As a cradle Catholic, I never thought I’d get a divorce, but I ended up with one earlier this year. Since we came to the decision, I’ve been dreading Christmas — the decorations, the Santa visits, the holiday cards. Christmas seemed all about perfect families and frameable moments, and this year I didn’t want any part of it.
I grew up in a conservative, middle-class suburb, where in my mind family meant two parents, at least a couple of kids, and where divorce was rare. I assumed that would be my future, too. But life happened, and despite my partner and I both being fundamentally good people who tried our best, we simply didn’t work together.
I spent the early part of the year stubbornly wishing my family looked like my perception of everyone else’s and feeling like a failure because it didn’t. But a conversation with a Catholic priest helped me reframe my expectations. He suggested that my family, however it looked, wasn’t less than any other. The Bible is full of nontraditional families, he said. Sarah is elderly with just one child. Jacob’s crazy in-laws married him to the wrong woman, and he ended up with two wives who birthed a nation of kids. Hagar raised a child alone in the wilderness, abused and forgotten by the people who caused her situation, but not forgotten by God. She too birthed a nation. And remember, the priest reminded me, the Holy Family wasn’t exactly a traditional one: an unplanned pregnancy and a virgin birth. Joseph was a foster father to Jesus. It’s not hard to imagine Mary and Joseph feeling ill-equipped to be good parents. They, too, were figuring it out as they went along.
Equally importantly, the priest encouraged me to reach out to my community. So I took a small step. I opened up to a friend about my loss. As it turned out, she’d been struggling with depression but hadn’t told me. I reached out to another friend. As a single woman without kids, she, too, felt on the margins this season.
Thinking about my divorce and Christmas had so consumed me that I hadn’t realized how reaching out might also bless others. My own feelings of brokenness weren’t as isolated as I’d believed. So many people I know are also struggling with conceptions of how we thought our lives and families were supposed to look compared to how they are.
I don’t believe Jesus would have intended the Christmas season to have this effect. I don’t believe he intended the perfect nuclear family to feel like a bludgeon to those of us who couldn’t make it work. I believe God has higher aspirations for our souls than trying to cram us into a Hallmark card.
One of my favorite moments in all of scripture happens in Jesus’ final moments before death. He sees John, his disciple, standing nearby and says to his mother — of John — “Woman, here is your son,” and to John, “Here is your mother.”
What a revolutionary idea. In a time when family meant lineage, Jesus wasn’t too preoccupied with biology. He knew that Mary’s nuclear family was coming to an end with his death, so he created a spiritual family for her by connecting her with his disciple. That scripture has always been special to me, but this year, facing the holidays as a different kind of family than I’d imagined, the thought of spiritual family brings me hope.
A friend came with me to take my kids ice skating. I’m planning to see “The Nutcracker” with other friends. It seems that for every ounce of loneliness this season brings, there is someone in my community to help fill it, if only I let them.
For now, I’ll focus on my upcoming trip to visit my extended family in Texas. And the fact that my kids have two incredible parents who love them completely, even if our family doesn’t look the way we’d hoped. Instead of shame, I’m filled with gratitude for all the love in our kids’ lives and the many forms through which it comes.
I don’t think it’s an accident that my sense of brokenness is the very thing that’s deeply connecting me with others. It seems to me now that the whole point of Christmas is that God would get to know us by entering our broken world. That he was a small and vulnerable baby boy, raised by his mother and foster father, in a family that didn’t look like any other.
Far from operating on the margins, I believe we are the very heart of this season. That’s the Christmas I’m going to celebrate this year.
Lauren Kosa is a Northern Virginia-based writer. She tweets at @LaurenKosa.