My most memorable stressed-working-mum-at-Christmas story is about a woman who punched her sister “in her face, over Christmas dinner, with all our kids watching”. But who doesn't recognise the gnawing stress of navigating evening work ‘dos, end of year numbers and taking time off for a gazillion school events – all while micro-managing the present list, big shop and deep clean before hosting lunch for 12.
This last week before Christmas is when everyone reaches their final straw, even if, thankfully, most avoid coming to blows. The challenge, then, is how to make it to Tuesday’s finish line without completely losing it, or even – whisper it – having some fun.
One recommendation from a therapist is to take a moment to move your mind forward to January 2nd, when you’re heading back to work, and then rewind what you think will have happened. Observe the magical moments you want to remember. Think about what you might improve or (even better) delegate. If you’re anything like the other mums I talk to, it might include some or all of the following:
Ditch anything unnecessary that makes you want to weep, especially if it sounds cute and romantic but, in reality, has ‘make work for yourself’ written all over it. This might include running in after a 12-hour day to oversee the hand-making teacher/class Christmas presents: if the project genuinely gives you joy, bring it on. If you’re up at midnight tearing your hair out while icing wonky biscuits, chuck the whole project in the bin.
Children love the annual rituals so choose a few to throw yourself in to, madly, without trying to do your emails under the table. Give in and weep nostalgically through the nativity, book the Christmas grotto, go ice-skating, but decline everything that will totally stress you out. If you try and run back from work for the carols and then charge back into town for the team party you’ll end up enjoying neither, and your kids will still moan at you.
Know that nothing is likely to be perfect and that’s fine, even part of the joy. Although some things that go wrong are predictable and you can get ahead of them. As one wise mum of teens says, “Buy batteries in every size and shape and be the ‘battery hero’ on Christmas day”.
Take control of the presents. one mum describes doing last-minute ‘smash and grabs’ in lunchbreaks and both wildly overspending and getting all the wrong stuff. Have a few chats to ensure you can open January’s bills without hyperventilating: agree price limits and do a Secret Santa, especially for other adults (ours love the Poundland version). And maybe do give in and get your kids at least one bonkers, frivolously indulgent thing that they really, really want (no, girls, you’re still not getting a dog) – just for the thrill when they open it.
Go easy on the sherry. It’s way too easy to crash into New Year realising you can’t remember the last time you went to bed without your make-up on. Then getting your head jumped on by kids at 6am and staggering through the day fuelled by pigs-in-blankets and Quality Street. Book some quiet nights in and get everyone out mucking about in fresh air when you can...
Tell people what you actually want, so you don’t find yourself on Christmas evening staring dejectedly a pair of too-small tights and a bag of poppadums (this did happen to me). One mum said she couldn’t even find the mental space to draw up a list, on which basis I refer to you to magazine Christmas gift-list staples: new PJs, M&S cashmere, fragrance, an eye shadow palette and your favourite edible treat. That’ll be anything from Aromatherapy Associates and a box of chocolates from William Curley, please darling.
When you’ve predicted what is going to stress you out about the season (yep, probably family), plan around it. “My child is a picky eater and it annoys our family so I just say to ignore him and I’ll do his food,” says one mum with long experience of her kids quietly avoiding everything on offer and wondering later why they are being vile, before clocking that they’ve not eaten anything. Another mum told me she books an AirBnB around the corner from her family to avoid the rage of being the only ones up at dawn: “I’ve worked out that, when we have our own space, I’m happy, so they’re happy – and we can enjoy it”.
Aside from the batteries (above), don’t play the hero or martyr. This shouldn’t be a single-handed endeavor to make other people happy. If you hate cooking, buy pre-prepared or get someone else to do it. Don’t even think of inviting different people over every day of the ‘holiday’. Only throw a Christmas party if you’ll enjoy it and won’t spent the day before screaming at the kids. Much better to pop into someone else’s and eat their mince pies with gratitude.
Make sure you get to do some stuff that isn’t work and isn’t sorting the family. Plan something with your other half (if you have one) and/or book some time with your mates. If you’ve a gaggle of in-laws staying over, sashay out in your best sparkly top announcing that there are beans in the cupboard. On which theme, I confess that our annual Christmas plan prompt, which pops up on December 1st each year, includes a reminder to have sex at some point over the festive period so we don’t end up totally disconnected and loathing each other, and everyone else.
If all else fails, get it into perspective. Volunteering at a homeless shelter was “poignant and joyful and helped me and my two teens to remember how bloody fortunate we are,” according to one friend. Or, as another mum says, “Take a deep breath because, at the end of the day, it’s a roast dinner with some presents and you might as well enjoy it…” She chuckles, “But maybe I only think that because I’m Jewish.”
Right off we go, in to the most wonderful time of the year: see you on January 2nd with big smiles and no shiners.