When Advent Is Hard

Yesterday was my big day to mail Christmas packages. For some people, saying "I'm going to mail packages at the post office" might be a statement roughly equivalent to saying, "I'm going to pick up a carton of eggs at the store." For me, it's up there with announcing that I am going to attempt to build a space shuttle and land it on the moon this afternoon: It's an activity that requires intense planning, careful timing, superhuman mental and physical effort, and has a high risk of spectacular failure. 

First of all, I had to choose a time when the post office wouldn't be too crowded (oh, how I cackle bitterly as I remember thinking this morning, If I skip the lunch and after work timeframes, it shouldn't be too bad!) Then, I had to get childcare. I briefly considered bringing all five young children with me, but as soon as I visualized trying to hold my place in line while juggling boxes and chasing kids around, I realized it was the worst idea I'd ever had and immediately banished the thought. Once I arranged babysitting, I had to tear through the house to find all of the items that needed to be mailed, many of which had been carted off by curious little hands.

Finally, I made it to the post office, with only my three-year-old and five-year-old in tow. When I opened the door I was a little daunted by the fifteen people in line in front of me, but I remained positive. I reminded myself how good it would feel to finally have this task done, and confidently took my place in the back, carefully balancing the stack of boxes that towered over my head. The line inched forward with slow but steady progress. My two daughters were behaving well (once we established that the Priority Mail boxes were not for use as dress-up hats). A long while later, I was half way through the line. Things were looking good.

And then, I heard the worst five words that a parent could possibly hear while in line at the post office:

Mommy, I need to potty!

I looked down with great trepidation to see that my three-year-old was indeed doing the toddler dance that indicates that a huge mess is imminent. "Are you sure it can't wait?" I asked, but I already knew the answer. I asked if this post office had a public restroom, but I already knew the answer to that too. In desperation I glanced at the line. I was more than half way through...but one of the employees had just gone on break, and based on what I saw transpiring at the single available checkout desk, the woman at the front of the line was evidently trying to mail the entire contents of her house to Mongolia.

My three-year-old's gesticulations were getting more and more ominous. After a brief cost-benefit analysis of getting the package mailed at the expense of a puddle in the middle of the post office floor, I let out a defeated sigh and told the girls we could go. I stepped out of the line, which now stretched out the door, and headed to the car. In an effort to keep the kids safe in the post office parking lot, which was like a demolition derby but with more angry honking, I ended up losing my balance, and all the boxes crashed to the ground.

When I finally got the kids and boxes safely into the car, I flopped into the driver's seat. Instead of beating the steering wheel while raging against the bathroom-less post office and all those inconsiderate people who dared to mail their packages on the same day I needed to, I just cried and made frustrated grunting sounds.

This happens every year. Almost as if it's a day on the Church's liturgical calendar, just after Gaudete Sunday I can plan on Meltdown Monday, when all my Advent failures hit me at once: I look around the house and see the stacks of Christmas cards that aren't mailed, the candles on the wreath that haven't even been lit yet, that gingerbread house kit that has been sitting in the pantry since Thanksgiving, the kids' Advent calendar that shows that it's still December 9th. Gift shopping has combined with little Christmas extras to leave us with an ominous bank balance, and I worry about making it through the month. Then I remember all that there is left to do: The kids were going to make that special piece of art for my grandfather, I need to order that one gift for my son, I need to get more things for that one child since her siblings have somehow ended up with more presents, and, of course, I still have to mail those packages.

This situation used to bother me a lot, but I think I am slowly coming to accept the fact that Advent is just going to be a chaotic season -- at least for me, at least in this phase of life with many young children -- and that that's okay. Some of the wisest words I've read on this subject came from Simcha's contribution to the Labora Editions Advent series of essays. While talking about pregnancy and childbirth, she writes:

And the big [birth] day itself? I don’t care who you are: no matter how holy or fit or hypnotized or drugged out you are, giving birth is horrible. Yes, it’s worth it. Yes, you choose it, and you want it to happen, and you’d do it again. But it hurts. It’s bloody. It’s messy, and exhausting, and sometimes you almost die. Just like the last week of Advent!

Her essay hit me over the head with a powerful point that I desperately needed to hear: We always want our special occasions to be perfect, but it is because they're special that they very often play out quite imperfectly. When you're expecting a new child you have all sorts of dreams about how you'd like to enjoy your pregnancy, the type of birth that would most bless you and your new son or daughter, the dreamy newborn period where you can cuddle and bond like an image from a Hallmark card. This is a big deal, so you want to do it right. And then you find yourself flat on your back with morning sickness, full of aches and pains for nine months. When your due date approaches, you haven't done half the things you wanted to do to make your house ready for the baby. The birth goes awry, the baby is colicky, and the first few weeks are about as un-Hallmark-card-like as they could be. And you know what? The baby is still here, she's still a miracle, and you love her no less than if everything had played out perfectly.

And so it is with Advent. Especially for those of us in seasons where we're trying to make Christmas special for lots of little people, it's almost inevitable that we're going to find ourselves overwhelmed. Yes, we can and should cut back all non-essential activities, but even then there is still a lot to do -- and when you're in a crazy season of life, there's little margin for error. It just takes one person getting sick or one unexpected bill coming in (or one person needing to go to the potty in the middle of a post office trip) to throw all your plans off track.

I think that my biggest source of stress about Advent used to be a feeling of failure. I thought that if I were just a better mom with better priorities we'd have a peaceful, prayerful December where we'd be able to engage in the wonderful traditions of the liturgical year without anyone breaking a sweat. Maybe that'll happen one day. But for now, given my temperament and the size of my household and the ages of my children, I've come to accept that Advent is probably not going to play out exactly like I'd hoped. What has finally brought me peace this season is to see the challenges and derailed plans as a natural part of a full life, and to remember that, like with pregnancy, there's going to be stress and aches and pains and unforeseen complications. But, also like with pregnancy, a little chaos doesn't make the birth of Christ any less momentous.