Save yourself from the expectations of the 'perfect' Christmas

It wouldn’t happen without you — the festive gifts, groceries, decorating, cleaning, and cooking required for the expected Hollywood-standard family Christmas. Is it any wonder you’re fit to explode? asks Áilín Quinlan.

How come all the hard work seems to land on mum’s shoulders? Do we really have to take it all on ourselves? And why this insane belief that it’s our job to make Christmas wonderful for everyone else?

All too often, mum ends up overworked, under-appreciated — and deeply resentful because she gets caught in the “making memories” trap, according to mother-of-two Stella O’Malley (41) from Birr, Co Offaly.

“Women become swept up by the false notion of the perfect Christmas and making memories and then inevitably, it isn’t perfect,” she says, adding that when things don’t go to plan, many women get annoyed, and everyone else is left scratching their head and telling them to chill out.

When women do too much they expect their work to be appreciated, and when it — usually — isn’t, they get upset.

“I remember trying to kill myself with all the decorating early on when the children were very small, and trying to make everything ever so sweet, and I’d find I was the only person who was in bad form — simply because I’d killed myself working to have everything looking right,” she says.

“When everyone else was having fun I was busy making everything perfect for Christmas morning. Then I’d realise the kids were too young to really appreciate it and I’d work myself into a bad mood.”

Save yourself from the expectations of the 'perfect' Christmas

Lately, O’Malley, who has a nine-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son Muiris, and is the author of the parenting book, Cotton Wool Kids, has stepped back a bit: “I’d say women could take a lesson from men — and not get so OTT about Christmas I think men are generally right, they’re more easy-going about it and we go way beyond stressed.”

TUNNEL VISION

For 33-year-old Tipperary mother-of-two, Laura O’Mahony, over-doing it at Christmas is directly linked to the ‘vision’ women so often have in their heads of how things will be.

“You want the kids to have nice memories and you put pressure on yourself to have everything perfect,” she says.

It’s a responsibility she takes seriously.

“I do the cards and the buying and wrapping of presents and I look after all the inside decorations. A lot of the planning also comes down to me,” she admits, adding that although she knows that she should delegate more, she can’t help herself.

The Tipperary businesswoman, who runs the online nursery store (happyinyournappy.com) says: “If I sat back and let my husband do it, I wouldn’t be happy with the way things were.

“I know that I take a lot of it on myself, because I have a vision in my head of the way I want things to be and if I give it over to someone else, I don’t think it will be done the way I want it to be done.”

The irony is, she acknowledges, that when everything is done the way she wants it done, she is “too tired to appreciate it”.

“I don’t enjoy it as much because I am missing out on things. You’re so busy trying to make memories you miss out on them!”

Last year, she recalls “by the time I’d finished serving the Christmas dinner to everyone else and sat down to mine, people were finishing their dessert!”

There’s also not nearly enough appreciation of the hard work that goes into Christmas, says the mum of two boys aged seven and three.

UNDER PRESSURE

It’s an annual stress point for which all of us could write the script — and it’s mostly down to women’s reluctance to delegate, believes psychotherapist Tony Moore.

“Most men will come in and not notice what needs to be done,” he says.

In response, says Moore, the woman will usually complain that the man should ‘know’ what needs to be done and shouldn’t require a to-do list.

“She doesn’t want to have to write a list out and give it to the man,” he says, adding that the woman also suspects that even if she does write out the list, the jobs may not be done as well as she will do them herself.

“Also many women are not helping themselves because if a man says he will do something, they tut at his efforts and say it’s better if they do it themselves.”

He believes that about 90% of the stress of Christmas is down to two things: women themselves and advertising.

“People still have a very traditional view of Christmas. Mother makes the house welcoming, she does all the cooking and creates the atmosphere. This is very much reinforced by advertising. I cannot think of any Christmas advertising where men are taking on a significant role in the Christmas preparations.”

On top of that, he says, women often put far more pressure on other women than men do — especially when it comes to visitors.

“It takes huge courage not to conform to it. This is about conforming to other women’s expectations,” he says, adding that “most men really don’t notice that much”.

Women themselves enable this repressive set-up to continue, believes Relationships Ireland counsellor Eithne Bacuzzi, who admits that she too is a victim of the traditional Christmas-is-all-my-job mindset:

“I always have to go 100% when visitors come. I have to have the table like a wedding table with all the silver out — that’s what my mother did and that’s what we expect of ourselves.

“It’s all inherited stuff about women’s responsibility for Christmas which has come down through the generations. There is this assumption that women are the only ones who can do it properly.”

Yet, points out Bacuzzi, a modern mother may have a demanding full-time job, children — and still not delegate the work.

“Partly this is about not knowing how to delegate chores, but it’s also about assuming the responsibility for everything — and Christmas is far too much work for one person.

“Younger men today are more up for sharing, but women just assume they should do it. I see a lot of women and they are wrecked,” says Bacuzzi.

“There are not enough hours in the day because they’re working as well as writing cards, buying presents, shopping, cooking and making the arrangements.”

If you end up feeling under-appreciated, exhausted and downright resentful, advises psychotherapist Bernadette Ryan, think about why and for what you’re doing it all.

“If it’s for others rather than for yourself, accept that there’s a risk you’ll end up feeling unappreciated,” she warns adding that most women go to great lengths to do the numerous ‘small things’ that they believe combine to make Christmas really magical but their efforts are often ignored.

SINGLE ISSUE

Christmas can also be particularly difficult for single mothers, who not only have the worry about the cost of gifts, she says, but who also may feel the need to be both mother and father to the child — and they don’t want the child to lose out. If it’s possible and appropriate, Ryan believes, it’s a good idea for a single mum to be with her young child and her family of origin at Christmas time.

All women starting out with young children want to re-create the magical feeling they had themselves, but the reality is that there’s a lot of hard work involved.

“Many men enjoy Christmas too but it doesn’t actually mean as much to them.”

In the final analysis, says Bacuzzi, the stress and exhaustion of the Christmas preprations has an awful lot to do with women’s expectations of themselves — “I think we women are our own worst enemies.”

Does it really matter if the roast potatoes are not crispy?

  • Accept that in reality, a perfect Christmas does not exist, says psychotherapist Bernadette Ryan. If it’s the case that you really want your Christmas dinner to be utterly perfect, are dissatisfied with the efforts of others, and feel things will only be perfect if you do everything yourself, understand that you will be exhausted. This can help with understanding your subsequent feelings of resentment. “Does it really matter if the roast potatoes are not as crispy as when you do them yourself? Remember Christmas dinner is just a dinner,” says Ryan.
  • Accept help when it’s offered, even if something won’t be done exactly the way you want it done, advises relationship counsellor Tony Moore. And if they don’t offer, divvy up the chores, ensuring everyone gets something to do, he suggests. In fact, do less all around.
  • Don’t shy away from involving children in the Christmas preparations, advises psychotherapist Eithne Bacuzzi. “Children need to know that Christmas is a lot of work. Sit them all down before Christmas and explain that this is what we are hoping to do. “Children can accept and expect too easily when things are just handed out. Let children see the work that goes into Christmas, and let them have an input to it. Remember, it is not a good role model to see mother taking on everything, she advises. Ask yourself what makes you happy around Christmas and do what you want to do. Boil it down to what you actually want, and do it. This may make for an easier and simpler Christmas, says Bacuzzi. If your kids are grown up, she adds, ask yourself if it’s perhaps time to let go of at least some of the responsibility of making their Christmas magical?

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