Sharing the Holiday Third Shift

How Couples Create and Enjoy the Magic of the Holidays, Together
Blog Post
Photo of Chelsea Elliott, a BLLx beta-tester, and her family.
Dec. 7, 2021

The Holidays can be both wondrously joyful and incredibly stressful—especially for women who are often expected to create the Holiday magic and do the “kin work” of keeping family ties strong. I’ve written about how one Thanksgiving nearly cost me my marriage, and the 2 a.m. calls with my sister on Christmas Eve, as we frantically wrapped kids’ presents, crept to the fireplace to quietly stuff stockings and take bites out of the cookies left out for Santa, and wished one another an exhausted “Merry Stressmas.”

But Holidays don’t have to be that way. And, as the winter Holiday season gets underway, we at the Better Life Lab want to help. So we’ve reached out to experts and to the BLLx beta testing community to find the best stories and practical strategies to help you and your partner, your family and loved ones, to more fairly share the work of creating Holiday magic together, and then have the time, energy and bandwidth to actually enjoy it together.

Chelsea Elliott, an entrepreneur with a master’s degree in social work and new BLLx best tester, and her husband, Daryl, a banker with JPMorgan Chase, have been intentional about sharing the load at home from the start. They divide chores based on individual strengths, not gender, she said. “My husband just likes cooking and cleaning. I do laundry,” she told me.

They take the same approach during the Holidays. “We try to keep it low stress,” Elliott told me. “People talk about, ‘My Mom did this and that,’ and I think, ‘That sounds like she was dying inside.’ I tell my kids, ‘I love y’all, but mommy needs to take a break.’”

Still, the pressure for women to overdo can be intense, she acknowledged. Dividing the chores so the Holidays don’t feel like a stressful burden for women and mothers is a sore subject in the group she helps facilitate for women struggling with peri-natal and postpartum mental health issues. Elliott’s mom went all out for the Holidays as a kid, hosting big gatherings and decorating the house with multiple trees. She thinks the seemingly picture-perfect view of the Holidays all over social media can lead to anxiety or feelings of inadequacy. “I used to have a lot of mom guilt around not doing certain things. I’ve had to let that go,” she said. “Social media makes everything look so bright and cheery—all the kids are in matching outfits, everything looks really good. But I’ll bet that behind the scenes is absolute torture. I had to realize that I can make other memories for my kids, like the memory of a Holiday where mom was sane, where she looked happy and wasn’t frazzled and stressed.”

Elliott may do Elf on the Shelf with her two daughters this year, Olivia, one, and Natalie, five, and she does like spending time doing crafts with them. But, for their family, Holidays are about taking time to feel and share gratitude for the ordinary magic of just having time together. “I’ve been thinking lately about how blessed we are, and I know there are people who can’t even do the basics. I try to keep that in perspective,” she said. “You can have experiences together that don’t cost you a dime. I honestly don’t think the Holidays need to be magic. It’s just us being relaxed. Not rushed. And doing the things we love to do together—watching our favorite movies together, sitting on the floor eating a meal, playing pretend—having the privilege to hang out, that’s the magic for me.”

Elliott suffered from depression and anxiety when she was pregnant, and keeping a gratitude journal helped her get through it. Expressing gratitude to others during the Holidays is a practice she seeks to instill in her children. She’s created hand-made “Love Books” for her daughters of affirmations written on little hearts like “You have beautiful brown skin,” “You have a big purpose in the world,” and “You are loved.” “That grounds you and puts things in perspective.”

Strategies to Transform Your Experience of the Holidays

1. Ask Everyone in the Family: How Do You Want to Feel During the Holidays? BLL Deputy Director and BLLx Co-Founder Haley Swenson and I talked to CNN’s Elissa Strauss about the importance of starting holiday planning by asking everybody, including mom: How do you want the day to feel?

I told Elissa, “When the family is together discussing the holiday, the mom gets to say that she wants to enjoy the day and that she doesn't want to be the stressed-out person yelling at everybody … Once you have that North Star of what you want the day to look like and how you want to feel during it, then you can ask: What is the work that needs to be done to create it? And how do we want to divide that fairly?"

2. Pause. And Start With the End in Mind. Even when I know how I’d like to feel, I can often fall into what I call a “checklist” mentality and focus intensely on ticking off all the things crammed onto my holiday to-do list. As a result, the joy of the season often feels like it’s passed me by. So the other morning, I took a deep breath and went on a walk and listened to this podcast by mindfulness teacher Tara Brach. This year, I’m taking her advice: Before you even think about a checklist, pause, and think about how you’d like to feel about the Holidays once they’re over. How do you hope you relate to others and your own inner life? Ask your loved ones to do the same. Then set the intention that you’ll create space and share the work to make that happen—for everyone.

3. Manage Expectations. Erin Kelly, a work-family scholar at MIT, responded to my social media call-out for tips for sharing the work and joy of the holiday season with this: “Is Holiday Magic needed? Establishing low expectations is key for us. There’s one beloved, signature dish per holiday, and the rest may be flexible, scrounged, take out. Decorations are minimal. We’re not a sentimental crew & kids seem fine with this too… But I take charge of gifts.”

4. Create Your Own Family Story Around Tradition and Use a Spreadsheet If You Have To. Maya Uppaluru, an attorney and product manager at the U.S. Digital Service and new BLLx beta tester, said that between her and her husband, their daughter is a mix of at least six different ethnic backgrounds. Inspired by this essay on family stories and how family traditions can give children a secure foundation, they decided to create their own family narrative. So they talked early on, going through the calendar and sharing the traditions that are important to each and what memories and feelings they hoped the traditions would spark in their kids. “It’s an important shared value for us to celebrate family traditions and create that special feeling for our kids,” Uppaluru wrote me. She and her husband use Google calendar and spreadsheets to work out how to share the load to create that magic.

“I feel like a lot of women end up doing more because [of] those two initial conversations—one: what do we value/ what do we want our holiday to look like for us and our kids? and then two: how are we going to work together to get to that shared goal?—aren’t happening in the beginning of the season,” she continued. The planning and sharing of the work are just as important to her husband. He told her, “When these kids grow up, they are going to have warm and fuzzy feelings about the holidays because we built this together, and they’ll pass it along to their kids, and it will create more love in the world.”

5. Assess Your Holiday Personality and Clarify Your Values. Psychologist Natalie Christine Dattilo offers a fun quiz to help assess your values and your relationship to holiday traditions to help you “reboot.” She writes:

  • When you think about the holiday season, what are the first words that come to mind for you? Family? Fun? Stress?
  • Next, how do you feel about the holiday season, honestly? (Not how you should feel about the holidays!) Do you look forward to them? Do you secretly dread them?
  • Finally, what’s your holiday personality style?
    • Traditionalists tend to value familiarity, routine, and predictability.
    • Celebrationists value spontaneity, people-pleasing, gift-giving, and merriment.
    • Connectionists value togetherness, tend to be social and extraverted, and can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to be alone during the holidays.

Do you have stories and strategies that work for you and your family? Then, please go to our private Facebook group (and ask to join!) and share them with the BLLx community!

Need more inspiration? Try one of these BLLx Holidays and Celebrations experiments:

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