It’s that time of the year that fires up the panic mode for most Mamas I know. Yes, it’s time to create the dreaded…I mean treasured… Christmas card.  For most of the young Moms out there they have been planning and staging this since last year’s cards went into the recycling bin. For those of us seasoned (I prefer this adjective to old) Moms…it’s a last minute scroll through the phone for a suitable image before the final ship date ends on Shutterfly.

Having children during the time when social media was not even a thing (gasp…perish the thought), and living hundreds of miles from my family, the annual Christmas card and letter was the only way most of my family saw my children grow up. Legend has it in the hills of NC that these letters have been shared with people for miles around! Ok …so maybe just a few neighbors.

Over the years, I have certainly had my fun as the “good southern mama” picking out matching sibling outfits complete with large hair bows to match. Now I assure you that the process that ensued to get said photo was not as much fun as shopping for these items. The events in the days preceding the glorious portrait session went something like this:  one child would fall and get a mark on their face that left a bruise that could warrant a call to social services, the stomach bug would be running rampant through one child’s school, and in general the other child was just in a foul mood.

If we were fortunate enough to get through the first round of hurdles, the next round was the actual dressing of children. Let’s remember these were children who wanted no part in this play drama I was creating. The whining, the screaming, the crying …and that was just me! Oh…and let’s not forget the husband, who in his defense, was extremely cooperative as long as this session was over by football kickoff time. No pressure!

Finally, we arrive at the photo site, and I thought I was home free, but there was one final barrier to that perfect Christmas card shot. Getting them all to look at the camera and smile at the SAME TIME! By the way, the video footage of this would be beyond hilarious to watch about right now. It was a combination of how you envision cheering for your child in the Olympics, complete with borderline child abuse threats and a touch of bribery as needed.

Every year I would swear I was not going to put myself or my family through that again, yet I did. However, over the last ten years, our yearly family photo sessions just didn’t happen. As life got busy and digital cameras/phones took over I began to snap my own images and use those for my Christmas card.

Last year my husband and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. To commemorate that milestone, we wanted to have family portraits taken at our Alma Mater, East Carolina University, where we met, and our story began. The old photo prep skills, though a bit rusty, came back like riding a bicycle. I went to the local University Book Exchange and found all kinds of cool matching Pirate attire. Next, I proceeded to secure our photographer and map out all the locations on campus where these magical photos would take place. One thing I was sure of …this was going to be nothing like trying to get photos of 3 toddlers! We got this.

WRONGO! On our first attempt to do photos, my husband became ill and had to spend the night in the hospital, strike one. Round two was won by mother nature as torrential rain ruined our outdoor plans. On the third and final attempt, everyone was completely dressed ( and for the record I was having a great hair day) when I started throwing up. Yep, all that is a true story…couldn’t make it up if I tried. Needless to say, at that point I said …forget it!

Fast forward to one year later and I decided on a whim to try this insanity one more time. With our oldest about to fly the nest soon, I wanted one more family portrait while they all still lived at home. Although I knew we wouldn’t be able to do our pics at ECU this time, I figured together somewhere was better than no photo at all. So, on an unusually freezing cold afternoon in November our lifelong photographer and friend David Cain took these amazing shots.


On my initial scrolls through the proofs, I was struck with a deep sense of gratitude for the blessings over the last twenty plus years, but especially over the last year. As I looked deeper at these images, I saw what many will never see when they look at these photos. The ever-present hand of God watching over us and protecting our family like I had never sensed before.   It brought me to tears as I imagined just how many ways this photo could have been altered in the struggles over the last year.

For God knows the soul and “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey used to say. While the faces in our photos are of genuine happiness that day, the last year overall has been one of our most difficult for our family. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it can never tell you the story in the soul behind the faces.

It cannot tell you the story of how I battled depression through the darkest season of my professional life. It will not show you the despair in the heart of parents who found themselves completely helpless with a teenager debilitated by depression. It also cannot speak of the peer pressure, worries about safety, or fear for their futures that our children face every day.

Over the years as people spend more and more time on social media, I see a frightening trend in my office as a therapist. People see these polished images and think that behind these images these people do not struggle or have problems. This is such a dangerous attitude and one of the reasons I felt compelled to write this blog. The unrealistic thoughts related to these images leads to dangerous comparisons and feelings of being “less than”. These types of thoughts can lead to irrational expectations that contribute to anxiety and depression. I remind my clients, this is your journey and perfection should never be the goal. Real life is messy.

As you open your Christmas cards this season, don’t think for one minute that the moment captured came easily. Whether it was the struggle to get the photo itself or the difficulties that people have traveled since their last images, life is not easy for anyone. I invite you to hang the cards up,..celebrate each family…and pray for their hidden struggles that you will probably never know.

So this year, take your family picture…print it…post it …mail it…and celebrate your family! Most importantly, don’t forget to frame it as a reminder that some days things just come together, and when they don’t, have faith and press on for someone bigger than you can ever imagine is fighting for you. “The Lord will fight for you, you need only be still.” Exodus 14:14

As always, until next time may you be well, may you be loved, and may you know true peace.

Read more about Melissa C. Harrell and her work. Like Resiliency Counseling and Consulting, PLLC

The purpose of this blog is to offer educational information related to mental wellness. Resiliency Counseling & Consulting, PLLC and Melissa Harrell do not offer diagnosis or treatment through this medium. If you feel that you or a family member needs to access mental health services, first contact your primary care physician for assessment and direction in your area. If you need immediate help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.