Rewind to January last year. Here’s a thank-you letter a fellow mother shared with me, written to her husband from his godson.
“Thank you very much for my Christmas Present. I love ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ books. Love Yore Loving GOD SON James.”
We both laughed. As many mothers reading this would realize, the likelihood of her husband a) sending the present himself or b) knowing that his godson liked Jeff Kinney’s series in the first place was, as she put it, on a par with her “being reincarnated as a Christmas fairy”.
Retailers know it tends to be women who are the nation’s present buyers and wrappers, mood makers and crisis averters. We distress the shop-bought mince pies and microwave the still-hard roast potatoes. We are up until midnight trying to attach angels’ wings to the nativity outfit with splitting Sellotape and a headache to match.
For while women have made huge strides in the workplace, many men have not yet found themselves needing to order the turkey, decorate the tree, or throw the neighborhood party. Mostly women just get on with it and many love doing so.
But be warned. For some, the pressure of trying to achieve perfection both at home and work is proving too much, and never more so than in December. In my case, it was trying to throw a Christmas party that tipped me into a second breakdown. In the run-up to the party, I had been trying to be all things to all people: the perfect mother, wife and friend, and to tick every box despite increasingly bad insomnia and high levels of anxiety. My to-do list was never-ending.
Tell this to a fellow mother and they understand the pressure women put themselves under. My mother calls it “death by a thousand cuts”. And there’s no denying more woman than men come forward to talk about their depression.
Figures from the mental health charity Sane show that in 2013 almost 475,000 women were referred for counseling or behavioral therapy compared with only 274,000 men.
What, then, is the answer? My own approach to Christmas is now somewhat different. We’re not holding a party. Becoming a volunteer with the education department at a local prison has helped me to find a new perspective. So too has running poetry workshops for mental health charities. I am entirely the beneficiary, given the well-known personal rewards of trying to help others.
After a family summit, we decided to streamline our present-giving this year: all the adults are getting a paperback. So there’s one trip to what is arguably the least stressful kind of shop. A friend swears by using paper plates for Christmas lunch; another by choc-ices as “you don’t even need to wash up the spoons”.
I have also tried to reassess my relations with others: research suggests women are especially vulnerable to depression given the pressure they put on themselves to maintain friendships and other relationships. Sane’s Richard Colwill reports that while families can be a source of strength and joy for some, for others they are a source of anxiety. Aim to replace “good” with “good enough”.
This is particularly true for mothers. One child recently was weeping because she hadn’t been given a solo in the forthcoming carol service. In the past, I might have spent hours telling her that I would make it better, possibly going so far as to distract her with an alternative treat. But it was good enough to sit quietly and listen. Her rage visibly dissolved as she felt heard and understood. Soon she was reminding herself that she had been lucky enough to have been a soloist a previous year. Sometimes good enough is actually better.
I’ve learned that not only can I not manage to respond to every request of the modern child, but trying to create the perfect Christmas with its ensuing stress may not have pleased my children either.
A 1998 survey of American children conducted by the Families and Work Institute found that 10 per cent of the surveyed children wanted more time with their mothers, 15.5 per cent wanted more time with their fathers, but 34 per cent said they wished their mothers were less stressed.
I’ve certainly been trying to put less pressure on myself of late. Many of the demands I imagine are just that: my own imaginings. Walking or cycling has slowed the tempo of life and automatically reduces how much I can pack into a day, while practicing mindfulness, when I pause, breathe, stretch and appreciate, gives my mind a breather – literally. Stopping to read a poem helps too, especially anything by George Herbert or Christina Rossetti at this time of year.
Such strategies won’t magically stop me getting in a flurry about Christmas presents. But I know the best present of all would be nice, calm mother on Christmas morning.
How to stay sane over Christmas: 10 top tips
1. Treat yourself like a rather nervous pet. If you feel your anxiety rising, slow your breathing, making sure your out breath is longer than your in breath.
2. Vitamin B supplements can help keep you steady and ward off low moods.
3. Despite the temptations of festive cheer over the break, go easy on the alcohol if you can.
4. Learn from geese and practice a bit of formation flying. Work together as a team to make Christmas lunch. No one says you have to eat turkey or Christmas pudding.
5. Enjoy the outdoors. Pick up a Christmas tree rather than ordering one online. It might seem time-consuming, but your spirits will feel the benefit.
6. Try to make sure that your meals remain balanced, and avoid quick festive sugar fixes. If 80 per cent of your meals are nourishing, you can relax about what you eat on sociable Christmas outings.
7. Go to a carol service. Remind yourself of what Christmas is about: sing with gusto (proven to help your mental health).
8. Edible presents are a good way to solve what to eat and what to give in one fell swoop.
9. Practice a random act of kindness, preferably to a stranger: the “one minute stand” improves your own mental health.
10. The perfect Victorian Christmas of united families and ruddy-cheeked children gratefully unwrapping their presents around a tree no longer exists – if it ever did. Evaluate what will make you and your family most happy and ditch any expectations of how you spend your Christmas day.