why I stayed in a broken relationship for so long, trying to prove my worth to someone who would never return my effort or affection; it’s why I stayed in false friendships and boring conversations (Jesus Christ, are we still talking about blanket ladders? Why does everyone’s home look exactly the same?) and let myself grow anxious and sick and depressed.

I got married because I didn’t want to feel broken and alone anymore. I wanted a family, I wanted family life. I wanted to finally have what seemed to come so easily to everyone else. I wanted normal. I wanted the pretty house with the pretty, matching white lights, and the happy family Christmases.

But as it turns out, the families behind most of those pretty, matching white lights aren’t always as happy or loving as they seem on the outside. It seems to me that we’re all just trying to bridge the gap between what we hoped for - what we expected - and what is; to make sense of who we once were, versus who we are now, and how to reconcile those against the vision of who we one day hope to be.

Part of my healing journey has been to release the need to please everyone but myself. I have (almost entirely) stopped caring whether anyone likes me and instead, switched my focus to whether or not I like myself. It took a long time but today I don’t care what you think or what you say about me or about my choices (although if you say a word about my kids, bitch, I will take these hoops off right now).

I have accepted that life doesn’t look the way I thought it would, that I made choices I never thought I was capable of - good and bad (we’ll get to those in another post) - and that I’m finally healed enough to understand why and how I got here, and to see that authenticity is, for me, the better path, even if it’s harder; even if it hurts. Even if the owners of all those carefully lit, beautifully decorated homes think I’m crazy to have given up my pretty white lights for this mismatched set.

Creating new Christmas traditions after divorce
No perfectly staged Christmas morning photos here; just messy and real and wonderful - like our holiday.

I love my lights. I love my home. I love my life. And I have two kids who are healthy and happy and breaking cycles that never should have existed because their mother is leading the way. Their mother, who is healthier and happier than she has ever been before because she started listening to her heart, and not her fear - just like I hope they’ll do in their own lives.

It isn’t what I expected, this life of mine. It isn’t perfect. I am not perfect.

But I am not crazy, either.

What I am, at last, is free.


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