I’ve been more desperate for parenting advice this year than any other since my first son was born in 2014. And by “advice,” I mean any reassurance I’m not screwing it up. I click on everything from pandemic-related regression headlines to superhero face mask shopping guides, hoping to feel just a bit better about the well-intentioned yet inadequate ways I’m navigating this bizarre year for my 5- and 3-year-old boys.
But for all my clicking, there’s still an issue I haven’t seen addressed: the one having to do with magic. And now that the kitchen calendar is down to its last page and holiday ads are everywhere, I’m trying to figure out how to handle it.
My family celebrates Christmas, and when I was a kid, that turning of the calendar to Dec. 1 generated a magical force that glowed straight through till New Year’s. This force was so powerful that it caused garlands to sprout from our staircase, warded off homework and transformed my parents from unfulfilled housekeeper and exhausted commuter into storybook mother and father with all-new capabilities like baking pies and felling trees — while singing. My sister and I were also transformed: no longer bickering kids with “pigpen” rooms who went to bed in faded Ziggy T-shirts, but well-mannered children in ruffled nightgowns who drifted to sleep by the glow of plug-in window candles. We were in a magnificent spell.
So after I had my first son, I thought about how magical everything would be when my husband and I got to share this holiday spell with him. Because he was born in December, that first Christmas was a blur of breastfeeding mishaps and laundry. But as our second Christmas approached, I couldn’t wait to enjoy a perfectly magical holiday with my perfect husband and child.
Then around mid-November, I realized I didn’t have a personalized stocking for my baby. So I went on Etsy and lost an afternoon at work selecting and then ordering just the right one. Done. Then I realized I didn’t have a pretty way to hang the stockings, so I bought three of those decorative weighted anchors that sit on the mantle. Done. Then I heard tree farms sell out close to Christmas. I delegated that task to my husband, who in turn lost an afternoon at work calling around to compare prices and perks (cocoa? carolers?) at local farms. In the following weeks, we lost sleep to late-night gift shopping, accidentally double-booked out-of-state family visits, paid through the nose for Polar Express train tickets, ran out of tape, and realized we didn’t have a recipe for a single pie or nut roll between us.
It was somewhere around then I started to grasp that the December glow of my childhood home wasn’t a naturally occurring force. That magic was engineered, manufactured — fuse by fuse, receipt by receipt — by my parents. And now, as a mother myself, I wasn’t living in a spell. I was the one expected to cast it.
Being a parent during the holidays suddenly meant stepping behind the curtain. You’re no longer a VIP audience member in a plush front-row seat dazzled by the Sugar Plum Fairy. You’re the crewmember backstage racing from pulley to light switch, to prop table, to trap door lever … but without sufficient pay or training. You’re also the producer, responsible for everything from budget (the strategic coordination of flash sales with coupon codes) to quality control (shielding my son from the Santa we’d just visited who stripped to his New York Jets T-shirt in the parking lot).
Those pies — they involve converting cups to ounces. Those garlands — they have to be excavated from the attic. Those family visits — they have to be diplomatically balanced between sides. And those Christmas nightclothes — they have to be totally forgotten about and then bought at the last minute from Kohl’s at 11:40 p.m. on Dec. 23 in a line so long you go to customer service instead, only to discover that line is longer and now you’ve lost your original spot.
For me, magic has become a verb — something I do to my kids to set them aglow with holiday wonder while I stress every decision and detail on the backend.
I’m the first to admit I’ve taken the manufacturing of magic too far, a compulsion that only increased with our second son. Instead of casting a spell, I’ve been hurling it — forcing every decoration to be magazine-ready and every moment to become a childhood-defining, life-affirming memory. For me, magic has become a verb — something I do to my kids to set them aglow with holiday wonder while I stress every decision and detail on the backend.
And I worry this year will be worse. Because this year, with this one holiday, I feel the additional pressure of making up for everything 2020 wasn’t. Every birthday party reduced to a Zoom screen, every feeble explanation for why a friend/cousin/grandparent can’t come over, the canceled summer camps, the nixed Yellowstone vacation, and every single time I told my homebound kids, “Not now, mommy’s working.” With 2020 running out, my compensatory opportunities are dwindling. This year, the holiday season is looming like an exhausting deadline ― my final chance to restore all the childhood the last 12 months took from them.
(It’s embarrassing, by the way, how upsetting these pedestrian grievances get. I think about the cardiologists I interview scrambling to understand what’s happening inside the COVID-19 patient crashing in front of them, or the trash collectors my town forced to work after they tested positive, or the friends who lost their jobs, or people who can’t pay their rent or afford food, and I can’t imagine what right I have to cry over my 5-year-old’s anti-Zoom tantrum. But I do. All the time.)
So this year … I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to resist overspending on compensatory presents or spare myself the baking of a traditional flaming pudding. I don’t know how to avoid turning December into a massive, stressed-out apology for my suboptimal pandemic parenting, and I don’t know how to make the time and space for my family to slow down, breathe and enter into a spell together.
But isn’t that part of real magic? The not-knowing?
We don’t know how a saint-cum-Santa circles the globe in a flying sleigh. We don’t know how a star guided three gift-bearers to the cradle of a deity. We don’t know how a one-day supply of oil lasted eight nights or how any faith at all exists without proof.
I think it’s true that when you’re a parent, some magic has to be made ― designed and engineered like a suspension bridge or a single-handled can opener. But real magic can just happen — like the hard sparkle of sun through iced branches on a December morning or Spotify playing your late mother’s favorite carol just as you hang her memorial stocking. And the advantage to real magic is that there doesn’t have to be a magic-er and a magic-ee. It can fall on parents and children at the same time — and it should. Because no matter if we are kids or have kids or neither, everyone deserves to get magic-ed.
So even though I don’t know what will happen this Christmas (will I wake up in another pee spot from the toddler who climbed into our holiday bedding?) or this time next year (will we all wake up to a beautiful post-COVID dawn?), I do know that I want to spend more time making memories without making myself sick worrying that I’m doing it wrong or not being perfect enough. There’s enough actual worry this year — or any year, really.
After 2020 has demanded so much work, strength and grit that my kids sometimes felt more like burdens than blessings, I want this holiday to be less about freaking out and forcing fun, and more about loosening my grip enough to let in the wonders that are already here. Because my one big certainty is my little family, and no matter what Christmas looks like this year, as long as I have them, it’ll be magical. Even if our pj’s don’t match.
Kimberly Hiss is a writer whose essays, health reports and news stories appear in O the Oprah Magazine, Parents, Health, Women’s Health, Wired, Reader’s Digest, The Prague Post, and more. She lives in New York with her husband and two small sons.
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