Full of family, friends, good food and goodwill toward all, the holiday season is a magical time. And once a chubby-fisted baby enters the idyllic frost-laced scene, all the sweetness and joy intensifies. Right? No. This a myth, a myth more powerful, more deceptive, than the delusions of Santa and Rudolph dancing through your head.
No, I’m not a Grinch. I go for broke at the 99 Cent store, stocking up on sparkly holiday décor and jingly bells. I prance my toddler around in the cold to look at lights and drink hot chocolate in the frosty air. And I’m the first to admit that it is pretty magnificent to watch your child’s sticky face shine as she gapes at the haphazard lights on your crooked little Christmas tree, to hear her breathless “Oh wow” when confronted with a life-size inflatable Santa that you, personally, find terrifying. To witness the ecstasy and chocolate smeared all over her face while baking cookies and chowing on chocolate coins. But that is only part of the picture, the part promised by the photo cards on your fridge and the holiday songs looping through your head. That’s not what the holiday season really feels like for parents of small children, not at all.
Remember the hangovers that followed the wild holiday parties of your youth? You don’t get those anymore, but the illnesses your children will pick up during the holidays, aka “sick season,” are remarkably similar. Projectile vomiting, extreme fatigue, thrashing in bed and clinging to your sheets (or in this case, your mother), ceaselessly whining from aches and dry mouth. History will repeat a twisted version of itself right before your eyes. If your mother is nearby, she’s likely smirking in delight, glass of mulled wine lifted, toasting your first steps on the long journey of motherhood.
The holiday season is a difficult time for many, and young mothers are an often-overlooked component of this struggling group.
If your child is not sick on an actual holiday, forcing you to balance a paper plate loaded with turkey on your lap as you hold her hair off her face while she vomits, or hacks and wheezes all over your mashed potatoes, she will get sick in the busy weeks leading up to the holiday. You’ll do most of your shopping on your phone, in the sterile air of doctors’ waiting rooms. You’ll be forced to take so many days off work to care for your child that when you get sick — and this is inevitable — you will have to drag your aching, nauseous self onto the subway and manage to teach that class or sit through that meeting, or risk getting fired.
On a merry and bright note, you’ll have no time to worry about how many sugar cookies you stuff into your mouth because stopping indulgent grandmas from sending your child into a full-blown sugar coma is a full-time job. There goes Meema, slipping a heaping spoonful of whipped-cream into your over-stimulated child’s mouth on her way up to bed. And Nonie, slipping M&Ms onto her dinner plate. Last year, my daughter was given so much chocolate on Christmas Eve, she vomited on the drive home. Gross? Not at all. Why? Because her vomit was something like 85 percent cacao, and the rest refined sugar; it smelled like home-baked chocolate chip cookies. A fondue fountain, exploding in the backseat of grandma’s car.
Of course, you’re supposed to let it all slide off your back. Abandon routine with glee. Let loose a little, enjoy yourself, your nearest, dearest and strangest relatives urge. What no one understands, or has conveniently forgotten, is that you can’t. Eventually, your toddler is going to have a meltdown — be it from the sugar, the disregarded bedtime, the hours of exposure to frenetically blinking lights. Someone has to behave, has to remain sober, vigilant and responsible. And that person is always, without exception, you. Chances are, this meltdown will happen when festivities are at their peak, long before anyone else is ready to call it quits.
So you will retreat into a cool, dark bedroom, and struggle to make space for you and your wailing toddler amidst mountains of winter coats. Random faces will pop up in the doorway, not to help, but to assure you that it’s okay, there’s no reason to get upset, and will then wait for you to smile and assure them that they’re right. You’re okay; the stress is worth it. You and your toddler will finally fall asleep with your tear-stained faces pressed together, your heads wedged between a down jacket and an oversized leather purse. One of you will wake with an unfortunate faux snakeskin print on your cheek. And of course, on the drowsy commute home, with your child’s legs hugging your waist as she sweats and dreams happily against your chest, you will realize that yes, it is worth it.
With age I’ve learned that gratitude often thrives in times of great difficulty.
But this doesn’t make the experience any less exhausting or isolating. The holiday season is a difficult time for many, and young mothers are an often-overlooked component of this struggling group. From the outside, I can understand why. We are surrounded by abundance, and in a world where so many are lacking, it feels like a duty to appreciate this wealth of vitality, to be grateful. And I am, profoundly, grateful. But with age I’ve learned that gratitude often thrives in times of great difficulty; for happiness is, in many ways, an oblivion. So yes, I am grateful for every maddening minute I spend with my toddler. That gratitude is the life vest that keeps my head above water while everyone else is drowning in spiked eggnog. And I wouldn’t change that for all the pumpkin pie and picture-perfect yule log scenes in the world.
What I want to say to all the parents of small children is: when you want to shred the photo cards of other people’s offspring smiling in Santa hats, to tear the ornaments off the tree, to run wild with a blazing Menorah, setting the world on fire — you are not alone. Gratitude can coexist peacefully with rage, and no one knows it better than you.
After experiencing a traumatic c-section, this mother sought out a doula to support her through her second child’s delivery. Watch as that doula helps this mom reclaim the birth she felt robbed of with her first child, in Episode Three of Romper's Doula Diaries, Season Two, below. Visit Bustle Digital Group's YouTube page for more episodes, launching Mondays in December.