On Imperfect Gratitude

This essay originally appeared in our monthly newsletter for The Mom Hour podcast. To get our emails, subscribe here. –Sarah

November has a turning-inwardness about it, doesn’t it? After October’s raucous, costumed finale, many of us look forward to a quieter, more reflective month. We turn back our clocks and the days end darker, sooner. The weather invites us inside, practically requiring us to roast and stew things. We swear off sugar–at least until pie time (just me?). If we’re so inclined, we can enjoy the anticipation of the winter holidays; if not, we can put that off a little and just appreciate the satisfaction of hunkering down.

And, of course, we start thinking about gratitude–because the internet tells us it’s time. I’m guessing you’ve seen the popular thankfulness practices popping up online this month (are you participating in one? reply and let me know! I’d love to hear about it). You can post what you’re grateful for daily on social media, you can try a journaling practice, or you can include your kids and build a tree or fill a jar. If something less structured is more your speed (or if you just don’t have it in you this year–BEEN THERE), you can still absorb November’s attitude of gratitude by internet osmosis, appreciating it as a bystander and offering occasional silent thanks in whatever way feels natural to you.

In other words, no pressure to be grateful this month–online or elsewhere; if you are feeling grateful, however you choose to observe it is just fine. The practice of gratitude is what nourishes; the publicity of it is a lovely garnish you can take or leave as you wish.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m prompted or inspired to think of things I’m thankful for, the first things that come to mind are the areas of life that are on track, working well, or going according to plan. The cooling weather, a particularly sweet and easygoing phase for one of the kids, that conversation with a friend that meant so much. My personality (Enneagram 1, Upholder) naturally looks for things that are “right” and things that “need improvement” and I feel extra giddy (and, to be honest, a bit smug) when round pegs fit into the round holes I designed for them.

I’m not saying I shouldn’t be grateful for these things–there’s nothing wrong with pausing in thanks to acknowledge when things go well or fall into place just so. But there’s a darker flip side to this approach to gratitude: If I’m grateful only for the easy and perfect stuff, there’s a good chance I’m feeling resentful about the stuff that isn’t.

So I’ve been making an an effort to reframe gratitude and struggle in a new way, purposefully pairing instead of separating them, and challenging myself to find gratitude in less pretty and predictable places. In addition to giving thanks for the child who helps around the house without asking, I’m also grateful for the one who tests my patience and pushes my buttons. One makes life a little easier, the other invites me to grow; I am fortunate to have both.

I’ll be honest: this doesn’t come naturally to me. I resist pretty hard when things aren’t going the way I want, and acceptance is challenging enough, never mind actually giving thanks for life’s hard stuff. But like any other practice, it gets easier. I’ve started small, by being grateful for messes and mistakes, awkward conversations and stressful deadlines, tantrums and hormonal breakouts. My hope is that this creates new neural pathways and thought patterns, so that even the bigger hard stuff can be met with the same mindset.

Because conditional gratitude–being thankful for what you have as long as it’s what you wanted–isn’t really what we’re after, is it? The original Thanksgiving feast wasn’t a celebration of a Plan Well Executed; it was just the opposite, a coming-together in hope and weariness to say “Well, that didn’t go well at all, did it? And yet, here we are.”

So whatever kind of thankful you’re practicing this month, maybe there’s value in including something imperfect on the list. Maybe you’ll find this mixed-up acceptance/gratitude/struggle sandwich in a strained relationship or a broken dishwasher; maybe it’s something even bigger, like a miscarriage or a diagnosis. Whatever it is, I’m here with you, grateful for the growth that hard stuff brings with it, and for the opportunity to get comfier with imperfection.

(Also, I’m super cool with being thankful that you nailed your family photo this year, or that the weather cooperated with trick-or-treating. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. ;))

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

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