I vowed that this would be the year I didn’t overwhelm myself with making holiday magic for my family. Every year since becoming a mom, Christmas has become progressively more involved. More presents to assemble, more dishes to prepare, more guests to host. I love this time of year because I genuinely feel that I shine. Holidays play to my strengths. I am a rockstar when I can perform in short, concentrated bursts. I love holidays, birthdays, and special events for the same reason I chose to compete in Olympic Weightlifting over, say, running marathons: I do my best work when I can throw all of my effort and magic into something that is intense but short.
But every expenditure of effort and magic comes at a cost. In weightlifting, that cost is injuries and sore muscles. When it comes to making the holidays special, the cost is less easily defined, less visible to others. There is a physical cost, yes. Aching feet, tired fingers, stiff muscles. But there is also a mental and emotional toll that, to me, is much more significant.
Making holiday magic is about the expectation we put on ourselves to make everything perfect, to keep everyone happy and fulfilled. We hold ourselves to an impossibly high standard that only leaves room for disappointment in ourselves when we inevitably don’t rise to meet it. This is worsened when our kids don’t like their Christmas presents (forgetting that they themselves asked for those very things), when the food comes out less tasty than we hoped, or when after-dinner conversations turn political and then turn nasty. We take these things personally. And when the magic is over and the kids are in bed, we silently despair.
For me personally, this seems to get worse as I get older. I’m not old by any means, but I am turning 39 next month, and, of course, this is the oldest I’ve ever been. Despite doing everything possible to let the holiday magic make itself this year, I still managed to wear myself out. My body is sore and tired. I can’t help thinking I might have been a little more resilient toward my holiday activities just a few years ago when, paradoxically, I was doing so much less. I woke up this morning with most of my muscles aching—muscles I don’t even recall using. I’m tired; almost hungover, it feels. Just having a hard time getting my body to do what it needs to do to get my day started.
I’m pretty mentally and emotionally burnt out, too. There is something so discouraging about spending two days preparing a meal that is consumed and forgotten in 20 minutes or less, and then spending hours cleaning up after it. Forget the physical toll of that. The psychological toll feels worse! And, if I’m being honest, the come-down from all the effort and expectation has taken a pretty big toll, too. I try not to have expectations about how my kids will respond to my holiday work. They are five and seven. They are bound to be disappointed in some of their gifts, to not show appreciation or gratitude. They are safe here, and they know they are loved, so they don’t feel the need to perform. That makes me proud. I’m glad of that, in fact. But, there is something to be said for preparing their Christmas gifts for months, only to have them be unappreciative. It takes work to manage my disappointment and not put it on my kids. It’s silent, private work to be done when they aren’t around. And…that’s just hard.
So, even though I made all the best efforts to take it easy this year—to not push myself to the point of exhaustion that takes days to recover from—I don’t really feel like it made much difference.
Maybe that’s just the reality of holidays for parents of little kids. These big events are fun, and magical, and beautiful, but they are also exhausting. Sometimes they are disappointing. Often, lonely. We have to learn to do our best to protect our energy and our peace, while also understanding that big events like the holidays will take their toll. Perhaps it’s less about managing our workload and more about managing our expectations. The truth is, I don’t have the answers. And, perhaps, I’m still in a bit of my yearly post-Christmas blues. I find that every Christmas renders a little sadness that lingers for a few days, possibly due to the exhaustion the holidays leave behind. Those blues do partially color my perception of things. But I think even that should be normalized and embraced. Both things can be true at the same time: holidays can be lovely and worth every moment, and they can sometimes feel like they take more than they give.
Maybe being honest with ourselves about that fact is the real answer.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.