Learning to Bend

Dr. Esther Perel, a well-known psychologist and a source of inspiration for me, says: “Bending is what we’re called to do when we can’t change our circumstances, when we can only change how we react to them.” This spoke to me deeply. Not only is it an important concept for stepfamilies to embrace, but it’s important for everyone. I haven’t always found it easy to bend, but recently, I did just that.

Every year in December since I can remember, my family would drive to the mountains to search for a Christmas tree. We would hike up and down the hillside until we found “the” tree. Then we’d cut it down, tie it to the top of the car, and watch it nervously as we drove home.

The tree was a predictable source of joy for me while growing up. We’d decorate it together, watch as a few gifts slowly accumulated underneath its boughs, and play games around it. I wanted this tradition to last forever. When I was a teenager, my father grew weary of the work involved and would occasionally propose getting a tree from a local lot. I protested loudly. How could he even consider that?! At my insistence, we continued cutting down our tree, although my father put his foot down about flocking it; no matter how hard I tried to get him to change his mind, he didn’t like the mess and wouldn’t give in.

As an adult I continued the tradition of driving to a tree farm to choose a tree with my own family, even when I moved out of state. We’d take pictures of our kids amongst the trees, name our tree, shout “timber!” as the tree was falling, and sip hot chocolate afterwards. It was my idea of the ideal holiday time. Even when the kids argued or when the tree saw hardly worked or when we battled with the tree stand to get it to work properly, I held on tightly to the tradition.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when my teenage son said to me, “Please don’t make us go cut down our tree this year.” He didn’t even want to get a tree from a lot. I knew I couldn’t change his mind and there would be no joy in the experience if I forced him to go or if I went without the kids. My daughter didn’t want to go, either. It was time for me to bend.

Bending is another word for adapting. Although we have a lot of power to create the lives we want, there are going to be times – especially in our relationships – when adapting is the way to connect, move forward, and experience more of what we really want. This flexibility is vital if we want to reach our goals. It is a dance that can feel awkward at first for those without a lot of practice. Over time, it becomes easier and more enjoyable.

For as long as I’d held on to our tree tradition, as soon as my son spoke up, I knew it was time to bend. I immediately thought of all the challenges that went along with cutting down a tree and how much easier it would be to be to have an artificial one. I was already bending. Still, I checked in with the rest of the family, talked with my partner, and took some time to say farewell to my beloved tradition.

The joy of connecting around a family tradition is what was most special to me about getting a tree. I can still experience that, even if it doesn’t happen in the way I’d prefer. That’s bending. I ordered an artificial tree and everyone has agreed to assemble and decorate it together as a family.

I will miss the smell of a tree in my home, the unique character that each tree brings, and the repetition of a beloved holiday ritual. But more importantly, I’m leaning into the process of bending with my family so that we can build a new tradition and connect in a new way. That, for me, is the most important thing of all.  

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