I’m not a holiday mother. I realized this early in the morning on Halloween this year, when I was prowling my kitchen in the manner of a lioness who didn't want to prepare cute seasonal snacks ahead of the evening, but felt a sense of obligation. I’m not good at this, I thought, and there was some comfort in that, in acknowledging to myself that making holiday magic is a part of parenting that just doesn’t play to my strengths. But I still had a problem, which was the holiday season.
It's not any specific element of cooking or decorating or gifting that I object to — in principle, I find all of these activities to be OK. Outside of the holidays, even fun. In practice, however, they all ladder up to the thing that fills my end-of-year with discomfort: intense anxiety around feeling responsible for ensuring that everyone is having a great time on a series of “special” days. Under the weight of expectations, I am squashed. It feels like an extra personal misfortune to me that my family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah, as well as my son’s birthday on the 21st of December.
I would be a terrible cruise director
This concern about other people having a good time didn’t just happen when I became a mom. I have never been good at relaxing and enjoying my own parties. When I cook dinner for friends, I have to check my urge to monitor them for indicators of enjoyment. I know it’s not nice to stare at people while they chew, but I do want to. When we got married, my husband and I eloped, in large part because I couldn’t handle the responsibility of hosting an event at which I knew I’d spend most of my time scanning the guests for the merest sign of disappointment or fatigue. I knew I’d take it personally.
What greater pressure is there than a series of days in which we collectively understand that the little people we love most in the world should be made to feel extremely happy?
Pre-children, I was sometimes able to cope with this anxiety by depending on other people to organize holiday celebrations and putting very little effort in myself beyond attending with a bottle of wine and a casserole. But the obligation of celebrating holidays with my own children has elevated my anxiety around this issue to a new level. What greater pressure is there than a series of days in which we collectively understand that the little people we love most in the world should be made to feel extremely happy? I can’t!
By contrast, I feel pretty good about myself as a normal-day mother, which is to say that when it comes to dealing with the usual ebb and flow of life with children — the high highs, the low lows, the mercurial flips from one to the other — I feel far more confident. I’m fairly calm. I don’t yell too much. If really pressed by a squalling infant, I chant it’s hard to be a baby under my breath. I make my toddler semi-wholesome meals and when he refuses to eat them I don’t take it to heart.
When he took a small nibble of a latke on the first night of Hanukkah, though, and crisply declared, “This is bad,” before dropping it back onto his plate, I struggled to sleep.
At least I’m not alone
Of course, my particular anxiety is just one way of many to dislike holiday celebrations as a parent. There is, of course, the onus of travel. There is the drama of annual interactions with extended family, whether they belong to you or to your partner. There’s shopping and gifting and wrapping and catering and precious routines cast aside in the name of fun.
The degree to which we can tolerate these various elements of the season is very personal. What we find intolerable is as well. Much research demonstrates that in two-adult, heterosexual families, mothers take on the burden of the holiday work, and the outcome of the work is very often that everyone has a lovely time — everyone, that is, but the person who is doing it. (My husband, I will note here, does not share my anxiety at all: When I tell him I’m writing this piece, he tells me not to worry. I ask him what he’s done to prep for the holidays. We end the evening in a huff.)
To cap off two years of upended routines and inadequate child care with the task of creative-directing holiday celebrations is simply too much. “The last thing we need right now is the added pressure to make our lives look like a Hallmark card,” says one of my best friends, a devoted and tired mother of twins. But opting out is really hard, even, or especially, under these circumstances: Being conscious of how much our kids are missing out on makes us feel like we need to do more. Another friend, Jill, who is a mom of one, has a C-section scheduled for late December, but "the pressure to create ‘the magic’ is still there," she tells me. "Will the house be dusty? Yes. Will the stockings be hung? Also, yes."
End the obligations!
Is there any hope for the non-holiday mother? Liza Pincus, Psy D, is a clinical psychologist who specializes in DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) and works with children, parents, and families, suggests that one way to ease my stress is through “a little bit of exposure therapy.” By which she means: Stop trying. Do nothing that feels obligatory. “Be really curious this holiday season,” Pincus recommends. “Do what you normally do, and just notice what thoughts and feelings come up and you can readjust for next year.”
This aligns with what I learn from Cait, a mom of two, ages 7 and 5, who loves making holiday magic. “It’s this series of warm, cozy rituals that guards against how depressing this time of year can be, and unlike a lot of other things where I put a lot of effort in for the supposed benefit of my kids, they actually enjoy it and look forward to it,” she says. While she’s not a habitual volunteer for, say, PTA events or fundraisers, she explains, “Christmas feels different — it feels like building a lore and set of memories that is very specific to our family, that one day hopefully they’ll carry with them to their own families. And it feels like an act of love, not of obligation.”
Reminding myself that my holiday incompetence can’t ruin my children’s lives makes me feel, if not festive, then a tiny bit jolly.
One of the things that can induce anxiety like mine, Pincus explains, is that “people are very much attached to outcomes [with the holidays]. It’s really hard not to be; you have certain expectations, society puts certain expectations on us.”
If you choose to disregard those nagging obligations to create holiday magic, Pincus suggests, “Your anxiety might be telling you, ‘Oh, my kids are going to hate me… my kid is going to look at me in this way... my partner is going to say this thing to me.’ And then [if you were my patient] I would have you do it and I would have you tell me what would happen afterward.”
Which, I have to admit, is probably nothing. Or at least nothing catastrophic. I’m not saying that this makes me look forward to the holidays. But reminding myself that my holiday incompetence can’t ruin my children’s lives makes me feel, if not festive, then a tiny bit jolly.