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Holidays are most exhausting for moms. Here’s how to address that

<i>Adobe Stock</i><br/>It's important to include your children in holiday activities.
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It's important to include your children in holiday activities.

By Elissa Strauss, CNN

The internal ticker tape starts around two weeks before Thanksgiving. That’s when moms and other caregivers, though mostly moms, turn over a portion of their brains to the long and constantly evolving holiday to-do list. Groceries; invitations; Google best potatoes for mashing; Great Aunt Shirley’s lactose intolerance; presents list; holiday decorations; Google best potatoes for latke frying; more invitations; more groceries; find tablecloth; purchase larger dress clothes for kids; and so on and so on.

The earthly miracles of this season, those indulgent, candlelit meals, neatly dressed families, and piles of glossy-wrapped presents, are done by mortals. Very tired mortals, many of whom would prefer to do a lot less miracle making, and a lot more miracle receiving.

The Better Life Lab, a program of the think tank New America that aims to elevate the value of care and advance gender equity, wants to help. The Better Life Lab team has created a series of accessible and easily implementable experiments to help distribute the emotional and domestic labor of the holiday seasons more fairly between partners and families.

One experiment encourages families to think about which traditions really matter to them, and which create more stress than meaning. Another encourages families to make gift purchasing and gathering, as they refer to it, a group project.

CNN spoke with Better Life Lab Director Brigid Schulte and Co-director Haley Swenson about why lessening Mom’s load needs to be a family-wide endeavor, and how the whole family can benefit from a more equitable distribution of holiday-related work.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: Let’s start by stating the problem. How much more domestic and invisible labor, (i.e. the planning, organizing and internal ticker-taping), do women do?

Haley Swenson: The unfair division of labor between women and men when it comes to unpaid labor remains, despite women’s advances in the workforce. In non-holiday periods, mothers do two to three times as much as fathers, and the holiday season is a moment that really exacerbates that imbalance. Polling on it, as well as ethnographic research, shows that it’s mostly Mom who manages holidays.

Brigid Schulte: There is a longstanding tradition that women not only come home to the second shift of housework and childcare, but they are also expected to do what we call “the third shift” of creating the holiday magic. Let me tell you, as a parent, the “magic” is the hardest. When my son was 13, I asked him what he wanted for Christmas and he said, “Mom, I love it when you surprise me, just create the magic.” And I thought, “Noooo, just tell me what you want! So I can get it!”

This pressure can make the day really awful for the person who is planning it all. Look at stress that happens over the holidays, and depression. It’s really untenable for women. The holidays are magic for everyone except Mom.

CNN: Many of your experiments encourage moms to bring their family together and talk about what they value in holiday festivities. Why is this such an important first step?

Swenson: So many of our experiments involve taking something that is in one person’s head and getting it out in the open where it becomes something you can engage with as a group. That’s the biggest step to sharing this work evenly.

When we are so busy it’s easy to just think of the list of things you have to get through, and then you own it. But if you took the hour to sit down with the family and name that list, and not only name that list but say, “What are we going for? What do we want the holidays to look like?” you can set realistic expectations.

Schulte: The central question in these conversations should be: How do you want to feel? And that means everybody. 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.

Moms should think about their expectations of what they think the holidays should look like and consider where they come from. Are they yours, or are you trying to live up to external expectations to be the ideal worker, the ideal mother and Martha Stewart, at once?

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?

CNN: How can this work for gifts, too?

Swenson: Our experiment on gift giving also makes it a social process. Giving and receiving gifts can be very nice, when it’s personal. But when the expectation to buy gifts all falls on mom, we can lose the nicer parts and it becomes hurried and a chore.

Think in advance how to make gifts a meaningful group activity. Try to include kids and educate them about the process. Together, think about who we want to show love for through gifts.

It can also be a nice opportunity to talk about why we give gifts, quantity versus quality, and get the kids thinking about what it means to get and give a gift. The conversation can also be about the importance of setting reasonable budgets for gift-buying, and what is a reasonable amount to spend on a gift, and how long it takes for parents or caregivers to earn that money.

Schulte: Families can experiment together. When our kids were little we said we would give each other gifts of time — little coupons. My son said he would play Barbies with my daughter, who was thrilled out of her mind to have time with her big brother. Two years ago, my son didn’t get me a gift but said he would go out to lunch with me. Now, I had to pay, but to get a teenage boy to go out to lunch with you is a big deal.

CNN: How do we stop these family-planning sessions from being one more thing mom has to worry about?

Schulte: This is a challenge, and why we involve the entire family and build awareness of all the labor moms do in all of our experiments.

Swenson: Also, we try to design our experiments to get away from the idea of “mom-in-chief” as quickly as possible. Our most passionate users do tend to be women because the people who are most invested in fixing a problem are the ones who are suffering the most from it.

We hope to change patterns, and the experiments allow for training of husbands and kids as much as they allow for planning and taking care of the nuts and bolts of one holiday. If one’s family hasn’t heard about the labor before, this is a chance to hear it out loud and think about why and how we are doing this.

CNN: Why is it so important to include the kids, and not just husbands or partners?

Schulte: When you look at the research, you see that the division of labor between genders starts early. Girls tend to do more of the daily time-intensive tasks like sweeping or doing dishes, and boys tend to do once-a-week chores like mowing the lawn or raking the leaves. These gendered divisions can get baked in from the start, which is why it’s so important to include kids in these conversations and have them take on a variety of tasks. Also, research shows that, when kids are involved with chores, it creates a sense of belonging and feeling part of something greater than themselves. It lets them know that they are on “Team Family.”

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