So I had a lot of very ambitious ideas for holiday posts I was going to create this month: a tutorial for the quilted advent calendar I made a few years ago, recipes that define the smells and tastes of the season for me, ideas to get kids excited and engaged in the holiday spirit that don’t revolve around commercialism.
Then suddenly, I looked up and saw that we are already a week into December, and I have done none of it. And I started to panic. I set aside today to try and get a few of those posts done, because I thought that would help me shake this feeling I have had lately that I am spinning my wheels, not really accomplishing much of anything in any area of my life. But I woke up this morning, and listened to a recent episode of Grace Bonney’s brilliant podcast Good Company. One of the panellists was Shauna M. Ahern, author of the early food blog Gluten Free Girl. She was speaking about fact that she found herself spending more and more of her time as a food blogger crafting perfect images of beautiful food on clean, marble counter tops, and how what she wished she had been showing instead was the other end of her counter, where she had shoved all of the evidence of the messiness of her real life—the unpaid bills, the dirty dishes, the random toys—in order to keep it all out of the frame. Because that is what is interesting, really. That is what is honest and what people really need to see to feel connected to you.
So, today I am going to give you a peak at what the other side of my counter looks like right now. This has been a difficult month for my family and for me. We lost someone who was deeply beloved to us, my husbands Oma, a woman named Waltraud. I wish I could use this space and this time to write about her, but I am not ready to do that yet. Maybe one day. For now, I want to talk about something else that I have been struggling with this year in a big way: Impostor Syndrome, which is the secret belief that you are not skilled or talented or good enough at what you do and the fear that you will be discovered and outed as a fraud.
I first heard that term at the beginning of grad school, when I was sitting through a seminar on mental health for university students as part of my training as a residence don. When the speaker talked about Impostor Syndrome, it was as though she was suddenly was sticking a label on the horrible secret fear I had carried around with me for years and years. I quietly burst into embarrassing, uncontrollable tears, and had to flea the room. Since then, I have continued to struggle with versions of those same fears, but having a name for them has helped, as has coming to realise that they are shared by so many other women I know and admire.
In the last year or so, though, I have found that my impostor syndrome has been flaring up more than usual. Specifically, it has manifested itself in bitter feelings of intense jealousy aimed at women who I feel are doing life better than me. I am not proud of these feelings—they come as a betrayal of all the things I believe that I stand for. I don’t want to be the woman who resents another woman for doing her thing, for being herself, for experiencing success and good fortune. I don’t want to be a person who is dissatisfied with what they have and who they are. And yet these feelings bubble up with a vengeance. They make me feel small and petty. I find myself wondering where they come from. And why now?
I think that one answer might be that I am in a particularly vulnerable season of my life right now. Being thirty five, having two young children, feeling lost at sea as far as career path goes, living in a body that has given birth twice and is beginning to show its age, all of that takes its tole. Confidence is something I work at, consciously, everyday. I am not always successful at cultivating it. Looking at Instagram, visiting other people’s homes, talking to other moms, it is easy to feel that they are all thriving, achieving real and important things, while I am just struggling to get us through the week. I find myself coveting other people’s homes, bodies, abilities, career success, mental strength. I feel like everyone is fitter, smarter, more driven, and a better parent. To return to Shauna Ahern’s metaphor of the marble counter, it often feels like I am spending all my energy to keep my little patch of counter clear and presentable, but the mess just keeps encroaching.
Which is where I find myself right now, in mid-December.
I love December. I love the holidays. For me, it the most soulful, spiritual month of the year, both a time to connect with other humans, and a time to dive inwards and reflect and make meaning out of the events of the past year. But it can also be a time when this frantic, almost unconscious drive to project an image of perfection can manifest itself. There is an exhausting impulse that seems to take hold of me to do and be all things, to make everything sparkle and shine. We spend every weekend cramming in as many activities as we can manage so I can check them off my list, and yet all I can seem to focus on are the things we don’t manage to do; we don’t send holiday cards or throw a holiday party. I never manage to get all of the handmade gifts I set out to make. We have never done a holiday photo shoot of our family dressed in beautiful matching outfits. And just when we get through Christmas, there is New Years, with its emphasis on making our lives over, committing ourselves to cleaner houses and cleaner eating. Never does the clutter and mess of the hidden side of our counters feel so unappealing and so shameful.
It’s funny, I am an avowed agnostic, and just about as liberal as they come. I am not someone you would expect to be suggesting that we “put the Christ back in Christmas.” And yet. I find that the older I get, the more I am drawn to the imagery of the Christmas story. For me, it is a narrative about a family who need help finding shelter and warmth in an unlikely space, and about the power of giving whatever humble gifts you can offer another. The scene in the stable represents a profound moment of calm and love that comes to a young family when they are alone and vulnerable because a group of strangers, both human and animal, offer them comfort and care when they need it.
Indeed, all of the winter holiday traditions that I can think of celebrate the idea of bringing light and warmth to a very dark time of year. There is hope that the sun will return, the days will get lighter and longer and easier, and that in the meantime we will get through winter by gathering together, sharing whatever it is that we have. I am not sure how this season came to be marked by the pressure to out-do each other, rather than the impulse to offer what we can to those we love. This year I simply don’t have the energy to best anyone in the glitz department. I will never win if I my goal is to have the most impressive holiday decorations, or be the best hostess, or make the very best gifts for everyone I know. All I can do is hold in my heart this spirit of humbly offering what shelter and warmth I can for others, and for accepting what those I love are able to give me in return.