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Cut the Stress These Holidays, Do Things Your Way

Latest Stories
Latest Stories

You're the mum, do what you want.

For many mums, planning the end of the year comes with the mental load of a part-time job. There are social plans with friends, with schools and work, with family, there are presents to find and buy (and buy at the right time), money to consider, babysitting to arrange and expectations to manage. And that’s just the basics, there’s also food and drink to curate and buy, decor to consider, outfits, dietries, cleaning, and setting up to parent when your routine is out of whack.

All of this is compounded by mother-guilt. As Michelle Obama says in her book, The Light We Carry recently extracted in The Guardian, “Self-scrutiny is something women are programmed to excel at, having been thrust into systems of inequality and fed fully unrealistic images of female “perfection” from the time we were kids ourselves.” Adding, “For mothers, the feelings of not-enoughness can be especially acute. The images of maternal perfection we encounter in advertisements and across social media are often no less fake than what we see on the enhanced and Photoshopped female bodies that are so often upheld as the societal gold standard for beauty. But still, we are conditioned to buy into it, questing after not just the perfect body, but also perfect children, perfect work-life balances, perfect family experiences, and perfect levels of patience. It’s hard not to look around as a mother and think, is everyone doing this perfectly but me?” Obama herself admits to not being immune from this self-laceration, but who is?

Self-scrutiny feels more intense at the end of the year because the pressure for things to be the stuff of a holiday movie: magic family moments, perfectly presented children in Santa photos, everyone happy and grateful. We’re also just, exhausted. Therapist Jana Firestone explains that end-of-year fatigue is real. “We have completely burned through our emotional and energetic reserves and are likely to be pouring from an empty cup,” she said in an interview with Sarah Tarca for Body and Soul. She also explained that this year, our first of “freedom” post COVID lockdowns, the burnout feels particularly potent as, “We have spent much of this year re-engaging and remembering how to connect with people in a way that we haven’t for a long time. The stressors have increased while our personal reserves and resilience have been low, leaving us to battle through a perfect storm of energy depletion, poorer mental health and much higher stress levels.”

So. If you are feeling overwhelmed, underappreciated or just unable to find the energy to feel joyous about the things you usually do. Give yourself permission to pull back. Here are a few ways you can cut back, depending on what’s stressing you this festive season.

The Travel

The packing, the planning, the parenting at someone else’s house… it’s so much, particularly with small kids or if you’re pregnant. So cut it. When you’re starting your own young family, traditions change, and that’s OK. So even if you’ve already said you’ll do the three hour drive, or flight, it’s OK to change the plans. Go for less time or cut it all together. The people who love you obviously want to see you, but not at the expense of your mental health. Once you’ve made the call and let people know, you’ll likely feel a lot better. If you do decide to go, make it as easy for yourself as possible. Give the people you’re staying with the heads up on routine including when is best for them to eat, needs (ask for the darkest room if naps are an issue) and then take advantage of the help offered while you’re there.

The Money

It can be such an expensive time of year, particularly when you’ve been on parental leave or simply aren’t the dual full-time income, no-kids household you once were. It is entirely OK, to cut away family presents or make present rules, like a spend limit or Secret Santa game, to make things more manageable. It’s often more fun for the adults (who buy everything they need, anyway) to have a rule they can be creative about. You also don’t have to buy a heap of presents for your little ones, all the experts say it, and say it repeatedly, kids don’t need a lot of toys. You could give them just one special thing, or adopt the Want, Need, Wear, Read rule. The idea is that you only give four gifts to each child: Something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. With babies, they’ll be as happy to play with wrapping paper as anything else.

The Preparation

You do not have to do all the Christmas things. If cooking Nigella’s Christmas 20 is keeping you up at night, outsource. Allocate dishes to family members, simplify the menu (BBQs are very festive), or book a restaurant. You do not have to spend Christmas Eve Googling “sumac” and going to three supermarkets to find it. You do not have to line up at the fish market and then pay an extortionary amount for oysters. You do not have to have your backyard looking like a AD shoot, nor do your skirting boards need to be pristine. Outsource, cut, outsource, cut. Make it easy for you to also enjoy the day, and the people around you will enjoy more too. There is nothing less welcoming than a host stressing and slaving in the kitchen. People want to see you, not the stress a 58-step recipe has put you through.

The Pressure

OK. If the thing is, you really do want to do all the things, or some of them. The matching outfits, the cascading tree, the elaborate feast and Champagne, the daycare gifts, the gingerbread house making, the EOY girls long lunch, the squeaky clean house… then do it, but be OK with it not being perfect. Know that for every one perfect photo, there’s 50 bad ones. Know that you can put them in cute outfits, but they will be covered in food 1 second after you arrive. Know that someone will not want to play ball, something won’t cook properly, something will break, someone will be upset or sick… but enjoy it anyway. Be present, be kind to them and you, and embrace the chaos that is the holiday season with young kids. It’s the real Christmas magic, and it won’t be like that forever.

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