First featured exclusively on 32/7
With the holiday season upon us, I felt the need to address an epidemic that seems to grow stronger and more vicious during the winter months. I’m not talking about the flu, though I’d argue the effects are just as detrimental on the health of women around the globe. I’m talking about the spirit Grinch that turns so many of us from Ms. Holly Jolly to Ho-Ho-Horrible over the holidays—MOMMY GUILT.
A friend of mine, with two kids under the age of six, went all out for Halloween. Her entire house looked like an autumn Pinterest board. When I told her how impressed I was with her effort, she said, “I freaking love Halloween. It’s all of the fun of the holidays without all of the guilt attached to Thanksgiving and Christmas.” Huh…there’s something to this…I thought.
Though the mommy-guilt struggle is real all year long, it comes to an ugly head as obligations and expectations soar during the “happiest time of the year.” I personally have always loved the holidays. I’m a December baby who for years believed that all of the bright and glowing Christmas lights were just for me. But now that I have a child and family of my own, I’m so much more aware of the expectations on me as the woman of the house. On top of all prior obligations, moms also have to figure out how to create magical memories that last a lifetime for our kids (no pressure!), decorate our houses like we’re Martha-freaking-Stewart, send out the cutest card to everyone on our list to show how together we are, and shower our extended family with lots of presentsand our presence.
And our reward for all of our hard work? Standing in the kitchen cooking and cleaning up while the rest of our family enjoys the day socializing and watching football. Merry. Freaking. Everything. (And if you don’t cook or clean…how selfish are you? I’m immediately revoking your Lady Card! You actually have the audacity to enjoy the day?)
Look, I know I’m generalizing here. There are plenty of men who contribute during the holidays, and extra special hats off to the men out there who do the holiday cooking and/or cleaning. But this was not the dynamic in my family growing up and though my mother was a Super Saint during the holidays, I’m not eager to follow in her very tired footsteps. As a mom of a toddler, I’m acutely aware that I have only scratched the surface on how deep this mommy guilt during the holidays goes—I don’t have to deal with the school plays, concerts, projects, yet, but I see the stress on my friends with older kids. In short, so many women out there are running around in a frenzy, motivated by their fear of disappointing or failing someone this time of year…spreading themselves so thin they spend their holidays feeling overwhelmed and run down.
And so, for all those mothers out there who’ve experienced or are experiencing this thing called holiday mommy guilt, here are some ideas for how to bring a little more comfort and joy to your holiday season:
If you’re not into cooking:
Start a tradition of going out to dinner, ordering food from a favorite restaurant, or suggest a pot luck so everyone only has to bring one thing (and yes, your thing can be store bought!).
To avoid hours of clean up:
Use disposable plates and utensils for these two days out of the year where the dishes tend to pile higher than the presents.
To avoid stressful hours of shopping:
Ask family members to create and send you their wish lists so you don’t have to guess or spend your precious time searching for the perfect present at a retail store.
Suggest a Secret Santa or white elephant gift exchange with a spending limit for all adults.
To avoid the stress of holiday cards:
Be a rebel and send a card during the time of the year that’s best for you. It will be even more fun for everyone to receive because it’s unexpected. Gretchen Rubin, writer and happiness researcher, says she sends Valentine’s Day cards instead of holiday cards. Such a great idea!
Say no to anything optional that doesn’t bring you joy. Yes, that may include disappointing some people and that’s okay. You matter, too.
You may love cooking, decorating, and shopping on top of everything else you do—you may be in the camp that finds it therapeutic. But if you don’t, you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. The holidays are supposed to be happy for everyone, not everyone but mom. Lose the mommy guilt and your holiday to-do list will suddenly look a whole lot nicer.
As I’m writing this, I feel like a hypocrite. There are plenty of days when I choose to not deal with the funk and, instead, fully embrace it and lie around in my pajamas. On these days I’m an ostrich and, instead of burying my head in the sand, I hide under the soft, safe covers of my bed or live vicariously through the people in the box (a.k.a our friends in TV land). I know there are things I could do that would make me feel like a worthwhile human being, but in these “funky” moments, they feel like too much work--everything feels like work...LIFE feels like work. So isn’t the best counter to ‘too much work’ doing ‘nothing’? This seems logical and is easy to justify in my mind. The problem is I can spend hours on a TV bender and, most of the time, the funk only seems to grow funkier. I’m more tired. More powerless. I don’t feel refreshed...I feel even more drained. Then I feel guilty for having squandered precious hours locked inside. It’s a vicious cycle I’ve repeated year after year.
The summer I moved cross-country to San Francisco, with dreams of Golden Gate Bridge bike rides and scenic hikes in my future, I binge watched the entire Friends series, only leaving my apartment to walk around the corner to Walgreens to buy boxed mac-n-cheese. I swear if I ever interacted with an actual human, I would think things like “Could she be more of a Monica?”. I did eventually leave the house, meet real-life friends, and make a life for myself on the West Coast. But what I came to realize about that time of my life, and many others where I found “solace” with my TV screen, is I was coping with my fear and discomfort by attaching myself to the familiar. Everything outside was scary and different. But I knew how every episode of Friends would end. I could predict every “How you doin’?” and “I KNOW!” But a crutch is a crutch. And though there’s nothing “bad” about TV or using it as a mindless coping mechanism from time to time, if you’ve been wallowing for too long, you’ll eventually have to try something different.
