Tips on how to deal with the holiday stress of relatives, shopping and entertaining this season
With the relative-wrangling, wallet-wringing, and last-toy-on- the-shelf wrestling, the holidays can send you right up a tree. And that's so not the point! How to sail through with your sanity intact
The holidays are here again. Ho, ho…how are you going to deal with them? Because while the season's fun, it can be stressful, too, especially for moms. Whether you're knocking yourself out getting ready for guests or having the annual fight with your husband about whom you'll celebrate with this year, there are plenty of coal lumps mixed in with the candy canes. But don't worry: We asked you to share your biggest holiday peeves, and, in the nick of time, we've got expert advice on how to handle them. Read on.
Q: Ugh! As usual, I'm feeling a lot of pressure to invite my obnoxious cousin to my holiday party just because he's family. Can I not include him?
Oh yeah, it's tempting—chocolate-lava-cake tempting, Brad Pitt tempting—to pretend your cuz's invite just got "lost" in the mail. But don't do it. "Part of personal growth is learning to deal with people you don't like," says Kathleen Hall, Ph.D., founder and CEO of the Stress Institute in Atlanta. Even if you feel you're fully grown, thanks, she adds this caution: You're only postponing the inevitable, since you'll surely see him at some other family function. What you really need to do is figure out ways to keep him from getting under your skin when he's double-dipping nachos and telling sexist jokes.
For starters, Hall advises, "Invite him to bring a friend. Then there's less chance he'll latch on to you." Serving a sit-down meal? Revive the old practice of place cards and stick him out of your line of sight. You also need a subtle signal—more subtle than, say, putting your hands around your cousin's neck—so your husband will know when to rescue you. Of course, that assumes your mate will remain watchful. "I've been married for thirty-five years and my husband has blown the signal thing for three and a half decades," says Hall. So you ought to have a mantra, too, "something you tell yourself while interacting with your cousin that makes you feel powerful and not the victim," she explains. Her suggestions: "This is my party" or "I am joyful—tonight's my night!" To a mantra, we'd add a martini, but that's just us.
Q: Christmas is at my house, but my mom wants me to use all her old traditions. She's hassling me for wanting to serve turkey instead of lamb and trying to talk me out of a Secret Santa swap. How do I get her to let go?
This isn't really about turkey; it's more about the fact that your mom is chicken about what your tweaks to her beloved traditions will mean. She's used to the holidays unfolding exactly the same way every year—it comforts her, and probably makes her feel in control. But she's gotten over the other times you've made it clear you're a big girl (like the day you replaced the Britney Spears poster in your bedroom with a Gwen Stefani one), and she'll likely adjust to a somewhat revised holiday routine, too. Just help her out. "As far in advance as you know you'll be making a change, tell her, so she can start mentally processing it," advises Danielle Bobish, founder and creative director of Curtain Up Events, Inc., an event-planning company in New York City. Simply say, "I've been going over the holiday menu, and I'm going to be serving turkey this year as the main course."
If she protests that no one will eat it, let her bring the lamb, too. Or if you're starting up something like a gift swap, say, "The kids are so excited about creating their very own family tradition!" It's hard to keep dissing what makes the grandchildren happy. (Meanwhile, make a point of keeping one or two of your mom's favorite rituals just to show her you respect them. They were once your traditions, too, and a cookie swap or a round of old-fashioned carols on Christmas Eve won't kill you.) You may still hear a few grumbles, but try to cheer her along — once she sees how much fun it all is, she'll relax, and you'll be glad you took the high road.
Q: I do the prep work all season long while my partner relaxes with eggnog. Even if he cooks, I have to clean up after. How do I get him to pitch in?
What else do you want to know, the secret of cold fusion? But seriously, it actually is possible to get your husband to shoulder his share of the load—and you don't have to turn into a taskmaster to get him to. First, spend some time thinking about how you'd like your home to look and feel for the holidays, says Jenny Evans, an executive performance coach and exercise physiologist who helps clients succeed at major undertakings.
"Men and women often have very different expectations," she points out. "Your husband may think that as long as there's food on the buffet table, your holiday party's a success. Meanwhile, you may have a movie in your head about beautiful hors d'oeuvres arranged on platters. You'll end up disappointed if it doesn't turn out like that, but it's not fair if you never communicated your ideals."
