On the Saturday morning before Christmas, I ran into a friend, the mother of four, ten years older and far wiser than I am.
She had on a kelly green sweater, sparkly earrings, and MAKEUP. At 10 am on the busiest day of Stressmas – the frantic homestretch of shopping-cooking-decorating that accelerates up until December 25th every year.
“Where have you BEEN?” was my first question.
She rolled her eyes.
“My neighbor’s holiday cookie exchange. One of those mandatory women-only feel-bad events. You’re shunned by all the moms for the whole year if you don’t show up. Nine am Saturday? That’s the only time all the moms can make it — like we don’t need our sleep too? My husband and kids were still in bed when I left. “
“Did you BAKE?” was my next question, because I know she doesn’t.
“Of course not! But I did put a bag of Tate’s Chocolate Chip Walnut in a homemade basket with one of those Christmas napkins my mother-in-law gave me a decade ago.”
A 9 am holiday cookie exchange on the busiest shopping/tree-trimming/cooking prep day of the season? For cookies we won’t even eat ourselves? Why do we women do this to each other?
Women feel the stress of the holidays far more than men, according to an American Psychological Association survey assessing holiday stress levels. Women have a harder time relaxing during Christmas and Thanksgiving, with 44% reporting stress increases vs. only 31% of men. An additional 12% of men report their stress actually decreases during the holidays.
During the holidays, women are especially vulnerable to being all things to all people – our families, our employers, our neighbors, our kids’ teachers, and our friends. We try to do everything — celebrate at work, with friends, at school, and with family. Not surprisingly, nearly 70% of women feel stress from a lack of time. Over 51% feel a responsibility to make “everyone in the family” feel happy. Women report they are twice as likely as men to take on cooking, decorating and shopping for the holidays. Men, on the other hand, report they are twice as likely to watch football.
In my view, this crazy make-the-holidays-perfect frenzy is like the adult version of anorexia. A grown-up quest for a bizarre, impossible kind of perfect. A disease that disproportionately affects women, and one that can often annihilate any chance we have of finding peace and serenity during December.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why does our culture do it? Why does “family making” fall so disproportionately on women’s shoulders? How much is self imposed…and what can we do to reclaim the holidays for ourselves? Why are there no statistics on the kind, thoughtful, considerate actions we take for ourselves at the holidays? What can women do to stop Stressmas and bring back true Christmas joy?
As I was writing this, at 8 am on the Sunday before Christmas, I heard a mom’s voice outside my open kitchen window. She had a baby in a Snugli on her chest. There was another child in a stroller. A five year old stood close by holding her hand.
I remember what 8 am used to feel like when my kids were small. By 8 am I often had been up for almost three hours and had felt like I’d worked a full shift already.
“Look, look kids!” the mom was saying, pointing to my house with wonder.
One by one, she detailed the holiday decorations I had put up. I do this every year, by myself. My husband does not notice or probably care that I do it.
Some of the decorations are cheesy — plastic Santas and Snowmen, dripping icicle lights. Others are more tasteful, like the red holly bunches from Jackson and Perkins. I’d carefully positioned the living room window so people on the sidewalk could see a glimpse of the Christmas tree and its mishmash of colorful lights.
“It’s Santa…and Rudolph…Look at the pretty lights…”
And although she was a perfect stranger, she filled my heart with warmth and holiday glee. She granted me the kind of approval only another mom can bestow, more precious than five gold rings. I was a good mom in her eyes. Even though she didn’t know my name and I’d never see her again. She reminded me that I alone had created a happy, warm, festive, kid-focused holiday home for the upteenth time.
There was nothing crazy or stressful about the holidays right at that moment. I had slowed down just enough to appreciate the warmth and connectedness the season offers. I could actually be present to enjoy the wonder, a priceless gift from this other mother.
That is why I love Christmas. That is why I decorate, bake and wrap every year. And I can’t wait to do it all again next December.