Over the holidays, a long-buried memory came roaring back to me: It is Christmas break, 2000. I am 23, back home in Montreal from Brooklyn, and I’m in my parents’ musty basement, alone. My entire family is upstairs in the living room, doing the only activity we Jews have ever done over the holidays: lounge. (Twenty years into his marriage to my sister, my brother-in-law finally asked, does anyone ever leave this house?)
I, however, am not lounging. I have my hands on my first-ever yoga CD and am on my mat, listening to Cyndi Lee tell me what to do with my body and my breath. I felt an unbearable need to escape It All.
Let me pause here: I have a delightful family that generally enjoys being together. But for as long as I can remember, even as a raging extrovert, I have felt overwhelmed by big family gatherings and have been the first to quietly decamp to my room or, in this case, the chilly basement.
Now, more than 20 years later, I still remember being down there with the muffled sounds of my family above, my dad at the piano, my sister’s huge laugh. How much I loved them but how desperate I was for some solitude, for a reminder of who I was now (a budding yogini, an adult), and not the child I’d been in this house (the little one, the cheerful one). How desperate I was to find some sense of order in this raggedy, endless holiday week. I needed an escape valve.
What strikes me now, decades on, is that it was my own private oasis: there was no social media, so I had nothing to prove to a vast world of people I barely knew. Nothing with the caption: Doing a little yoga in Mom and Dad’s basement! If I’d come upstairs and shared that I’d been doing yoga, someone would have asked to join me, and all I wanted was to be alone.
When January finally slipped past New Year’s Day, I joked with friends that we’d survived the worst week of the year on social media. This holiday, my husband and daughter and I stayed home and did a whole lot of nothing: TV, slime, walks, a truly outrageous amount of baking. But this did not stop me from looking at everyone else’s feeds — a steady stream of families out for tea at The Plaza or cozying up together in matching PJs. I didn’t understand it — it did not make me feel good, and yet I had to look.
I started to worry that I’d failed to give my own kid that kind of Big Family Energy. And I asked myself the question I always ask: how much of this is, like, real? Are these families actually this…copacetic? (And, of course, the inevitable follow-up: what is wrong with us?)
But then I got a hilariously vindicating text thread from a friend, a fellow mom, who’d been posting all sorts of beautiful things online: kids in school plays, a trip to a far-flung place, smiling relatives around the dinner table. Her texts read: I have Covid. Both kids have pink eye. I want to murder my spouse. Not a single text aligned with the photos. Not a one!
Back in the early aughts, when I could escape to my yoga mat but couldn’t share it online, the holidays felt somehow more real. They were glorious, and also, often, brutal. We were glad to be together, or maybe we fought a lot, or maybe we just got through it, and then we came back home and told our friends what it was: a mess of things, just like life.
So, I’m not saying I want to see my friend’s family hunched over the toilet, or that I want others to have a bad time, but I do crave a peek behind the scenes. Right now, all I want to hear after the holidays is: What was your escape hatch? Where did you find some space for you?
Don’t tell me the good things, the shiny things. Tell me the real stuff: the times you locked yourself in the bathroom to avoid your toddler; when you pretended to go out for a run even though you’re not a runner. Whisper it all to me. I promise to not tell a soul.
Abigail Rasminsky is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and writes the weekly newsletter, People + Bodies. She has also written for Cup of Jo on many topics, including marriage, preteens, and only children.
(Photo by A.J. Schokora/Stocksy.)