Before we were married, my husband’s signature move before Christmas was buying exactly zero presents until around December 22nd, and then having one manic night of shopping at all the stores with crazy all-night hours in the final run-up to the big day.
I used to just see it as one of his lovable quirks. And it always seemed to work out fine. If the gifts didn’t make their way to the nieces and nephews until halfway through January, it was just chalked up to typical uncle behavior.
But a funny thing happens when you get married. Along with combining your households and finances, you end up merging Christmas lists too. And by merging, I mean the wife magically becomes responsible for all the presents.
It’s not that my husband has EVER asked or even hinted that I should take care of the gifts for the people on his list. But now that the presents come from us as a couple, my anxiety levels *do not* permit me to sit idly by and hope that my husband finds something fitting for all his relatives at Kohl’s at 1:00 in the morning.
So my holiday anxiety levels went up a notch after we got married, and then up several more once kids came into the picture.Even though my husband probably contributes more than most to the present-buying, the majority of the burden still falls on me. And I’m guessing I’m not alone here.
Dad might swing by Target to pick up some stocking stuffers. Meanwhile, Mom is calculating whether the gift loads are roughly equal for all the children and comparable to previous years. She’s maintaining a mental or physical checklist of ideas and purchases for each recipient. She’s spending hours scrolling through search results on eBay for the perfect one-of-a-kind collectible for Aunt Sally, and sinking into the abyss of online reviews for the techy gift for her brother-in-law. Then she’s wrapping approximately 874 gifts while cursing all the manufacturers who couldn’t just put the toy in a damn rectangular box.
And the gifts are only the beginning. Mom is probably also designing the photo card, hounding relatives for their updated mailing addresses, strategically planning when to bake each batch of cookies to ensure a fresh and varied cookie spread on Christmas day, scouring Pinterest for punny gift ideas for the kids’ teachers (No one holds a Candle to you), ordering the kids’ festive jammies, and waking in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because she forgot to buy a gift for your uncle’s best friend’s cocker spaniel.
Moms are the ones mentally orchestrating the Christmas master plan, and the constant whirring of our brains is really the hardest part of all.
In the last few months I’ve come across the name for this phenomenon: emotional labor. I actually hate the term itself, but I’m glad we’ve given the concept a name. Until now it’s sort of been this nebulous source of mom stress that’s been hard to even pinpoint, much less articulate to our well-intentioned but sometimes oblivious husbands.
Then I recently read a piece arguing just the opposite: that all of this Christmas stressing isn’t really emotional labor because it’s essentially self-imposed. I hear the author’s point, to an extent. No one (unless Pinterest counts as a person) is insisting that we make fruit and cheese plates in the shape of a Christmas tree or scavenge for pine cones to create a whimsical tablescape.
But a lot of the holiday stress comes from activities that I just can’t opt out of. There are 26 people on my Christmas gift list. Even if I half-ass it and give gift cards to half of them, that’s still a lot of stressing, hand-wringing, shopping and wrapping.
I could technically skip the cookies, Christmas lights and festive outings that have filled my calendar, but there’s no way that’s happening.
Because at the end of the day, I just want this time to be magical for my kids. My memories of Christmas are some of the most vivid and joyful ones of my childhood. I was completely oblivious to all the grunt work my mom was doing behind the scenes to create that magic for my sister and me.
And now the torch has been passed to us, my fellow mamas and me, to do what our moms did for us and what their moms before them did. We’ll stress for weeks, all in anticipation of the look of joy on our kids’ faces when they come down the steps Christmas morning and get their first glance at the mountains of presents under the tree.
Yes, we should all chill out a little bit and let go of as many things as possible that bring us more stress than joy this season. We should probably delegate more to our partners and seek something closer to an equal partnership in the joy-making.
But this *is* emotional labor, and it (unfairly) will probably continue to fall on our mom-shoulders. We will get overwhelmed, spend too much, and become even more sleep-deprived than normal. And we’ll keep doing it year after to year to keep the magic alive for our little ones. And it will be worth it.