Here are my top 3 tools that always seem to snap me out of a funk:
1) Write it out. It’s amazing what putting pen to paper can do. Study after study has proven the healing power of journaling. Once that fear, or lingering task, or grudge leaves your consciousness and exists in the physical world, it releases it’s hold on you. Moreover, for me, when I write I really tap into the thoughts I’ve been telling myself and can more objectively decide if they’re helping or hurting me. I recently heard the amazing Gretchen Rubin quote, “Don’t believe everything you think!” Writing helps me sort the “mean-girl gremlins” in my head from my actual voice.
2) Walk it off. It’s so simple, yet it can feel like climbing a mountain to pull yourself up from a horizontal position and move your body. But the effects of walking to stimulate creativity and boost mood are well documented. The bottom line is getting fresh air and time outdoors is sometimes all I need to take myself from ho-hum to get-it-girl! Often times a problem I’ve been avoiding seems simpler and I notice ideas start to flow. If I’m ever upset or angry, a walk can take me from a ‘10’ to a ‘5’ on the pissed off meter in 20 minutes. And the best part is, walking is free and available to you no matter where you are!
3) Watch what goes in. Turns out the old adage our parents used to lecture us with has so much truth in it: Trash in, trash out. It’s true with food and nutrition, and with our choice of friends and entertainment. It’s so ironic that the crappier we feel emotionally, the more we seem to be drawn to junk food. Or the lower our self-worth, the lower the bar for who we’ll spend time with. But I’ve realized to pull myself out of a funk, which is a very vulnerable state, I have to handle myself with extreme care. I have to watch what goes in my mouth. I have to watch what I read. I have to watch what I’m listening to. Sure, there are moments in life when listening to emo music and letting yourself bawl is cathartic, but when you’re ready to come out on the other side, you have to start acting the way you want to feel. Put more food, people, and things that are good for you in your life and see if that funk doesn’t evaporate!
What about you? What are your go-to’s for getting out of a funk?
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
— Henry David Thoreau
Recently, a burnt out friend of mine quit her high-profile corporate job in San Francisco without another position lined up. When co-workers started asking her the inevitable question “What are you going to do with your time off?” I couldn’t help but get a kick out of the fact that her answer was “I really want to stay home and knit” and that her next “dream job” was to become a park ranger.
The comedic irony I found in her response was mostly due to the fact that for the past four years I’ve been writing a novel that deals with the plight of 19th century women and how they were forced to a stay home and knit. And yet here was this hip, 30-something year old, in the peak of her career, and her sexiest ambition was to knit and disappear into the woods Thoreau-style.
Upon reflection I realized that my friend wasn’t alone in her yearning for the simple. A look at pop culture and the evidence was everywhere. There’s a folk revival in music, a farm-to-table movement in food, a rustic trend in home decor. Things are no longer old...they’re vintage. HGTV’s Chip and Joanna Gaines have captured the heart of America with their down-home family values, thrift store finds, and all-around slower approach to living. (Anyone else, for a split-second, imagined buying a $200,000 mansion in Waco, Texas just to be friends with them? Maybe it’s just me…) My point is, our society today has a serious case of nostalgia for simpler times. But why?
The thought occurred to me that modern women are craving the simple luxury of the downtime a slower, less connected world offered, just as many women of prior generations craved opportunities outside of the household. The fact of the matter is, most women today are running so fast toward having it all that we’ve forgotten to slow down and ask if we even want or need all of it.
It’s the perpetual, in-your-face speed of the world that has us all clinging to whatever semblance of simplicity we can. I myself have had moments of wishing I could pause time so I could hole up in a cabin in Big Sur and write for months on end Henry Miller-style. But I’m not Doc Brown and this is not Back to the Future...the last time I checked I can’t pause time and, that being the case, I don’t think my husband would be super jazzed about being left solo with our 14-month-old while I fulfill my writerly-hermit dreams. Instead, I make the space wherever I can. Whether it’s an hour here, a Sunday afternoon there, I’ve learned if I don’t create the space to listen to myself, I slowly start lose myself.
The fact that I’m a part of a privileged generation of American women, able to decide what it is that we want out of life thanks to those who came before us, does not escape me. I can only imagine coming of age in a time where my life’s expectation was only to become someone’s wife, i.e. property, as it were. But the unique challenge we face today is that, though we are able to do it all, that doesn’t mean we should.
So, perhaps my friend was onto something. Instead of measuring our contribution to the the female sex in terms of having an impressive job title, or the Facebook-perfect family, or a home worthy of being a Nancy Meyers movie set, or having the body of Kate Hudson...or feeling like we should have/be all of the above (let’s be honest)...what if we, instead, take a moment to reexamine our expectations. Let’s just pause. What the hell...let’s knit! Because we need to slow down. Like Thoreau, we need to deliberately disconnect from the daily chaos in order to remember what it truly means to live a life without regrets. We need to remember that, when it’s all said and done, the only thing we’re really accountable for is becoming the very best version of ourselves. And it’s not about attaining, it’s about maintaining what’s essential: our souls.
With the runaway train of social media and the pressure to be connected to the world 24/7, have you found yourself wanting to pull a Thoreau? Do you ever disconnect long enough just to hear your own voice?