My shoulders ache from all the tension I’ve been under. It’s early in Advent as I write this, and my family is in that season my aunt likes to call “Birtholiday Season.” Before you get all up-in-arms about calling Advent or Christmas “the holidays,” hear me out: My birthday comes hard on the heels of Thanksgiving, then we have two birthdays for three separate people on either side of Christmas day. In this midst of all this are the typical holiday performances that come with having three kids involved in the performing arts. Hence, “Birtholiday.”
My shoulders ache, because this is the year I’m setting down boundaries. I’m setting boundaries and losing the people who don’t like them.
I’ve said “no” to an invitation to dinner with people who say they want to celebrate my birthday but then habitually spend the entire dinner not talking to me except once or twice, and that mostly to criticize.
I’ve been part of telling family members that, if they disrespect me or my children again, our visit will be over and we will go home. We haven’t had to test that boundary with the primary offender yet, because that family member has been avoiding us ever since the boundary was first set down.
This is on top of starting my twenty-first year of not communicating with an entire side of my family — not because they don’t make turkey the way I like or bought me an ugly pair of earrings or some other petty reason, but because, when I disclosed family sexual abuse, they took the abuser’s side. My abuser is invited to family events. I am shunned and mocked.
I’ve said it elsewhere, but Christmas is not supposed to be like this. I cry out to God about how unfair it is, how unjust — and nothing seems to change. The hurt never goes away. It only burns a wider hole in the fabric of my heart. The more I stand for the truth, especially for the truth that I am a beloved child of God worthy of respect and cherishing, the more connections reveal themselves as false, and those people back away from my life. And setting those boundaries, those good and holy standards that keep others from sin and hopefully prod them towards God’s mercy? Well, all it’s done is leave me with an emptier house at our Christmas dinner. It leaves me with kids who have questions I can only answer painfully. Why didn’t you want to go out for your birthday dinner? Is Uncle So-and-so coming to Christmas? Worse, perhaps — I don’t know, really — it leaves me with some kids who don’t want to ask questions about family anymore, because they’re just as hurt by and tired of the conflict as I am.
My shoulders ache from the tension of carrying this cross of family loss — loss of trust, of respect, of connection and belonging. Whom can I trust? Who will respect me, and whom can I respect? Where am I loved? Where do I belong? These are the cries of every heart pierced by family trauma. Christmas is not supposed to be like this? Family is not supposed to be like this.
“All who recite the Rosary are my sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters of my only Son Jesus Christ.” Thus reads the fourteenth of fifteen promises of the Rosary. Why do I pray the Family Rosary? Because I’m a lay Dominican and I said I would? Because it’s something Catholic families are “supposed to” do? Yes, if I’m honest, those things are part of why, but really? It’s because I know the Holy Family is the only real family I have, the only real family I can rely on.
And of course they are. Their Christmas was spent in an ancestral home but not one that surrounded them with love, protection, dignity, or honor. Their lives were spent in standing up for the truth and losing the Truth to the earthly power of those who hate it, but that was not the end of their story. It’s not the end of mine. It’s not the end of yours. Our lives, like that of the Holy Family, is a mystery of suffering that ends in triumph after triumph after triumph. With every “no” to others’ sins, we make a feeble but precious echo of Mary’s “Yes.” Healthy boundaries create a space in which Truth may be conceived. In that space, Christ’s saving work begins anew.
My Advent and yours may feel more like Sorrowful than Joyful or Glorious Mysteries. Thanks be to God: When we bring our family suffering into the Family Rosary, we place ourselves in good company with Mary’s sons and daughters, Jesus’s beloved brothers and sisters. And when He comes back to get us, He will bring us to a family gathering that will make us forget all those earthly parties we missed. Mary promises, and she keeps her word.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come soon. Until then, please help me keep this cross on my shoulders, no matter how much it makes them ache.
To Ponder: How can you use family brokenness to connect more deeply with the sufferings of Christ and his Mother?
Copyright 2019 Erin McCole Cupp