- Melissa Petro is a freelance writer based in New York where she lives with her husband and two small children.
- On Christmas in 2017, Petro says she broke down and spent the day hiding in her bedroom after weeks of planning, buying, gift-wrapping, and decorating (all on top of her work and regular mum duties) drove her to exhaustion.
- The emotional labour of the holidays can be dangerous for working mums’ mental health, Petro says, especially amid the pandemic when disposable income is tight and stress is high.
- This year, Petro wants fellow mums to feel empowered to slow down and embrace a low-key holiday celebration, and to “let go of perfection and be grateful for what we have.”
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From Elf on the Shelf to cookie swaps, family photo shoots to office parties, and countless other tasks that have somehow become a tradition, the holidays can be the most wonderful â€” and exhausting â€” time of the year for parents balancing family and work.
Even before becoming a mother, I bought into the misconception that bringing holiday cheer was somehow my responsibility by nature of my gender. In my lifetime, I’ve baked and decorated innumerable holiday cookies and signed, sealed and sent thousands of seasonal cards.
This year, as in years past, I’ll have researched, purchased, and wrapped the presents just in time for Christmas morning, when mums like me everywhere will drag their families downstairs in matching pajamas for monogrammed mugs of hot cocoa in front of roaring fireplaces to snag the perfect shot for Instagram.
Working mums put in extraordinary physical and mental effort during the holidays, often in addition to our jobs that pay â€” and this year, in the midst of a global pandemic.
Before we cue up another holiday movie or race back out in the snow in search of a last minute gift, might I humbly suggest we justâ€¦ stop. Relax. Enjoy whatever’s behind the remaining doors on the advent calendar you procured back in November. Yes, you’ll remember yet another someone to whom you really should have sent a card. As Elsa says: Let it go.
‘Tis the season we feel overextended.
I’m talking to you, but really, I’m talking to myself.
My first Christmas in our new home, I felt an extreme pressure to create the ‘perfect holiday,’ to establish holiday rituals and ensure everyone’s happiness â€” especially my in-laws’, who had flown in from the UK and stayed in our home for over a month.
In anticipation of their arrival, I decked the heck out of the house. That year’s tree stood eight foot tall, its branches bowing under the weight of at least a hundred vintage ornaments. For most of his parent’s visit, my husband was away at work while I played hostess in addition to my usual responsibilities as a work-from-home mum.
On top of my work as a writer, I cooked three meals a day, made snack platters of cheese and crackers, and trays of baked goods, all in advance of Christmas dinner, which would consist of an oven roasted turkey with six or seven side dishes and no less than three homemade pies.
In anticipation of Christmas morning, I spent all month selecting meaningful gifts for everyone.
When it came to our then-2-year-old, I went all out, running all across town for at least a dozen carefully considered presents destined to be lost among the rest of his junk.
No matter how much I did, it didn’t feel like enough.
The night before Christmas Eve, my husband dared express irritation that I’d wrapped everything before he’d had a chance to look at what I’d bought. He’d started a new job some months earlier, and was stressed out about finishing all his work prior to the holiday. I could have cut him â€” and myself â€” some slack; instead, I stewed silently.
That Christmas morning â€” amid a sea of wrapping paper I felt obligated to clean up â€” I broke down. All the planning, schlepping, buying, wrapping, decorating, cooking, and cleaning had caught up with me. Although I hadn’t been left out of the gift giving, I felt my efforts had been under-appreciated. Instead of relaxing in front of the fire, watching my son explore the toys that “Santa” had brought, I hid the afternoon away in my bedroom.
The emotional labour working women do this time of year threatens our mental health.
That Christmas was in 2017, the same year that Gemma Hartley published “Holiday Magic Is Made By Women. And It’s Killing Us.” In that article â€” which has since become a seasonal fixture â€” Hartley argued that the physical and emotional labour of the holiday season falls disproportionately on women, leaving us feeling exhausted and burned out.
This claim was corroborated by a 2006 national survey by American Psychological Association (APA), which found that 44% of women report higher stress levels over the holidays, compared to just 31% of men.
Studies like these, and experiences like mine, suggest that perhaps it’s time we reject the message that it’s up to working mums to make the holiday ‘perfect’ for everyone else.
After that first frenetic holiday, I’ve gone easier on myself and my family. So what if the wrapping paper isn’t perfect, or if I didn’t find a wreath for the front door, or if a string of lights has gone out on the tree? At the end of the day, it will all be quietly taken down, and everyone will have enjoyed simply spending time with each other.
Things may be even more low-key this Christmas â€” and that’s OK
Thanks to the pandemic, over 300,000 Americans have died, unemployment in the US is high, and millions report that their households did not get enough to eat or are not caught up on rent payments, much less have disposable income to spend on lavish gifts or holiday decor.
Still, I see mums on social media desperately hunting down those impossible-to-find presents in spite of additional challenges brought on by the pandemic. They’re holiday crafting with their kids in addition to remote learning. Some are planning elaborate feasts and hosting enormous family gatherings in spite of health experts’ desperate warnings to fight COVID and not contribute to another surge.
Yes, it’s tempting to double down and invest even more time and energy into a holiday so magical it will compensate for this entire garbage-fire year. Instead, I remind myself what’s always been true: The day won’t be ruined if I don’t have the eggnog ready to serve at just the right moment, or if there’s pine needles on the rug, or if the wrapping paper hasn’t been tidied before it’s time to serve brunch.
This year, more than ever, we working mums should feel empowered to let go of perfection and be grateful for what we have.
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