It’s a time-honored tradition of parenting: Attending The Christmas Program. Because in December, when our schedules are already booked so full that a glimpse of the long lines at Target is enough to give us a Yuletide panic attack, let’s put another event on the calendar! Let’s all gather together in a stuffy auditorium and watch kids we don’t know warble their way through songs and remember every third line while we prop our eyelids open with coffee stirrers. Because we are so stopping at Starbucks before the show. Mama has her limits.
Last weekend was one such event, where parents and grandparents filed into theatre seats and settled in for a twelve hour performance of Oliver Twist. Oh, I jest. I’m pretty sure it hovered around the 9 and ½ hour mark: A downright Cliff Notes version of the classic. My daughter had never performed in a drama before and was understandably nervous, so of course I waved like an idiot and signed, “I love you” when we made eye contact and generally over-Mommed like usual. I do want her to have consistency in her life, after all. At some point, I glanced over at my husband, because I enjoy watching people watching things more than I enjoy the actual watching of things (if you understood that sentence at all, kudos to you) and my brain vaguely registered the fact that he was sporting a cheap polyester Santa hat, a cap whose origin was unknown to me.
Sometime after the show (which, to be fair, was performed by students with actual talent and ended up being enjoyable), we were standing around the lobby in the also time-honored tradition of parenting: Waiting around for your kids so that you can taxi them home. My husband off-handedly mentioned that he’d worn that Santa hat so that our daughter would not be anxious in her stage debut. So that she would be able to spot him easily and watch his smiles and encouraging nods to her. And she did. And her bubbly chatter and euphoric smile after the show confirmed that what he had done had worked. There was no fear, no stage fright; just a reassurance that her people were there cheering her on and embarrassing her, of course, since we would not want the time-honored parenting tradition trifecta to be incomplete.
Later that night, when wiping off the kitchen counters for the eleventy-hundredth time of the day, I thought about that man in the Santa hat, realizing what a gift he had given a nervous teenage girl. He did it without a thought for how a silly one-dollar hat made him look in a nice theatre full of church-dressed folks.
I don’t often write about marriage because, when I was in dark times in my own, my heart would shatter when I read pithy essays about how wonderful someone’s husband was or how deliriously in love the two of them were, how they were in complete sync and were the best of friends and had the cute Olan Mills photos to prove it (For you youngsters, we used to take pictures indoors. In actual studios. With nary a chalkboard or Mason-jar candle in sight. They were desperate, hairspray-filled times). I would wonder what was wrong with me. Surely no one else in the history of marriage-dom had ever gone down the painful roads I was travelling. Why did everyone else have it all figured out? Why was my marriage so very hard?
There’s a gift in being in your mid-ish-forties, though. It’s not that you learn how to take better family portraits. It’s an unsexy word called perspective, but it changes everything, because now I realize that the romantic ideals I wanted in my twenties, like a proposal in front of the Eiffel Tower (well, ok, I still wouldn’t turn that down) are not the things I want anymore.
Marriage is about being on the same team, even if you have to fight like hell to get there.
Marriage is about forgiveness: For the big, painful things and the everyday annoyances.
Marriage is about consistency: Knowing that you have a partner to manage life with. Being angry with them when they let you down and forget the errands you asked them to run, and then erasing the score and moving forward, knowing that you will need that same grace shown to you again and again.
Marriage is about parenting, for many of us: It’s about late-night conversations with a child who needs to talk, even when you and your spouse are both beyond exhausted, because you desperately want those kids to do it better than you did.
Marriage is about acceptance: Life will bring devastating pain. People will get sick. There will be loss and disillusionment. So you accept what the truth really is, and you grieve and you get back up and you take turns being the strong one.
Marriage is about getting help when you need it: If you are in the place I once was….if you feel alone in your hurt and sadness, you are not. There is not a relationship on the planet that has ever lived up to its partners’ expectations for more than 5 minutes. There is healing in talking to a trusted friend, a counselor. And don’t stop with just one advisor. I have received the most ridiculous marriage advice from well-intentioned pastors and teachers, and there is no guilt in letting the wind blow that chaff away and going elsewhere to get a second opinion.
Marriage is sometimes about staying and sometimes about leaving. No one else can answer that question but you and the still small voice within you. There is no shame in either choice, because you must be able to say, in the end, that it is well with your soul.
Today, for me, marriage is about remembering again why I married that man in the Santa hat: Not for the adventure, although there has been plenty, and not always of the fun variety. Not for the love story, because I would rewrite some of our chapters if I could. Not for the companionship, because no one human can erase the deep loneliness that rises to the surface in each of us. Marriage is for the family and the life we have created, in whatever shape that takes on, in whatever twists I know will be on our travels. It is for the promise that there will be roads ahead. It is for the knowing that there is a man in a Santa hat who will love his kids enough to look like a crazy person in a theater, smiling and waving and reminding them that they are never alone in this scary world. It won’t be perfect, and I have no guarantees that it will even be forever: Life and loss have taught me that hard lesson already. But it’s about finding and holding the small moments...the Santa hat moments….that, one by one, make up a life and a love and a family, on the days that we like each other and the days that we need a little space. It’s no script a movie will ever be made of, but it’s a truer love story than any screen could tell.