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Give yourself the best Christmas present of all this year: a break from the mental load

by Liz Marchant

Full time women, we need to talk about Christmas! Not the fact that the countdown has started until all hell breaks loose either under the tree, or around the dinner table, depending on your family’s make up and whether you’re hosting this year – but about the mental load of Christmas.

Last year, many of us instantly identified with the concept of the mental load when French comic artist Emma created this poignant, relatable and uncomfortably familiar cartoon. Emma’s cartoon makes the point that, in most houses, women are the ones endlessly keeping track of all the necessary minutiae to support a family.

Emma’s illustration of the husband saying, “You should have asked!” is the essence of the mental load. Why should she have to ask? Yet, this is the reality for most of us every day.

Even for the most talented of multi-taskers, the mental load of remembering everything for everyone every day is exhausting. So, when a fresh set of requirements arrives that needs to be managed on top of the regular daily load (no matter how wonderful the occasion), it is a recipe loaded with potential to spark stress, anxiety and a sense of being simply overwhelmed.

Enter Christmas. That time of year symbolised by gift giving, decorating, feasting, visiting and time away from the regular daily patterns of school and work. The mental load bonanza of all bonanzas!

The kind of bonanza requiring weeks of preparation, healthy sums of money and your time. Ohhh so much time… to do everything from thinking through the menu and pre-ordering to suit it, to thinking through every gift required, to calculating if you’ve spent an even amount of money on each child, before hiding presents in that weird space you have found in your home because they’re getting so good at finding gifts before Christmas Day.

Many women feel a kind of responsibility to make Christmas a success. The reality is that Christmas will happen whether or not you turn yourself inside out with the stress of the additional mental load.

The good news is that Christmas doesn’t have to be a time of the year filled with more work and stress than ever. Here are five tips for making this coming Christmas a memorable one because it’s now the time to plan how not to carry the full mental load.

  1. Build your Christmas team. In her book, The Invisible Load, Dr Libby Weaver writes, “The classic internal statement of those carrying an invisible load is ‘if I don’t do it, it won’t get done’. The others exclaim, ‘I would have helped if only you’d asked’.”
    The message to help reduce the mental load? Ask for help. Identifying people who can be relied upon for help can greatly relieve the pressure of Christmas. You know the relatives who are forgetful or who leave things to the last minute, so don’t ask for their help. Doing so only risks the job coming back to you for action anyway, or needing you to step in with a last-minute Plan B. You know who your good people are. Focus on them, build your Christmas team and ask for their help. Be clear, specific and spread the work around. After all, many hands make light work.
  2. Be ready to delegate. True delegation means not just passing on tasks for completion by someone else, it’s also relaxing your standards and expectations. Having someone else take on some work and then feeling unhappy about their efforts only gives your source of stress a new home. If you ask someone for help, be ready to let them do it in their own way. It might mean the Christmas pudding is bought or that your partner’s mother doesn’t love the present that was picked out for her, but you know what? It’s all okay. Done is better than perfect – and done by someone else is even better!
  3. Keep it real. Picture perfect Christmas gatherings are the stuff of Instagram and Hollywood movie sets. Real Christmas is messy, unpredictable and often hotter than you’d like. The crackers won’t all pop, it’ll take half an hour longer than usual to bring Nana over for lunch because of the heavy holiday traffic, someone will drink too much, the kids will squabble, there won’t be enough of the right batteries for the presents and everyone will want a lie down that they can’t have at some point during the day. Lighten your mental load by letting go of the ideal of the stylised, idealised It doesn’t really matter that the tree is unevenly decorated provided the kids had fun doing it, or that the centrepiece is wilting – or that you didn’t get a centrepiece! What matters is that you’re making memories with your nearest and dearest and that you get to enjoy the moment.
  4. Plan downtime. Amid the Christmas hustle and bustle, many women wish they could take time out here and there to revive themselves, especially if your kids are wake super early with excitement. Plan periods of downtime where you can step away to briefly recharge. It might be right after the presents have been opened and before your partner gets the food preparation underway (see tip 2 above!). Or it might be to prepare yourself for an outing to the in-laws. Downtime is good for you for many reasons and it doesn’t need to be three hours at a spa to be revitalising. Take a walk around the block, slip away to “send a Christmas greeting” or spend a few minutes longer in the bathroom. Don’t be shy about telling those around you either. A simple ‘I need a minute, I’ll be right back’ is polite and clear.
  5. Re-think traditions. Traditions are those familiar customs we practice around certain occasions. Christmas is a big one for traditions. In December, just about every room in the house will carry the hallmark of some kind of Christmas tradition, whether it’s the tree, lights, decorations, gifts or a Christmas outfit. We love a tradition and creating habits for families to carry on throughout the years is a wonderful practice. Maybe this year is a good time to look at them with fresh eyes to make sure they are really important, and not just adding to your load. Do you really need the deck the halls with boughs of anything? Does the main meal need to be a sit down three course lunch centred around a roast? Do two Christmas meals need to be consumed on the same day in order to keep everyone in the family happy? You know what your stressful traditions are, don’t be shy about mixing things up to keep the days more manageable, less stressful and – yes – even fun.

Many full time women are like endurance athletes when it comes to managing the mental load, remember that one of the secrets to the success of endurance athletes is rest. So, plan on giving yourself the best Christmas present of all this year: a break from the mental load.

For more useful advice and information about managing the load in your household beyond the holiday period, read the book The Invisible Load’ by Dr. Libby Weaver.