How to do the festive season for mothers.
Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD, IBCLC
Once again, the holiday season is upon us. And while the songs may claim that it is the “most wonderful time of the year,” mothers often dread it. In many homes, mothers do most of the preparations, adding to our already long list of “to do’s.” To top it all off, we often feel guilty because we are unable to do all that we think we should. But it is possible to have a holiday season that is enjoyable for everyone—even you!
Of the December holidays, Christmas in particular is a holiday of excess. There is baking, and decorating, and cards, and parties, and shopping, and family photos. But this was not always so. Even a generation ago, Christmas was on a more modest scale. Now, it has become a frenzy of buying—and this is no accident. Stores get as much as half of their yearly income from the Christmas season. Many families overspend, going into debt to provide this advertiser-induced level of giving. And most of us have way too much stuff anyway. Unfortunately, many of my Jewish friends tell me that Hanukah is getting similarly out of hand. And some people celebrate both!
Another problem is when we try to live up to expectations of the “perfect” holiday. We may kill ourselves for days to get the decorations in our homes to look like the images we see, sometimes becoming a screaming maniac in the process. But we need to remember that those attractive images we see in magazines took an entire crew to put together. Very few people are likely to be able to do this alone, and most of those people do not have young children!
It’s unrealistic to expect ourselves to feel happy all the time. Anyone who has ever observed people shopping on Black Friday, or the week before Christmas, can tell you that this is not a happy group. There are media images of attractive friends and family gathering for the holidays. They all look like they are having more fun than you. This can breed a sense of discontent about our lives. Is it any wonder that many people feel seriously depressed at this time of year?
Is there a way to get through the holidays without feeling frazzled, overloaded and exhausted?
Can you celebrate in such a way that you feel lifted up rather than worn down? The answer to both questions is “yes.” Here are some simple steps.
- Keep your expectations realistic. We shouldn’t expect unending happiness. There will be ups and downs just like during the rest of the year. Nor should we expect our homes, families, and ourselves to look and behave like the mythic creatures on television and in magazines. This is particularly important with young children. Changes in normal routines may make them feel “off.” They may hate their dress-up clothes that Grandma sent, and are at their limits by the time everyone sits down to eat. How much better it is to have a low-key holiday that everyone enjoys.
- Reach out to others. In attempting to keep up with our long list of shoulds, it’s very easy to get focused only on ourselves or the needs of our immediate families. You may come away from the holidays feeling like you haven’t “measured up.” Sometimes the best antidote for this self-focus is reaching out to someone who truly has less. Find out about opportunities for helping others who have a tough time during the holidays, and involve your families. This can be a wonderful opportunity to spend some quality time together, and do some good for others at the same time. Groups in need may include children of prisoners, patients in nursing homes, homeless people, or those who have lost their jobs. You can even request that money otherwise spent on you for gifts be forwarded instead to one of these charities. Or you can simply reach out to the lonely people in your neighborhood who have no one to share the holidays with.
- Make conscious choices about which rituals you want to participate in. We are offered an array of activities that we can participate in during the holiday season. Many times, we run from one activity to another, not really enjoying any of them. This is especially true for us mothers. It is far better if you can pick the ones most meaningful to you. Be honest with yourself. Do you really enjoy baking? Or holiday cards? Or matching outfits for everyone? Or home decorations that look like Martha Stewart is stopping by? If your answer is “yes,” then by all means continue. If the answer is “no,” however, then think about dropping the activities you don’t like, or assigning them to someone else. Discuss your holiday activities with your family and see which ones can be eliminated, modified, or temporarily put on hold because of the current needs of your family. Another option is to spread the activities out over a period of time. For example, can you send holiday cards in January? Can you have a holiday party during the summer? There is no reason to cram all of our social obligations into that period between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
- Take care of your body. This time of year, we are prone to abuse our bodies even more than usual. Everywhere you go, there are cookies, candy and snacks. There are parties with rich food and alcohol. Because of a time shortage, there is a tendency to sleep and exercise less. Come January, we feel totally trashed, are probably heavier, and are all ready for the guilt campaigns designed to sell us exercise equipment and diet products for the new year. Doesn’t it make much more sense to treat our bodies well? Keep up with your exercise regimen, or even start one now. Keep it simple. Just try to walk a bit more. This year, let’s still eat holiday treats, but only the ones we really want. Let’s all promise each other that we won’t stay up late making holiday preparations because we have pared our activities down to a reasonable amount. Let’s take the time to rest even if it means that some things won’t get done. And this year, let’s promise to take the time to enjoy friends and family instead of running frantically from one activity to another.
It is possible for us to get through the holidays with a sense of sanity and balance. Let’s all resolve to make conscious choices about how much we want to do this year. Everyone in our lives will notice a difference. And maybe this year, the holidays can be fun for us too!
Organizations offering help to people struggling with mental health issues at Christmas and also looking for volunteers:
Please add organizations from the country where you are reading this.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) USA
The Samaritans USA
The Samaritans UK
Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD, IBCLC, FAPA
Dr. Kendall-Tackett is a health psychologist and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, and the owner and Editor-in-Chief of Praeclarus Press, a small press specializing in women’s health. She is Editor-in-Chief of two peer-reviewed journals: Clinical Lactation and Psychological Trauma. She is Fellow of the American Psychological Association in Health and Trauma Psychology, Past President of the APA Division of Trauma Psychology, and a member of the Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest. Dr. Kendall-Tackett specializes in women’s-health research including breastfeeding, depression, trauma, and health psychology, and has won many awards for her work including the 2016 Outstanding Service to the Field of Trauma Psychology from the American Psychological Association’s Division 56.
Dr. Kendall-Tackett has authored more than 400 articles or chapters, and has just completed her 35th book, The Phantom of the Opera: A Social History of the World’s Most Popular Musical. Her most recent books include: Depression in New Mothers, 3rd Edition (2016, Routledge UK, in press), Women’s Mental Health Across the Lifespan (2016, Routledge US, in press, with Lesia Ruglass), Psychology of Trauma 101 (2015, Springer, with Lesia Ruglass) and The Science of Mother-Infant Sleep (2014, Praeclarus, with Wendy Middlemiss). Her websites are: