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Home Alone with a Million Other Moms

When I try to recall what Christmas was like before kids, the memories are a bit fuzzy (like most, to be honest). My husband and I both come from small families, which cut down on a lot of the drama, and the biggest challenge was coming up with a compromise so we could see both sets of relatives for the holidays – a bit trickier as he is from another state.

Fast forward ten years, and “easy” is the last word I would use to describe the month of December. Between sending cards; remembering teacher gifts; contributing miscellaneous items and food for three different class parties; recalling the dress code for each holiday concert and purchasing the proper clothes for each kid; scheduling said concerts and reminding kids to practice their respective pieces; planning holiday parties; cost-comparing presents; figuring out stocking stuffers that are both cheap and won’t wind up in a landfill by that evening; sneaking in and hiding all presents from you-know-who as well as procuring separate wrapping paper that remains away from prying eyes; finding and decorating a tree; decorating the house; keeping up family traditions; as well as keeping track of that damn elf, it’s no wonder most moms feel like they have more caffeine than blood coursing through their body when December 25 finally rolls around. (It’s just an added bonus that half this list needs to be accomplished when the kids are home, because everyone knows that that makes getting stuff done so much easier, right!?)

We all know what Christmas is supposed to be about. Spending time with family, enjoying the magic of the season, sharing with those less fortunate, and basically being our best selves.

We also all know what Christmas generally turns out to be … at least for moms. If there’s one holiday that embodies the 3rd shift, it’s Christmas. The 3rd shift is a term Arlie Hochschild developed to describe all the mental work that women take on; it’s work that often centers on managing and enhancing interpersonal relationships. And what’s Christmas if not a whole lot of relationship management?

For most moms, by the time Christmas comes around we’re just trying to make it across the finish line and barely have enough spunk left to enjoy the day itself. It’s easy to say, “I’m not going to let the holidays take over,” “I’ll buy fewer presents,” “I’ll not go to every party” and so on, but even when these decisions are made, we often let the doubt and guilt take over. At that point, it’s just being caught in a devil’s choice.

My husband is typically a pretty hands-on dad, and he chips in by taking the kids out of the house for a few hours here and there so I can wrap presents and he runs to the store for last minute supplies without complaint, but the list above is one that often centers on my brain and hoping it doesn’t combust. See, the thing with emotional labor is that while running to the store or taking the kids out is certainly useful, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m the one delegating and then having to keep track of what actually got done. Often, it seems, it’s easier just to do it myself.

One of the basic tenants of maternal gatekeeping, which is when we don’t let our co-parents have total control of a task, is that mothers tend to be micromanagers who guard their turf too protectively. (I smell victim-blaming, but it could be the cookies burning.) In some ways, though, I get that and have been guilty as charged a few times. However, when my husband completely took over the kids’ sports schedule, I realized it’s a nice twist for me to have to ask him where and when the next game is rather than have that information be one more hurdle to jump over on my way to thinking about how I haven’t taken the bag of laundry to the dry cleaners for three weeks. Still, we are also both aware that sports stuff is a socially sanctioned task for men to oversee; picking out the right color tights for the holiday pageant is less so.

If my husband ran Christmas this year, the cookies would be store bought, the elf would likely experience a tragic accident that put our house on the “no-fly” zone forever after, and all presents would be bought on the 23rd and delivered via gift bag instead of being wrapped.  The rest would be left to live in a Hallmark museum of Christmas past. And when it comes down to it, I’m left wondering if this isn’t a better approach. We moms do all that we do because we love our little ones and because someone did a lot of it for us, but doing more doesn’t mean loving more. We want our kids to experience joy. We want them to know how much we love them. And sadly some of it is done to avoid judgment from other moms or assuage our own mom guilt.

When it comes down to it, we moms who have a partner need to decide if are going to: 1. continue as we are, doing all that we do and likely ruing the whole holiday (at least a bit), 2. hand off more of the work knowing that it might not get done the way we want it to, or 3. make tough cuts to the long to-do list. If it’s the second, we also have to consider if it really is such a big deal if the day doesn’t morph into a Norman Rockwell picture, which won’t happen anyway no matter how hard we try.  

My Christmas wish is to just show up one year with everything done so I can enjoy the magic of the day, because like most magic tricks, once the secret is revealed, it can feel like there isn’t much left to enjoy. But some of these tasks just aren’t going to go away whether we want them to or not. That doesn’t mean we can’t better manage how much we let the pressures of the season take over. Here are a few suggestions, that I promise to work on, too:

  1. Think ahead to what will be required, and outline how much you can do now. I avoid this because filling out Christmas cards when the leaves are still green seems nonsensical, but so is standing in an hour-long line to get stamps. If you don’t know what traditions are in place at your kids’ school, find out now, so you can get those ducks lined up beforehand. See if you can order flowers and other hostess gifts with a delivery date that makes sense.
  2. Delegate what you can to your partner, and then mark it done. If it gets done, great; if it doesn’t, the holiday won’t be a disaster … at least not one you won’t be able to laugh about next year.
  3. Ask your kids what is most important to them. Like O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” you may find that you are both doing something just to make the other person happy.
  4. Avoid artificial deadlines. I still enjoy the holiday cards I get in February and laugh in comradery with the women who send them then. Your kids’ teachers will appreciate a gift just as much when they return to school since most are understandably eyeing the door on that last day before break.  Volunteering is often needed more during the non-holiday months. Postpone what you can so you have more time to tackle what must be done.
  5. Avoid scope creep. One type of cookie is fine, the tree doesn’t have to look like a catalog, and some traditions are better left in the past. Stay off Pinterest. Like professional actresses, many of those women do the professional decorating thing as their job. You don’t need to keep up.
  6. And, of course, remember that the season, like motherhood, only improves when moms are taken care of, too.

I’m not suggesting that following these tips means you will coast through December with nary a care in the world, but I can say that if your partner can share the load a bit, you’ll not only have more time for each other but perhaps the day will seem a bit more magical for the whole family.


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