When Holidays Hijack Our Sanity: My Vow to Do Less and Find More Joy

holidays sanity holidays sanity
courtesy Alice Leiter

My mother describes Halloween as “the most important day of the year,” and throughout my childhood, she treated it as such. She handmade costumes every year for my sisters and me. She sewed. With patterns. And ribbons that she bought at, like, ribbon stores. Which she went to in all the free time she had between her job and three children and husband and special-needs cat. And to this day she hosts an annual party, complete with marshmallow “ghosties” and a mini costume-parade around the downstairs.

Although I did inherit my mother’s love of holidays generally, I did not inherit her love of Halloween. And it’s not (just) because of the impossibly high bar she set.

I don’t like dressing up in costume. I didn’t even like theme parties in college, and I liked all parties in college.

I don’t like purposely making my house ugly. Given how hard I work in my real life to destroy cobwebs, prevent against rodents and dispose of decaying squash, actively seeking out and paying money for all three is tough to swallow.

And I don’t want unfettered access to Reese’s peanut butter cups. Buying larger clothes is both time-consuming and expensive.

courtesy Alice Leiter

Unappealing aesthetics and sugar aside, Halloween is in many ways about personal expression, so the biggest issue I face every year is the pressure I feel to make all my children’s costume-related dreams a reality. Of course, said children would be 100% fine with something that cost $11.99, was made by a robot in Taiwan, and must not come within six inches of an open flame, so I don’t need a therapist to point it out: this pressure comes from me, not them.

I find Halloween stressful because on some level I see it as a test of – or referendum on – my creativity/thoughtfulness/commitment to Making Magical Childhood Memories.

And isn’t that how all holidays can end up feeling? Like a way to measure the overall quality of our parenting? (And can we just call a spade a spade and agree that it’s mothers who do 99.9% of holiday preparation and orchestration? No? Then please send me your husband’s phone number so I can interview him for my next piece, tentatively titled “Unicorns Are Real!”)

We should be proud of our heart-in-the-right-place ambition to make our children happy. But damn if pursuing that goal, however admirable, isn’t f-ing exhausting. Off the top of my head, here’s some of the typical prep involved in making Halloween happen:

  • Nail your children down on desired costumes early enough to buy/make them, but not so early that there’s room for them to change their minds.
  • Remember to buy candy for trick-or-treaters before there are only Good-n-Plentys left at the grocery store.
  • Remember to buy fake cobwebs before there is only one bag left at Rite Aid, just enough to make one third of one of your front-yard bushes look gross and dead.
  • Block out a weekend day to drive to some pick-your-own-pumpkin hellhole that in your mind is full of gorgeous foliage and crisp air and hot cider, but is actually full of 93 million other people who are sweating in the 85-degree heat while battling over the small handful of remaining pumpkins. All of which are rotting.
  • Cry uncle and head to Trader Joe’s to buy enough pumpkins to have both “decorative” pumpkins and “carving” pumpkins. Somehow procure newsprint for pumpkin guts.
  • Try to remember where you put the candy bags/plastic pumpkins/buckets from last year and, when you fail, go to CVS to purchase new ones.
  • Get in a fight with your spouse over who trick-or-treats with the kids and who stays home to give out candy.
  • Figure out what the candy policy will be once the kids return home, high and mere minutes from vomiting.

(And If you are in fact making your child’s costume – or multiple children’s costumes – the above list doesn’t even begin to cover your to-dos, most of which inevitably involve either glitter or a glue-gun.)

courtesy Alice Leiter

I’m heading into my sixth Halloween as a mother, and working on my 13th, 14th and 15th costumes. As I grumble every step of the way, I’m trying to remind myself of my overarching governing philosophy when it comes to holidays:

Be honest about what you’re doing for your children, and what you’re doing for yourself.

This is crucial. Children’s holiday-related needs are nowhere near as involved as we imagine. They want to trick-or-treat on Halloween, because they like candy. They want pie at Thanksgiving, because they like sugar. They want Santa to come on Christmas, because they like presents. They don’t want to be the only kid at school who doesn’t have Valentines to hand out on Valentine’s day, because they don’t want to be embarrassed. Etcetera.

Of course, all the holiday-related work we do — on the décor,  food, or party-planning fronts — adds up to a general feel of Specialness, which is, to me, a major priority, and thus justifies going the extra mile. Or at least yard or two.

courtesy Alice Leiter

But when I start to feel overwhelmed as a particular holiday approaches, I try take a minute to distinguish the things I’m doing that truly are for my children (e.g., driving out to a terrible suburb for the party store that carries the best plastic rats) and those that are for me (e.g., making rather than buying costumes because it makes me feel proud). It is easier for me to manage the stress — and prevent against resentment — when I can acknowledge that I am taking on certain tasks purely for myself; then I have no one else to blame. (For example, know who doesn’t care what kind of ribbon and wrapping paper I use? My mother-in-law. Know who does? Me.)

As with so many things in life, one way to raise happy, enthusiastic children is to be a happy, enthusiastic parent. If we are anxious and snippy during holidays, all the ghost cookies, handmade place-cards on the Thanksgiving table and matching Easter brunch outfits in the world won’t make up for it. We help teach our children what is special and magical by treating it so ourselves, and it’s much harder to do that when frustrated and pissed off.

So. This Holiday Season, let’s make a deal with ourselves: let’s do less, but in reducing the length of our to-do lists, commit to infusing the items that remain with genuine joy, largely because of the joy they will bring our children. And if it’s something that, in all honesty, isn’t really about our children, be ok with doing something purely because we know will make us feel proud, or valued, or accomplished.

Like what, you might ask?

Like a Big Ben costume for your son Ben.

courtesy Alice Leiter

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Alice Leiter is a recovering lawyer living in Washington, D.C. with her husband and four children. Her hobbies include making fun of her family on Instagram, watching Bravo, and worrying that people are mad at her. She hates when grown women call her “Mama.” Reach her at alice@aliceleiter.com.