Welcome to our series, The Motherhood Diaries – a safe space for you to share your experiences, advice, hopes and heartbreaks. We’ll be hearing from industry experts giving practical advice alongside Capsule readers (You!) sharing your firsthand experiences. We’re looking at everything from fertility, trying to conceive, pregnancy, the fourth trimester, newborns, toddlers, raising children and teenagers and everything in between! Today, we look at how to avoid family stress at Christmas.
Parenting coach Justine Lamont is a former lawyer who now helps Kiwi families of all ranges with practical, evidence-based parenting skills. She says there is always a spike in clients asking for help around Christmas and this year, the call is coming earlier than normal! So she’s put together a list on how to avoid family stress and over-the-top Christmas expectations this year.
Christmas brings up a range of emotions for families. 90% of my clients at this time of year are wanting help with ways to deal with stress or a family issue they are worried about. Whatever happens on your Christmas holidays it helps to plan, communicate with the adults in advance and for adults to do what they need to do to be in a good frame of mind. Kids love presents but they also really love it when the adults are present and can enjoy themselves too.
1. Keep expectations realistic.
It’s the end of the work and school year and that means lots of extra obligations on families, especially mothers. There are many reasons for it and it’s a challenge for parents to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
Let’s begin with the end in mind. What sort of Christmas do we want to have? If previous years have brought up a lot of emotion and we are dreading how it’s going to be this year, then take time to reassess. Let’s talk to ourselves the way we would to anyone else who was grappling with these sorts of tricky issues.
We might have a belief that there is such a thing as ‘a perfect Christmas’… and that it’s up to us to give this to everyone. The reality of parenting in the modern day is that we have limited resources and one of the most important resources is us. The rituals and traditions aren’t the cause of the problem, it’s the expectations that go with it.
Sometimes the expectations we put on ourselves and each other are unrealistic. Unrealistic expectations can be resentments waiting to happen. What parents want at Christmas is important and we need to make sure we think about what that is. Our Christmas could be about food or treats we end up making at 11pm. Sure, this could be a nice to have – but it doesn’t have to be a necessity. Christmas dinner could be a curry and not a roast dinner – it’s whatever works for the people involved AND what is most realistic.
2. Keep communication open.
It’s the first Christmas for a while where we have had an opportunity to have a larger gathering, so this may affect your plans. Make a point to have some honest conversations well in advance of the day. If lockdown and small gatherings suited you just fine, it could be hard to adjust to a larger scale event. It can be hard to be honest when we don’t want to disappoint others. I can guarantee that there are many folks having tricky conversations with their partners that sound like this –
“We’ve been invited to my aunt’s for Xmas lunch – are you ok with that?”
These discussions can be a minefield for relationships. What happens when we are not ok with it? What if we have an objection? How do we have a conversation without causing WWIII? If you’re looking for a way to talk about this, here are some words to take the heat out of what can be a highly charged issue.
“I don’t feel comfortable with doing a,b or c. I would prefer to mark the occasion by doing x,y or z and here’s why…..”
Make a sensible suggestion, rather than reacting with: “I hate your mother’s ice cream; she always puts pineapple in it, that’s just not natural.” Talk through how it could be a win/win for everyone. A compromise could be that you plan a dinner or some other get together, just not necessarily on Christmas day itself.
3. Keep boundaries clear.
Setting a clear boundary can end up with us feeling guilty. When we were growing up, maybe Christmas always involved being in the kitchen for hours. If this is what happened at your place, it can be hard to see it in a different way but doing things differently doesn’t mean we’re bad parents. Doing it our way isn’t failing to deliver the mythically perfect Christmas our family deserves. Parents plan and deliver up three meals a day for 365 days of the year. This equals 1095 meals for one year; by the age of five, that’s almost 5,500 meals. (I’ve not included snacks or birthday cakes in that maths, BTW). Ditch the guilt and know that you’ll be protecting your family from the resentment you might be feeling if you didn’t set those boundaries.
4. Keep kids’ needs and energy front and centre
Kids are happy when parents are happy and our rellies need to be understanding about how many transitions are possible or desirable. Some of our children will be fine with multiple events, but many won‘t. If you have primary school children or younger, it’s best to reduce the number of transitions in the day. This may be an unpopular choice with family, so it’s important to discuss early on. Explain ‘we choose to be careful with energy levels and this would be too much to see every person on the day’. Because this isn’t just our kids who find this hard, parents get tired too! Kids are happy when parents are happy and our rellies need to be understanding about this.
5. Keep Christmas meaningful
We all know the people who don’t just love Christmas, they live for it. The internet calls them ‘Christmaszillas’ (and you might just know a few). Pinterest show us the best ways to decorate the house, to set out the dinner table, through to the perfect Christmas menu. If feeling the joy and playing Michael Bublé from October onwards is your thing, then do it. There is research that says decorating early improves mood and makes people feel happier.
But Christmas can be made just as meaningful by doing small things that make your family smile. Sprinkle cotton wool balls through the house to make it look like the reindeer have dropped some snow. Get someone in the family to make a few games for the younger kids. One idea I heard of is a toy safari. This means hiding toys or small treats in random places in the house. Close the curtains and give kids a torch and letting them search on the toy safari.
The bottom line: Get in early
Whatever happens on your Christmas holidays it helps to plan, communicate with the adults in advance and for adults to do what they need to do to be in a good frame of mind. Kids love presents and they really love it when the adults are present and can enjoy themselves too.