The night before our last annual holiday party 3 years, ago, I collapsed on the floor in hysterical sobs. I was on my way out the door to take my daughter to see Santa. My husband asked me to do one more thing, something innocuous like “pick up ice.” But the added weight of that one more thing, on top of all of the other things I had swarming in my head, caused me to crumble as though he was asking me to assume Atlas’s burdens of holding up the world. But, at the holidays, for me, that’s what it feels like sometimes. We haven’t had the holiday party since then.
I think of all the women like me, running through their lists of things to be done—holiday cards, cookie exchanges, gifts for the whole family (including my partner’s family), teacher gifts, charitable giving, party scheduling, party throwing, and various holiday activities like making gingerbread houses and homemade ornaments—and all of a sudden “merry making” feels like a full-time job. And then there is the worry: money, hurting feelings, balancing expectations for holiday fun between all of the stakeholders in my family whose ideas are very different. It’s no wonder all of my friends and I are exhausted.
Holiday’s didn’t used to feel like this for me. As a child, I was lucky. We had enough food in my house and we were fortunate to receive gifts from family and friends.
But I do remember one Christmas morning when my older sister made a joke to my mother, “I think that there were more presents last year than this year,” and my mother burst into tears. The stress wore on her, too, every year.
And while this kind of mental stress caused by the holidays can certainly trigger anyone, the burden of this kind of invisible labor mostly falls on women. My partner does a lot of things well, but he is not one to care about teacher gifts, setting up cookie-making playdates, and making sure that his relatives get holiday cards. There is mental labor involved here—I work full time, and yet during the holiday season, this is my second shift. Women are also asked to do more of this type of labor at work as well: organizing holiday parties and making sure that those who receive office “chip in” gifts are remembered. The unequal expectation that women “help more” at work comes into sharper focus at the holidays.
And even though women are more prone to holiday stressors, we are also expected to appear happy: no sulking allowed. This kind of “emotional labor” falls squarely on the shoulders of women as well. Smile and make merry, right?
Well, guess what. You don’t have to do it. I don’t have to either. It’s time to reclaim the holidays for ourselves, at least a little bit. I am not suggesting that you have to act like my children, who are almost certainly going to bust out into tears on Christmas day. But, it is all right not to be happy during the holidays. It is all right not to do everything.
KJ Dell’Antonia’s Holiday Survival Guide recommends that you pick just one thing that you really want to do this holiday season, and then start to consider letting other things go.
For me, that is going to this gingerbread house decorating event that I absolutely love. But do I have to go to three parties on the same night? Do I have to do a cookie swap? Heck no.
I was so excited about this “pick one thing” idea that I brought it up to my partner. His one thing? Us throwing a holiday party . Sigh.
Armed with this new information about unequal mental labor, however, I had a new response. I told him I would be happy to attend this holiday party he is throwing at our house. Tell me when and I will be happy to show up. I can even stop at the store and buy some ice.