Show us a decked-out home with carefully curated presents wrapped under a beautifully lit tree, smiley holiday photos taken during festive activities and events, and a stack of freshly laundered matching sets of holiday PJs, and we’ll show you a parent who is absolutely tapped out.
We all strive to give our kids the Hallmark-esque holiday experience we daydream about. Maybe it stems from things we felt were lacking during our own childhood. Perhaps it’s a way to compensate for all the times we fumbled through motherhood over the last year. One hundred percent, it’s because the serotonin high we get from seeing their little faces light up is unmatched. But ask any default parent in the thick of trying to create all of that holiday magic, and we’re willing to bet they don’t look very jolly.
What Is Holiday Burnout?
Holiday burnout is when one experiences increased and near-constant stress, exhaustion, and feeling overwhelmed during the holidays, usually due to overcommitting or feeling like you’re unable to keep up with demands.
Often, the pictures we paint in our heads of how memory-making will play out don’t align with the actual experience. This is often due to things out of our control, like crowds, fussy children, or finances, or our attempt at recreating something we saw online ended up lackluster in comparison. This can leave us feeling unappreciated, irritable, or like we’re failing as a mother.
Why Are Moms More Affected?
In a “traditional” nuclear family, disproportionate to dads, moms tend to feel more responsible for tackling the holiday to-do list and checking it thrice. As with many things we experience today, the origins of this go back to traditional gender roles and centuries of inequality in the home between husbands and wives. Still, though we’ve come pretty far in regards to calling out toxic conventional gender roles like weaponized incompetence and normalizing equal partnerships, we still have a ways to go.
Traditionally, mothers have held down the homefront and worn all the hats, while dads were the breadwinners. Today, moms typically make most of the shopping and decor choices, keep stock of what everyone needs, cook, clean, plan, correspond, and take mental notes of everything said to us. It’s Mom who notices her child admiring another kid’s doll. Mom is the one who overheard Hunter gushing about that newly released video game. And Mom remembers that a few months back when our mother-in-law asked that stranger what the name of their perfume was.
Even in households where Mom contributes to bringing home the proverbial bacon, many still admit to feeling pressure to do all of the holiday things like shopping, coordinating family photoshoots, taking their kids on festive outings, meal planning, decorating, playing Santa, and dealing with all those fun last-minute school spirit days the week leading up to winter break. And, the truth is that many moms want their homes to be decorated nicely, their kids’ clothes to match, to serve up a delicious holiday dinner, and to get their kids the presents they really want—but it’s the unwelcome pressure and expectation that she can and will do it all that are the problem.
In a recent survey from Bright Horizons, an early childhood daycare center, 68% of working parents with increased stress levels during the holidays report that juggling work and child care is one of the top sources of increased stress between Thanksgiving and the New Year.
What Contributes To Holiday Burnout?
A number of things can contribute to feeling holiday burnout: Invisible load, traditional gender roles, the comparison trap we face both in real life and online, family members overstepping our boundaries (or not respecting them for ourselves), consumerism, mom guilt, and the toxic messaging that we can (and should) do, be, and have it all.
The Bright Horizons survey found that 67% of working parents say their guilt escalates when they fall short of their own or others’ parenting expectations.
Priya Krishnan, chief digital and transformation officer at Bright Horizons and host of the Work-Life Equation podcast, told us that “More than half of the working parents we surveyed reported that guilt builds up when balancing family time with work, as well as with pressure to accomplish everything on their to-do list, from decorating and shopping to attending events and cooking.”
How Can I Prevent or Lessen Holiday Burnout?
Krishnan and Elizabeth Kagan Arleo, MD, a provider at Weill Cornell Medicine and author of First, Eat Your Frog: And Other Pearls for Professional Working Mothers have similar sanity-saving tips for preventing holiday burnout:
Give perfectionism the cold shoulder
We all know there’s no such thing as the perfect mom, so why do we keep trying?
“As a mom, one of the first pieces of advice I would give parents is not to take things too seriously. [The holidays are] really about being with family,” Krishnan says, “Shed the holiday perfectionism. This is something I have to work on myself.”
“The modern parent probably feels more pressure than previous generations to make the holidays as perfect as possible because we are living in the era of social media,” says Dr. Arleo
Speaking of synchronicities, our experts referred to this quotation by Voltaire, a French philosopher in the 1700s: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Prioritize and schedule
We often think of spontaneity as fun and schedules as boring, but scheduling things is almost necessary when you’re a parent because it eliminates unnecessary stress and helps you stay organized.
But we particularly love this tip’s “prioritizing” aspect—being mindful and intentional about what you do and customizing events and activities for your family. Additionally, prioritizing also comes with permission to cross things off your list.
“To borrow a phrase from Marie Kondo, ask yourself, ‘Does this [something you could skip] spark joy?’ If yes, great, then go ahead; if no, then great, skip it knowing you are taking care of yourself by not doing something that could add to holiday stress,” Dr. Arleo explains. “Have clarity about your priorities and then schedule them into this time that is there.”
Krishnan suggests setting priorities before the holiday season induces too much stress. “Get organized and schedule things that bring the most success, including time for yourself,” Krishnan adds. “Taking the time to really prioritize what is most important this holiday season can help make celebrations a bit less stressful for yourself and your loved ones.”
Stressing the importance of appointing some tasks to someone else, Krishnan says, “Take more control and delegate because you shouldn’t do everything alone. It’s okay to unload and ask for help!” She suggests:
- Think of the things that cause the most stress and make a list.
- Decide which tasks on your list you can do something about.
- If there are tasks you can’t or don’t want to do, let them go and cross them off your list.
Take care of yourself
Many moms feel burnt out around the holidays (and generally, to be honest) because they go into self-care debt. Yes, we’ve all heard the quote about the empty cups and the pouring beaten into us, but it’s true!
“You only do your best work when you are your best self. Remember that you need to set aside time for yourself, even when it feels like you need to prioritize others,” says Krishnan. “Whether it is exercising, reading a book, enjoying coffee with a friend, or simply going to bed early, it’s important to de-stress.”
The Key Takeaway
The biggest question we—along with every other tired, burnt-out parent—have is: Are my kids going to be traumatized if I don’t make outlines of Santa’s bootprints next to the fireplace with powdered sugar?
“No! Unless this is some special family ritual that is important to you, then you are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good by setting up largely unrealistic expectations, which can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression and create unrealistic expectations for those around you too,” Dr. Arleo told us, (putting the mind of every parent at ease).
“The holidays are really about time spent with family,” Krishnan said before advising, “Remember that it’s okay not to do it all yourself. I encourage working parents to ask their employers what kind of support is available that can help them balance work and life, especially this time of year.”