Some moms are pushing back against holiday stress – Help US


Beth Berry, a mother of four in Asheville, N.C., spent holiday seasons when her girls were young making everything as special as possible. This meant crafting homemade presents, decorating the house, traveling around visiting relatives — and running herself into the ground. “I thought that’s just what good mothers do,” she says.

She would find herself exhausted and worn out every year, unable to enjoy the actual holidays.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but what about the people tasked with creating the holiday magic? In a 2o21 poll by the University of Michigan, 20 percent of parents acknowledged that holiday stress — the endless to-do lists, planning and expenses surrounding the season — negatively affects their family life, with nearly twice as many mothers rating their stress level as “high” compared with fathers.

“The expectations put on mothers across the board are so high that it’s almost unmanageable,” says Katie Ward, a mother of two children, ages 2 and 5, in New York. On top of school pickups and drop-offs, and running her own business as a portrait photographer, the holidays bring a third shift of additional work, like being a personal shopper for everyone in the family: her kids, in-laws, the cousins. “It all falls on me,” she says. “It feels like there’s a never-ending to-do list on top of the never-ending to-do list that is parenthood.”

Then add to that the guilt of feeling like you’re not doing enough as a mother, she says: “It can be crippling.”

At the core of holiday overwhelming and over-functioning is the expectation of what “good” parents, namely mothers, are expected to do: create picture-perfect memories and rich holiday traditions for everyone, piled on top of the heavy mental load mothers already carry day in and day out managing their family’s busy lives. Researchers have been calling for greater societal recognition of mothers’ “invisible labor,” the hidden cognitive and emotional labor that operates within families and society. But, mothers can’t wait for sweeping social changes. They need help today to become more aware of the toll of these ever-rising expectations and find ways to push back.

Berry says her best holiday intentions were really about wanting to feel connected as a family around something meaningful, but all the running around prevented that. Cooking for hours on end, for example, meant that she would be in the kitchen listening to everyone having fun and connecting in the other room. “The resentment crept in when, year after year, I worked tirelessly to make things feel magical for others, meanwhile I felt exhausted and invisible,” she says.

A turning point came when she started thinking about the type of motherhood she was modeling for her four daughters. Did she want them to be running around trying to please everyone, feeding the kind of perfectionism that’s expected of mothers today? Or, did she want them to take care of themselves, too?

She came to realize that “being a present, more lighthearted mother” would be a better gift to her kids than “pretty pies and handmade gifts that took hours to make and no one really appreciated.” To model this kind of motherhood would require a conscious shift: slowing down and being more intentional about how she spent her energy. “I now say no to a lot to protect my own desire to move slowly,” says Berry, whose daughters are now 15 to 27. What Berry came to realize is that saying “no” to someone else’s request really meant saying “yes” to herself.

It’s not always easy to do. “Boundary setting is a skill you develop over time,” says psychoanalyst Robin Stern, co-founder and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. A critical part of boundary-making is being specific about your limits. Stern points to one evidence-based strategy that can help: creating a “feelings charter,” or a few words describing how you and your family want to feel at home during the holiday season or anytime.

“There’s something powerful about putting the emotions you want to feel as a group in writing and then being specific about what that looks like,” Stern says. For example, if as a family you want to feel “connected,” you might make a rule that everyone participates in preparing the holiday meal. The more specific you are, the more likely you can get your needs met. For families who have been struggling, these charters offer a hopeful pathway to less drama and stress, Stern says.

Upholding boundaries requires a tolerance for disappointing people. Disappointing people is one of the hardest emotions to acknowledge and to regulate, Stern say. Evolutionary psychologists theorize that saying no to others can feel uncomfortable because it goes against our evolutionary wiring, our basic need to make and maintain connections that once were critical for survival.

One way to cope with the uncomfortable feelings around saying no is to create some “family policies” this year, a list of things your family does and doesn’t do. So saying no, then, is not a rejection of someone’s request but an effort to uphold your family’s policy. For example, after years of participating in multiple extended-family gift exchanges, Berry opted out, saving time and money and hugely decreasing her mental load. Initially, she was afraid of offending or disappointing certain family members, but no one seemed to really mind. It was nothing personal, just something that they decided not to do.

Family policies can include positive things too, like new traditions that give a good return on your investment. “We sometimes have mistaken notions that a busy schedule equals stress, but not all commitments are the same,” says time management expert Laura Vanderkam, author of “Tranquility by Tuesday: 9 Ways to Calm the Chaos and Make Time for What Matters” and a mother of five children under 16. While the activities we don’t want to do may drain us, Vanderkam says, we tend to draw energy from things we enjoy doing.

With this in mind, Vanderkam keeps a yearly “holiday fun list” — a “yes” list of activities she and her kids look forward to doing. One favorite family tradition, for example, is building small, holiday-themed Lego designs and displaying past creations as part of their holiday decor. Another low-investment, high-return tradition could be watching the same Christmas movie together every year in matching pajamas, or touring other people’s light displays, like visiting a decked-out local zoo or driving through festive neighborhoods together as a family.

After years of struggle, Berry has made it her mission to help other mothers redefine what “good mothering” looks through an online community she has built, aptly named Revolution From Home, a place where mothers can recognize their human limits and how much they need the support of others. “Good mothering,” she says, requires being “rested” and “resourced,” and that requires a village.

“Hopefully just having an awareness of the unrealistic expectations placed on today’s mothers will eventually make it less desirable for us to take part in any ‘magic-making’ that happens at our expense,” Berry says. Rethinking our role as mothers isn’t just about dismantling old expectations but about creating what we want these years of parenting to look and feel like, says Berry: “It’s also about making room for you and your joy.”

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