So write down the must-haves and the chores they'll entail. Share the list with your husband at the start of the month and map out a timeline together so he has ample warning that his next couple of Saturdays won't be spent topping his score on Grand Theft Auto. Give him a chance to voice his opinions, and be willing to at least hear him out—do you really need to steam-clean the rug, or can you just spot-treat it and vacuum? By the way, divvying up chores means exactly that: Don't just toss him tasks, Evans says. Let him pick, or take turns choosing till everything's claimed. Who knows? Maybe he actually wouldn't mind grocery shopping and having you unload the bags for a change. (He might even buy pre-chopped veggies or some other shortcut you hadn't thought of.) And make it a rule that completing a chore includes cleanup—no dirty counters after baking; no Styrofoam peanuts on the carpet after the tree ornaments are fished out of storage and hung.
Most important, says Hall, put one last thing on your to-do list: something fun to do as a couple in your downtime, like watching a Netflix movie or sharing a bottle of wine after the kids are asleep. It'll help remind you that you're in this together—and together's pretty good after all.
Q: Money's tight, and I wish I could give fewer presents. But so many people give them to me every year, what can I do?
It's small consolation, but a lot of people are in your same boat this year. No one's going to be surprised if you don't lavish them with presents, and fewer people may give them to you, too, says Hall. "It's just time to get creative," she explains. One of Hall's favorite inexpensive presents is a sentimental one—she slips a photo of her and a friend together into a simple Lucite photo key chain. (For relatives, framed photos of your kids are also appropriate.) Home-baked goodies are a hit, too, or, if you have the time and energy, promise to babysit or run an errand.
For the past two years, Evans and her family haven't given many gifts at all. "Instead, we read up on charities, select a cause, and then let everyone know that we're making a donation in their name," she says. A single lump sum can work out to much less than dozens of individual presents your friends may not use. "People are realizing that in this economy, money and fancy gifts aren't where it's at," Evans says. So don't think of it as being cheap, just contemporary-chic.
Q: My parents are divorced and live far apart. I'm tired of arguing about where we'll all spend the holidays. How can we avoid it?
Sigh. Tough one, "especially since you also have to consider your husband's parents and that they may want you to spend the holidays at their place, too," says Bobish. But good news, there's more than one way to work things out. You can start by trying to keep the holidays on your home turf for a couple of years to avoid appearing to prefer one parent over the other. "Say to your mother and father, 'Can you come here because there are so many of us?'?" Hall advises. "You can blame the cost, or say that long car trips are tough on the kids." Then work out a schedule of who'll visit your home when. Maybe your mom and in-laws can visit one day and your dad and cousins on another. Yes, the parent whose turn it isn't will be hurting, so do your best to include each of them somehow. Have your kids wait to open the gifts from Grandma or Grandpa until they're there to see it, or put them on the phone to hear the kids whoop it up as they unwrap.
If you really can't stay home-based, look into alternating major holidays altogether—do a round-robin rotation of homes for Thanksgiving and Christmas, Hanukkah, or whatever major day you observe. "Come right out and say, 'We want to do this evenly and fairly,'?" says Hall. Your parents can argue with each other, but it's hard to argue with that.
Q: Holiday shopping—arrgh! The crowds and the chaos drive me crazy. Tell me how to keep my cool.
No matter how good Internet shopping gets, sometimes you just have to go to the store—which, during the holidays, is about as much fun as a Teletubbies marathon or an ob-gyn checkup—or, shudder, both simultaneously. Start with a strategy to avoid the throngs as much as you can. Weekends are deadly; can your husband watch the kids while you hit the mall on a weeknight? You'll get twice as much done in half the time.
Another trick is to look at the vendor's website beforehand to try to spot what you want so you can locate the merch quickly once you're through the doors. Of course, you'll probably still get caught in an overcrowded shop at least once or twice. "There's no way to make those situations less demanding, but you can make yourself more resilient," says Evans.
Your main defense: Don't shop on an empty stomach. "You're inadvertently stressing yourself out. Your brain cells don't have the energy you need to function, so you become 'hangry,' a combo of hungry and angry," she says. While this might make you a formidable opponent in the tug-of-war for the last Wii on the shelf, it'll drain you more than it's worth, so eat up. If you're going to be shopping a while, pack a healthy snack, something that has a little fat, plus fiber and protein, Evans advises. Have a nibble every few hours to keep you on an even keel. And resist dashing into Starbucks, since "caffeine releases adrenaline, which is a stress hormone," she notes. Once again, a mantra can't hurt. Try "This is temporary" or "It will be over soon." It'll see you through—at least until January and many happy returns!
Deborah Skolnik, a and mom of two, experiences very little stress this time of year, as her mother-in-law always hosts a fantastic holiday.