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Taming My Inner Martha

I admit I have a controllilng nature. It's a character flaw I inherited from my family-- an infamous Dowling trait, if you will. Maybe it goes along with having a strong personality. Or maybe it's just the product of deep neurosis.
I have noticed sharply this year how much I try to control things as I work with my capable three year old at decorating the house for the .holidays. All the old behavior I remember from my chilhood comes up around the decorating of the tree. Last year at two Cayce had some impulsive moments when he threw fragile ornaments across the room, so this year I was a bit apprehensive as we took the fragile glass ornaments out of their boxes.


But my son has grown a lot from two to three. He was intent on hanging every single ornament he could get his hands on. He did it carefully.  He just had a tendency to keep returning to the same spot on the tree. Instead of letting him hang them where he wanted I found myself rehanging them, trying to gently advise him about the importance of spreading the ornaments out. I let go of the strict idea leftover from my childhood that the smaller decorations must be hung toward the top, with the larger ones toward the bottom of the tree. But I had a hard time letting go of my need to space them all out, despite my knowing that by doing so I was undermining my chid's efforts.

It's strange and a little terrifying how deeply ingrained behaviors can be-- even negative ones-- maybe especially negative ones!

The lesson was brought home when I watched Cayce's father taking the exact opposite approach.  Cayce would hand his father an ornament, engaging him and getting him to participate in an activity he doesn't normally get involved with.  (Bless this child). And father would give his son all the control, saying,"Where would you like me to hang it?"

Humbling yes.  Though I expected that daddy had been listening to me from the bathroom and was now laying on his opposite approach extra thick.

As the youngest of three kids I always got flack for breaking ornaments.  We would be unwrapping the beauties from their paper towell wrappings, oohing and ahing over the morsels of history, and someone would warn me, "Don't break it,"  And what would I invariably do? Break it. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. It became my shtick. My role in the family. The youngest. The incapable one. The klutz.

And now I have become a mom who tends to be overbearing about ornaments. Its so strange, and a little terrifying, the way we unconsciously impose on others the things that have been imposed on us.

Despite my ability to see myself, curved and small in the light of a shining ornament, despite seeing my tragic controlling flaw, I acted out these impulses again when stocking hanging time came.  Father and son were having a good time hanging the stockings from the cabinet, father with a real hammer and son with a toy one,  I had to jump in and correct them because they weren't doing it "right."  They weren't hanging them from the tabs on the corners so that they would hang on an angle. Daddy was banging the tacks into the center of the stockings so that they hung straight. I don't know why
 my inner Martha has to rear her ugly head in moments like these. Does it really matter? All that matters is that they enjoy doing it together.

When, after a bit of a tug of war, we had finally finished, my child with his uncanny sense of context, quoted from The Night Before Christmas; "The stockings were hung from the chimney with care."

I guess you could call it that.  But sometimes taking care just means stepping back.



I remember a Christmas when I was perhaps 10, and my 5-year old sister was first hanging her own ornaments on our tree.  My mother noted that my little sister took only little ornaments, and that she placed them only down low where she could reach, so one little part of our (to me) huge tree was filled with tiny balls.  But her observation was stated with such love that i knew it was admiration for my sister's care and diligence, and not a criticism that the tree wouldn't look "balanced".  It was a great life lesson for me, although I didn't of course have a clue at the time.  Celebrate the child's achievement, don't compare it with a perhaps unreasonable expectation.

Which is why I always say that if I could be half the mother my other was my children will be so fortunate.