A Survival Guide to the Holiday Season

A woman's guide to surviving the holiday season

Posted Dec 19, 2011

For years I would wake up at 5:30 in the morning every Black Friday, leaving the kids with my mother-in-law, and get to the mall by 6:15 am. Every year, I would return six or seven hours later, loaded down with presents, and my mother-in-law would say, "There you are! I took care of your kids while you went out and had a good time shopping."

I don't, in fact, have a good time shopping. Maybe I'm the only woman in America who thinks this, but the only thing worse than going shopping is going shopping in a mall. Still, my Black Friday blitz got a lot of the torture out of the way all in one day, and I didn't have to haul the kids from store to miserably packed store.

One year, when my kids were five and three, I decided I was sick of buying all the Christmas presents for everyone. So I made a deal with my husband: I would buy the presents for his mother, his father, his brother, his sister-in-law, his nephew, our kids, our kids' four teachers, our babysitter, my parents, and my three siblings' seven kids. He would buy the present for Sister Marjorie, his mother's cousin.

Well, I bought my twenty-six presents. He didn't buy his one. Shortly after Christmas, I got a phone call from my mother-in-law: Sister's feelings were really hurt that we had not gotten her something, just some little thing. And I thought: when it comes to husbands, what's scary is what the nice ones do.

I can't be alone in this. Do things get tense with your husband or partner around the holidays? If so, there's a reason - and a solution. 

The holidays are a perfect storm of three trends. The first is that women are expected to do what anthropologists call "kin work," or the conceiving, organizing, and executing of holiday celebrations, as Micaela di Leonardo details in her brilliant 1987 "The Female World of Cards and Holidays." Maintaining a sense of family "takes time, intention, and skill," she notes - "and men in the aggregate don't do it." Even women with full-time jobs were defensive about cutting back on "Christmas card lists, organized holiday gathering, multifamily dinners..." and all the rest of it.

The second reason that many women still feel overworked and overstressed during the holidays is that they still do 80% of the household management, which during the holidays expands to include everything from RSVP-ing to holiday parties to planning turkey dinners to wrapping presents. If my husband had manned up and bought Sister Marjorie's present, he would have gotten major points - but who would it have wrapped it and mailed it to Connecticut in time for the holidays?

The final problem is the Martha Stewart syndrome. There's been a speed-up in American family life in the past 20 years, a sense that no Halloween is complete without a homemade costume, and that no Hanukah is complete without homemade applesauce. If I were a conspiracy theorist I might point out that the sharp increase in household standards came at precisely the same time that married women joined the workforce in large numbers, ensuring that women would run themselves ragged staying up til 2 a.m. making Christmas cookies - and still feel they weren't meeting their own standards either at home or at work.

We can change this thing. Here's how, in four easy steps.

1. Negotiate. "Sweetie, you know how holidays are always so stressful? This year, let's sit down right now and write a list of everything we are doing to do, and decide who will do it."

2. Simplify. There's such a thing as cookies-in-a-tube. Give the same hostess gift to everyone. Send gift certificates to your nieces. Cut corners. No one will notice - they're too overwhelmed themselves.

3. Get over yourself.  Note well: you cannot expect your husband to stay up til 2 a.m. baking those cookies. Why? He's not insane. He is not under gender pressures that make him worry that the other moms will judge him if he goes bakery. But that worry is about your maintaining your status in the community of women, not about what's good for the family. So listen to him when he says you just don't need to do make the wreaths by hand.

4. Self-reflect. I'm not saying some husbands aren't lazy bums - some are. If he is tell him studies show that lazy husbands get less sex, and then stop reading this column and start searching the net for a good family therapist. In the meantime, it's better to ratchet down your standards and have a true family celebration, rather than suffer through another year of mommy-frenzy-cum-massive-resentment.

Have a blessed holidays. Let me know how it works.