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Holiday Horror (or “Mom’s Gone Wild”)

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Posted November 29, 2012

My husband (aka “resident comedian”) has said for years that you can time the guests’ arrival at any family gathering by the arrival of my nervous breakdown.   Haha! Funny guy! He can afford to make light of such situations because it’s not his keister on the line.  Cooks across America know what I’m talking about when I say that entertaining, especially holiday entertaining, is an orchestrated dance that takes meticulous planning, spot-on timing, flawless execution and a little bit of good luck.  So laugh all you want to buddy; I am a well-oiled machine when it comes to putting on a holiday spread that rivals Martha Stewart!

Or not.  Actually, there was a time when I aspired to do just that.  I pored over cookbooks and magazines searching for inspiration.  For days beforehand I would burn the midnight oil rolling out from-scratch biscuits (“store-bought rolls are so uninspiring,” I would say disparagingly), chopping vegetables and bread cubes for stuffing (I never actually succumbed to growing the yeast and making the bread, but I thought about it a time or two…well, not the yeast part), and rendering homemade stock (turning up my nose at canned broth).  Pretty sure I made herb butter for those biscuits too.  I’m exhausted just thinking about it all now.  And please don’t even get me started on polishing the silver and ironing the tablecloths and napkins!  Suffice to say I had skin in this game.  I had so much invested in the perfect realization of my holiday fantasy feast that there was no room for error.  Nor was there room for anybody else to contribute anything to the meal.  The children were shooed out of the kitchen and handed a vacuum cleaner.  My husband did what all husbands do: he went outside to do “yard work.”  Better that I guess than be in my path.

Can I just say, I do not miss those days.

I was so obsessed with creating this “perfect” meal that I forgot the whole damn point of the exercise!  Ideally we offer up a holiday meal to those we love in order to welcome them into our home, to share some brief moments of celebration, and to build memories.  Hopefully we do not do it to prove that we’re better at making sweet potatoes than our mother-in-law or that we can construct a croquembouche worthy of Julia Child.  My self-worth was so fragile that I believed the only way I could prove that I was a good wife, a good homemaker, a good mother, was to do what I did – whatever I did – better than anybody else could.  I fantasized that guests would stand in awe at my accomplishment.  Hmmm, actually the way it worked was that, while the guests might oooooo and aaaaaaaah once at the table and the perfectly fashioned napkin rings created from seasonal twigs and leaves, mostly they just steered clear of the maniacal hostess who looked like she was doing one of those circus acts where they balance spinning plates while riding a unicycle.  Give her room!  By the time we sat down to eat I was exhausted and completely drained.  And all I could think about was all those dishes that had to be washed afterwards!

A friend recently told me about her Thanksgiving weekend at her parents’ house where she was on the receiving end of all of that holiday entertaining angst.  Her mother had spent days preparing all the standard, familiar dishes that we all associate with American Thanksgiving.  Their table, like many of ours, had scant vegetables on the menu (no, I do not include potatoes in the vegetable category).  Anyway, my friend offered to make a salad for everyone because as she said, “we like our greens and mom isn’t going to have any.”  You may have guessed this did not go over well with mom.  As a matter of fact mom was highly offended.  As my friend relayed her story to me I identified strongly with mom because I could see, from her perspective, that any suggestion that the menu be altered was a challenge to her ego.  The offer to help implied that she wasn’t doing it right.  She didn’t measure up.  She had failed.  Well, I can’t say for certain that that’s how her mother felt, but that definitely was my fear, and what drove me to try to do everything perfectly.

Don’t bother telling me how ridiculous this sounds, I already know.  But if you had tried to tell me that when I was in the thick of it I would have done exactly what my friend’s mother did when she tried putting her arm around her mom and reassuring her: mom glared at her and said, “Get off me, right now!”  Some things we just have to learn for ourselves.

What does all of this have to do with weight loss?  Well, nothing.  Not directly anyway.  What it has to do with is getting your self-worth from the knowledge that you’re already good enough, just the way you are.  Whether you can accomplish holiday entertaining nirvana or not does not make you a good person.  There is no special place in heaven for those who make their own pie crust as opposed to using the pre-made one that you find in the refrigerated section of your local Safeway.  Guess what?  The pre-made ones taste pretty good!  And besides, we all know – even I know! – that it’s not about what’s on the table.  It’s about who’s at the table.  It’s about making them feel welcome and relaxed.  It’s about enjoying each other’s company and breaking bread together.

There are precious few of these special moments in our lives.  Sometimes we confuse the achievement of some ideal with self-esteem and contentment.  Contentment doesn’t always end up looking like it could grace the cover of a magazine.  Sometimes contentment means you buy the rolls in the bakery department or, better yet, you ask someone else bring them and just let go of any expectation or control over what they show up with.  What a concept!

In fact, self-esteem and contentment has everything to do with weight loss.  For me, control was about trying to deal with my anxiety.  About not being good enough, about not meeting other people’s expectations.  About being found out as a fraud.  I knew I didn’t have it all together, but I didn’t want anybody else to know that.  The control I so desperately sought was an illusion.  When I finally realized that I was able to let go of my own preconceived notions about what was good enough and just relax a little bit. Okay, a lot.  And all that relaxing gave me the energy to start thinking about some bigger issues: like, what would a happy holiday entertaining experience look like?  It would look like the one I just pulled off last week: I was in bed by a decent hour every night leading up to the big day.  I had the time and energy to engage in my regular workout routine.  I prioritized my own healthy eating throughout all the preparations.  And I had the peace of mind that, no matter what ended up on the dinner table that night, I was a perfectly good person just the way I am.

This mom’s done going wild.  At least about holiday entertaining.

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