'We're too hard on ourselves' – Why Christmas is the most stressful time of the year for women

'We're too hard on ourselves' – Why Christmas is the most stressful time of the year for women

December 19, 2018

There’s an old saying that a ‘woman’s work’ is never done. Never does this feel more apt than at this time of year.

I don’t quite know how this happened but if, like me, you’re married or in a relationship with a man, chances are you’re the one ‘sorting’ Christmas.

By sorting, I mean pretty much doing everything Christmas-related – buying the presents, writing the cards, keeping an eye on the school plays/carol services. You’re probably making sure the kids have their secret Santa presents and are up to date with their Scouts fundraising efforts. You’ve packed the shoebox for the Christmas Team Hope appeal and hope you haven’t left it too late to order the turkey.

At this time of year, it can feel like just one more thing to do will tip you over the edge. I feel like I’m just about doing the basics. If one more person asks me if I’m all set for Christmas and have everything done, I think I might scream. The answer is no, obviously.

I wonder who are all these mums who are cake-baking and mincemeat-making and why am I not one of them? I have good intentions that this might be the year that I try my hand at a homemade pudding but then realise I’m never going to be a Nigella. Between work deadlines and nipping out to try and get some shopping done, I’m just about getting dinner on the table.

I got fed up checking in with the Elf On The Shelf two weeks ago. I seem to be constantly late for the kids’ pick-ups and drop-offs, and constantly chasing my tail. The Christmas cards I bought are still sitting in their packets and it seems like a mammoth task to sit down and write them.

While I love Christmas, I am starting to baulk at the seemingly never-ending list of things I have to attend to, go to and buy. When this week I forgot to go to a meeting I had committed to attending, it left me with the feeling that I’m failing somehow. I also have to recognise that the multitude of tasks that women in a family deem to be important can be different to that which men prioritise; hence the feeling that we have an unequal share of the burden.

It’s not written anywhere that mums should be the ones to assume responsibility for all these things, but let’s face it, we mostly do. It’s estimated that women do 40pc more housework and childcare than men and in recent years, there’s been a growing awareness of not just the extra household chores women take on, but of what’s called the ’emotional labour’ they bear.

These are the below-the-radar tasks such as buying and sending cards and presents, assembling PE kits and remembering all family birthdays. This emotional labour burden is at its highest at this time of year. Is it any wonder that for many women the most wonderful time of the year translates into the most stressful time instead?

In her book Fed Up: Emotional Labour, Women And The Way Forward, US-based journalist and author Gemma Hartley takes a bold dive into the unpaid, invisible work women do and how it’s adversely affecting our lives and feeding gender imbalance.

And Hartley believes that we need to start re-evaluating the way we think about emotional labour so that women are left feeling less overwhelmed and men can jump in to help equally.

If all this sounds like First World problems, you only have to do a quick check on parenting sites such as Mumsnet or Rollercoaster to realise that many women are grappling with how to manage everything Christmas-related on top of their already demanding list of things to do.

Siobhan O’Neill-White, a mum of four who runs mams.ie, says mums believe that if they don’t get on with organising Christmas, nobody else in the family will.

“I don’t know any man [in a relationship] who buys a gift for his mother. I know I do this [for my husband] and I know my friends do this too [for theirs]. Christmas is a big deal for mums – they start talking about it when they get the kids back to school in September. It does create stress and they feel by starting earlier they can spread it out,” says Siobhan.

Mum to Mitchell (15), Robyn (13), April (11) and Summer (7), being in a car accident a few weeks ago has completely knocked Siobhan off schedule.

She believes the demands, not just on time, but on family finances at this time of year, can leave mothers feeling panicky too.

However, come Christmas Day she knows she can put her feet up; her husband Dave does dinner and her children spoil her. “I know I’m lucky. A lot of mammies don’t have that. If you’re having family over for Christmas, ask people to bring a starter or a dessert. You don’t have to put on a three-course meal for people. It’s about taking that pressure off,” says Siobhan. “Lots of women have family foisted on them at Christmas. They feel under pressure to have the house a certain way. Maybe on Christmas Day, they just want to stay in the PJs. We’re too hard on ourselves.”

Occupational therapist and mum-of-three, Sarah Sproule, says she approaches Christmas in terms of consent. “When I think about all the different jobs that Christmas brings, the first questions I ask myself is do I actually want to do all those jobs or am I just doing them because the world is telling me that’s what Christmas looks like?” she says.

“I get really clear about what are the actual things I enjoy doing because they give me pleasure. Either they give me pleasure in the act of doing – for example, making a Christmas cake – or because I see the joy they bring to other people. That cuts down the jobs.

“I stopped doing Christmas cards about 10 years ago when I had small kids because I realised that the amount of time they took me did not give me back an equal amount of joy. That was a loss, but in the grand scheme of things, it was how I wanted to spend my energy,” says Sarah. She says prioritising jobs, clearly telling your partner that the load needs to be shared, and negotiating tasks – be they parenting-related or Christmas-related – will also help ease the burden.

That feeling of trying to do everything ourselves and having everything perfect – which it can never be – is probably at the heart of the burden of emotional labour at Christmas. Sometimes in the midst of the busyness of the season, small moments arrive to remind you to breathe.

At a carol service the other night – one which I was actually on time for – my eldest son, who was singing in the choir for the first time, looked around trying to find me. He saw me and I saw him and in that moment the chaos faded. What was left was not just good, it was great. I’ll take that and try to hold on to it in the days ahead.

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