I had my first son in April, and by June, I was already thinking about Halloween.
I loved Halloween as a kid (that’s me and my best friend Annie in the picture, in homemade “wrapped present” costumes). Once my son was born, I could not wait to expose him to the joy that only a night of costumes and free candy can provide. I engaged in heated conversations (with myself) about the benefits and drawbacks of certain costume choices, which Reese’s (peanut butter cup or pieces) the kids in the neighborhood would prefer and the merits of trick-or-treating earlier versus later in the day.
As Halloween time drew near I was practically giddy with anticipation.
And then, on October 29th, it snowed. I should probably note that I live in New Jersey, not Minnesota. The unexpected storm was fun for about 5 minutes, until we lost power and the temperature in our apartment plummeted. When our power was finally restored, we were dealt an additional blow: due to the weather, Halloween in our town (and in virtually every town in the New York Metro Area) was canceled. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I was so disappointed, I cried a little.
I wish I could say that Halloween was the only holiday that wound up being a bust those first few years. As it turns out, virtually every celebration was a massive disappointment. For example, my son’s first Passover seder (my husband and I cleaning up matzoh detritus all night), first Christmas (toys ignored, empty boxes prized) and first birthday (very intelligent brother-in-law somehow cannot operate camera, precious memories never recorded). We celebrate all the major Jewish and Christian holidays in my family, so we were constantly presented with fresh opportunities for crushing disappointment.
Disgusted by these underachieving holidays, I initially blamed my fussy infant, the weather gods, my extended family, and anyone/anything else that I believed came between me and the young-mother-holiday-bliss I had expected for myself.
But the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that my kid’s behavior wasn’t the issue. Neither was the (weirdly apocalyptic-seeming) weather. The issue was me: I was overhyping the holidays. My expectations were wildly out of check, and the holidays could never meet them.
I always tried to craft the perfect holiday, but there were so many things out of my control. I could control what my kid wore on Halloween but I could not control the weather. I could buy my kid the cutest Christmas sweater imaginable but I could not control whether he was freaked out by Santa. I could lead my kid to the matzoh ball soup but I could not make him drink.
In my role as a psychologist who works with stressed moms, I talk a lot about the burden of expectations. We come to motherhood expecting certain things—about what our kids will be like, how certain events (holidays, first days of school, summers) will play out, and so on. And so often our expectations are not reflective of reality.
What I’ve come to understand, and what I often tell my patients, is that we can’t effectively navigate parenthood, especially during those early years, if we’re constantly stressing out over all of the things that did not go as we’d hoped. If we did, we’d be awash in a sea of disappointment, all the time (my first few years of holidays would have done me in, for sure). We have to be willing to adapt to circumstances as they are, and roll with them.
My oldest son is now 6, and I like to think that I’ve adapted relatively successfully. The key for me is setting my sights lower. At Halloween, this means simply hoping that my sons will walk around outside in their costumes for 5 minutes. Having a fulfilling Hanukkah party and Christmas dinner means seeing my mother and mother-in-law’s eyes light up as my sons enjoy the latkes (my mom’s) and the meatballs (my mother-in-law’s) they serve. Birthday parties that do not end with my kids bursting into tears are considered a wild success.
Now that it’s Halloween time again, I’m choosing to set my sights low. I’m just hoping that my kids have some fun, get some candy, and resist the temptation to strip off their costumes in the middle of the street (that was last year).
If we meet those goals, I’ll be grateful. I’ll take a breath, and then I’ll shift my attention to my next project: hosting a foodfight-free Thanksgiving dinner.
Wish me luck.