As we get started, I want to share a true story about expectations - or what I call celebration saboteurs.
After hosting Thanksgiving dinner for my family and my sister’s family for a dozen or so years, both families decided that we needed to make some changes. Our kids were in college and it was becoming harder and harder for everyone to get to one place. In 2001, my husband and I did not host Thanksgiving dinner; instead, we were invited to my husband’s niece’s home with all of her family. We were excited to see everyone and it was not too far of a drive, only about an hour away. After inquiring about the number of people and the time of dinner, I asked how we could contribute. We were asked to bring a ham.
When my husband and I arrived around two in the afternoon, I was surprised at what I found. In fact, I felt disappointed and really confused. My initial expectations were far from being met. First, all the women (my sister –in-law and my three nieces-in-law ) were nowhere in sight. I quickly learned that all the ‘girls’ were out shopping for the day- a family tradition of theirs. My thoughts were, “This is rude. Why aren’t they hear to greet us – to welcome us? Didn’t they remember we were coming?”
As I looked around the house, everything seemed so surreal to me. Nothing was like ‘I” would have it! All the guys (my brother-in-law and husbands of nieces) were glued to the TV’s with sports blasting from multiple screens. It was so loud that everyone had to yell to hear what someone was saying. And the five young grand-children were galloping through the house like wild horses – more loud noise. After quickly judging the situation, I mumbled to myself, “This is not what would be going on in my home! My children would have been playing games outside or creating musical performances for our enjoyment later. And, the noise – yikes! My brother-in-law would be playing his guitar, softly serenading us while my sister, my husband and I cooked.”
I looked around to see if there was any evidence of a family dinner taking place that day. Putting the ham in the refrigerator, I noticed that nothing was prepared or even cooking, except for some rolls that were thawing. I peeked into the dining room – nothing. Again, my expectations quickly reared and roared in my head: “I can’t believe this. The table is not even set. I would have had my table set the night before! Where is the turkey – why aren’t the potatoes peeled? Why isn’t there anything ready? I would never do this.”
I returned to the den with the blasting TV’s and the noisy kids, sulked and continued to pass judgment on the entire situation. This was certainly not the way I had ever entertained guests or how I would do things. I continued to wallow in my righteousness.
At around four o’clock, my husband’s sister and her three daughters finally arrived home! Their arms were full of packages and bags filled with goodies. Entering the house, their happy faces filled the room with love and laughter. The kids went running as they saw the piles of gifts, screaming with excitement. After everyone had settled down, my niece Katie (whose home we were in) sighed and casually suggested, “Well, I guess we should get started on dinner”.
As I sat slumped on the couch, still festering in my rightful resentment and utter bewilderment, I cautiously asked, “Would you like some help (still wondering how on earth a turkey could be ready in two hours)?” My niece replied with a huge smile, “That would be great! Follow me”.
Over the next two hours, the kitchen started to buzz. As Katie took control of the side-dishes, I set the table for sixteen, peeled and mashed a giant pot of potatoes (with one beater), made a strange mud-like gravy from their family recipe (which was not easy to do without Turkey juices ), crafted together an unusual mixture that resembled dressing, and prepared the ham. As Katie and I gabbed and cooked, I found myself beginning to loosen up and let go of all my unmet expectations. And, I started to laugh and have fun. Then, as Katie’s husband attempted to deep fry the turkey, we all watched in horror as the oil overheated, spilled out onto the cool decking of their pool, and basically petrified the turkey.
After the burnt carcass was retrieved and everyone was relieved no one was hurt in the process, we all laughed hysterically at the site of the bark-like stump resting on the platter. For just a moment, I could hear myself think these thoughts, “I would never try something new like deep-frying on a holiday dinner.”
And then I stopped myself. My expectation was simply a judgment on them. I stopped and readjusted my thinking.
As I was leading the charge of cleaning up the massive mess of dishes after dinner, with the TV’s still blaring, with kids still wild from the sugar highs of dessert, and with the ‘men’ conveniently snoring away in their recliners, I reflected upon the evening.
This celebration was theirs. It was filled with chaos and joy and over-flowing with love. And, yes, it was not the way I would do things, but it didn’t mean that mine was any better or that mine was the only way – mine was just different.
This holiday season, readjust your expectations. Release yourself from celebration saboteurs. And then, get ready to rejoice.
Publishers Notes: Holli Kenley is an American Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of “ Daughters Betrayed By Their Mothers: Moving from Brokenness to Wholeness” and “Power Down & Parent Up!: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence & Raising Tech-Healthy Children”