For years, my sister and I have had a long talk on the phone on Christmas Eve. At 2 a.m., while frantically wrapping the last of the presents. This, of course, comes after we’ve shopped, decorated, addressed teetering stacks of Christmas cards and generally fried ourselves trying to create that holiday magic.
And our husbands? They’re sound asleep at that time – a fact we usually note between clenched teeth. Before hanging up, we exchange our own holiday wish: “Merry Stressmas.”
It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. But for women, it can also be the most overwhelming. A survey by the American Psychological Association found that more women than men feel stressed at Christmas – and have a harder time relaxing and enjoying the season. Which defeats the whole point, really.
Despite making advances in education, shattering glass ceilings in the workforce and in politics, and gaining more economic independence in the past 40 years, women, on average, still do twice as much housework and child care as men, even when they work full time outside the home.
But just look at the December issues of Good Housekeeping and Better Homes and Gardens in any grocery-store checkout line, with calm and perfectly coiffed women showing off their Nutter Butter reindeer or handcrafted gumdrop wreaths. Women’s magazines and blogs even publish Christmas checklists with to-do items that begin in January.
In contrast, the only mentions of Christmas in the December GQ and Men’s Journal concern gifts to buy for her – black Agent Provocateur lingerie – and the best gear of the year for him.
And that winds up straining women and men. Family therapist B. Janet Hibbs says her office is full of stressed-out, angry spouses who feel unhappy and misunderstood during the holiday season. Women are overwhelmed not only doing too much but trying to keep mental track of it all. And men are defensive that they’re blamed for not doing enough or doing it poorly.
“Couples get stuck,” Hibbs said. “Often, they haven’t taken the time to evaluate whether they want to continue these traditions.”
So this year, my husband, Tom, and I sat around the dinner table with our two kids in early December and had our own honest conversation. What kind of Christmas did we want to have? What was most important to each of us? We ended up with a much shorter list. We divided it up fairly. For the first time in more than 20 years, Tom and I came up with a budget and split the Christmas shopping and wrapping 50-50. We’re all planning the meals.
I’ve let some things go: After all, 15-year-old boys no longer want to make gingerbread houses. And no one liked rushing from one holiday party to another on a single night. We’ll do the Christmas cards together, but they may arrive in January.
Feeling that I’m no longer the only one responsible for making Christmas magic – and that we can decide for ourselves what’s good enough – has freed up space in my head and my day. Instead of barking at the kids, then instantly regretting it, I’ve found myself laughing more. I’ve enjoyed a Christmas concert again and even read by the fire.
This Christmas Eve, I still plan to talk to my sister. But at 2 a.m., I’m hoping, like the rest of my family, to be snug in my bed, fast asleep.