Balancing Act: Christmas with older kids is a little too calm
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Balancing Act: Christmas with older kids is a little too calm

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Unrecognizable woman wrapping and decorating Christmas present

I wrapped Christmas gifts on my living room floor, next to our Christmas tree, at the perfectly sensible hour of 5:30 p.m. this week.

The kids were not in bed. One, in fact, was watching “Gilmore Girls” on her phone.

I did not hide what I was doing, nor did I hide the gifts before they were wrapped. They’ve mostly been sitting in my bedroom, next to my desk, in shopping bags. Not stowed away in our cold, scary attic or in the back of my closet behind the jeans I haven’t worn in 14 years but, hey, they might come back in style one day so take that, Marie Kondo.

Our Elf on the Shelf has never been more sedentary. My son told me three days after Thanksgiving, “I don’t think there’s really a Santa.” And I kept my face neutral. And he added, “And I think you move the elf every night.” And I kept my face neutral. And he kept his face neutral. And then I said, “It was fun all those years though, wasn’t it?” And he said, “Yeah.”

So now the elf just sits there. Not one single time this year did my husband or I wake up in a cold sweat at 4 a.m. and say, “The elf!”

No one is begging to go to Winter Wonderfest at Navy Pier. No one is begging to drive around and look at holiday lights. It was like an isentropic flow equation to find an evening they were both free to have dinner by the big tree at the Walnut Room with my mom, an annual tradition we started when my daughter was 8 weeks old. They were happy to go, but they weren’t counting down the minutes to go, the way they used to.

The weeks leading up to Christmas are … calm this year. It’s making me a little sad.

Calm is relative, of course. We’re still squeezing a dozen extra activities/errands/outings into each week. Buy a tree and put up a tree and string some lights and bake some cookies and buy an ugly sweater for the winter dance and a coat for the winter coat drive and a plain black shirt for the winter band concert and gifts for the family we adopted and gifts for our friends and another gift for the office gift exchange and Frangos for all the teachers and then chaperone the dance and applaud at the concert and bring wine to the grown-up parties and give genuine thanks for all of it.

But it’s happening against a backdrop of calm at home. I’m choosing the word “calm” because it feels better than the word “apathy.” And I don’t think my kids are at apathy levels yet — they helped decorate the tree, they open Advent calendars, they sing along when I play Christmas carols in the car. But they’re shrugging a little bit more. They’re opting out of a little bit more.

They’re staying in the other room while I wrap gifts.

Honestly, it’s so much easier. I’m getting more sleep, and every once in a while I even go to the gym, and the other day I started reading a book. In December! A book!

But I miss the chaos. I miss them not being able to sleep as soon as it turned December because December, the whole of it, was magical. I miss them begging for more — more outings, more stuff on their lists, more hot chocolate, more marshmallows, more ornaments, more glitter, metaphorical and actual.

The year I got divorced, I had to keep my holiday decorations in a storage unit because my new condo was so tiny. I remember dreading the day I had to take my kids, then 3 and 7, to retrieve our lights and wreaths and candles from this grim, artificially lit, eerily quiet warehouse of other people’s stuff. What have I done, I remember thinking. What am I doing?

I also remember my children skipping up and down the empty halls of that storage place. They hollered Christmas carols at the tops of their lungs and listened for their echoes. They played hide-and-seek and laughed a lot. It was December, after all. It would take a lot more than bad lighting to dampen their spirits.

I will never be that mom who says to young parents, “Enjoy every second.” Every second is not enjoyable. So many of the seconds are truly unenjoyable. You are exhausted and you are worried and you are pretty sure you’re doing it all wrong and someone always has an ear infection. (You hope! You hope it’s just an ear infection!)

But I will be the mom, this year, who says to parents who celebrate a December holiday and whose kids are still young enough to believe in the magic and refuse to fall asleep and hop out of bed to find the elf and beg for more, more, more: Look for the beauty in that chaos.

Try to cherish how utterly thrilled you are able to make a child, how much delight they take in your efforts, how pure it all is.

I knew all along it was fleeting. I knew they would grow and change and become wonderful in different, less outwardly enthusiastic ways. But I didn’t realize how quickly it would happen. I didn’t expect to be reading a book in December. I didn’t expect this gained time to feel a little bit like loss.

Calm is lovely and restorative. Joyful chaos, though, there’s nothing like it. Wishing you and your family a blend of both over the next couple of weeks — with chaos taking up a little more room than calm.

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Join the Heidi Stevens Balancing Act Facebook group, where she continues the conversation around her columns and hosts occasional live chats.

hstevens@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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