What starts as a faint inquisitive idea about what to get your nephew for Christmas gradually snowballs, until by early November, the festive season dominates most of your thoughts and conversations.
Where will we spend Christmas? When is my child’s Christmas party? What will I buy his teacher for Christmas?
Who will look after the cat over the holidays? When can we host my family? When can we host my partner’s? What should I buy for my partner? What should my partner buy for his mum?
Who else do I need to buy gifts for? Who has food allergies?
On and on it goes, round and round, until the beginning of January, when my 18-month-old returns to childcare. It’s all finally over for another year and I am just left with… all of the other tasks related to motherhood.
As a relative newbie to this whole parenting thing, I can only imagine how much more intense this will become as my child gets older and we potentially add siblings into the mix. But at least I know I am not alone in feeling the strain.
You may have heard of the ‘mental load’, the hidden work that most women and mothers take on in their households. From planning the food shop to organising playdates, liaising with school or ensuring that there are clothes ready for their children to wear for when the current set are outgrown.
It’s noticing when the washing-up liquid is running low and ordering more, and planning what everyone in the house is eating for the week, and then buying the ingredients. Or remembering it’s your niece’s birthday next week, buying a present and putting it in the post on time so it doesn’t arrive late.
All of the – often invisible – tasks that need to happen in order for a household and its relationships to continue to function healthily and happily.
This is the stuff that keeps mums up at night, and leads to many feeling like they can never ‘switch off’. It is a concept pretty widely recognised – especially, of course, by the women who undertake all of this work.
Of course, there are men who carry out this important work – and indeed, in my heteronormative household, ‘the load’ is split more equitably between my partner and I. (I will resist calling myself ‘lucky’ here, because I genuinely think this is what all women deserve.)
But I specifically reference women and mothers, because it is clear, from the women I speak to every day in my work and at toddler groups or the nursery gates, that it is still them who take on the bulk – and I’m willing to bet that it is the same elsewhere if what I read on social media is anything to go by.
As a parent, I constantly feel like I’m spinning plates. The sensation of always juggling a million things at once and a terrifying suspicion that if I drop one thing, the whole thing will collapse.
For the most part, I just get on with it because that, as they say, is life. But then December comes, and the usual tick-list of tasks expected of the mother suddenly doubles, then triples… and then quadruples.
It is, as host of the popular Motherkind podcast, Zoe Blaskey, says, ‘the mental load on steroids’.
In fact, she believes that the list of expectations for modern mothers at Christmas has increased exponentially in the last few years. And I totally agree with her.
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With Christmas Eve boxes, matching PJs, Santa visits, multiple school and nursery events and even Christmas photo shoots now becoming a ‘thing’, it feels like there is more to do than ever.
That’s before you even factor in the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon, which expects parents – let’s face it, probably mums – to move a little toy elf around the house every night, putting it in funny and imaginative scenes and poses.
Thankfully, my son is too young at the moment for this, but I know my time for bleary-eyed dashes in the dark when I’ve forgotten to do it, is coming.
Even as I sit here, I am juggling my workload with the persistent chime in my head of mental notifications arriving reminding me of things I need to complete before Christmas.
Have I bought a present for one of our relatives? What if I get the wrong thing, and my son doesn’t love it?
Aside from the fact that all of this places a huge strain on women – who are more often than not, juggling childcare responsibilities with work, alongside all of the sickness bugs that threaten to derail both of those things at this time of year – it also makes Christmas become something we start to want to ‘get through’ rather than enjoy.
I suspect, as with most of the pressure on modern mums, Instagram has a lot to do with this.
Over the past couple of weeks alone, I’ve been served a slew of ‘decoration hacks’, recipes for hosting, ads for different Christmas presents ideas for my son, photos of other people’s picture-perfect decorations in their perfectly tidy homes and ‘fun’ ideas for creative play over the festive season.
Added to the already near-constant ping of my WhatsApp delivering messages from one of four (four!) different family groups with four (four!) different plans, alongside the parents’ association groups I’m part of, which spring into a fervour at this time of year, it’s been enough to instigate a ‘phones down at 6pm’ rule in my household.
In amongst all of the busyness, it’s hard to remember that we have choices. That we can say ‘no’ to things, and whittle down the to do list to only the most essential of tasks.
But when the idea is looming in your head of wanting your kids to have ‘the perfect Christmas’, it’s really very hard to do. It’s something I have been trying to do more this year, as for health reasons, I need to rest more than normal.
As usual, the solution to all of this is to lower your own expectations of what is possible, without losing your mind. And to remember that although wanting your kids and partner to have a wonderful time is a lovely goal to strive for, none of this should come at the cost of your own experience of the holidays. Nor of your mental balance or peace.
In my case, this has meant turning down some invitations and talking through any plans we are committing to with my partner ahead of time, to sense check how much stress we might be taking on in doing so.
Easier said than done, of course. But I really do hope some of you will join me in being a little more mindful about the tasks you emphatically load onto your plates this December.
Because, honestly, who even cares about Elf on the Shelf?
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