Why do some women feel a ‘murderous rage’ at Christmas?
‘Women can get very stressed over Christmas . . . believing the fun is in their hands’
Helen Bullock wrapping Christmas presents at her home. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
“A lot of women don’t enjoy Christmas because they’re so busy making it fabulous for everyone else,” says psychotherapist Stella O’Malley, author of Bully Proof Kids, who refers to the festive season as “the mental load” on women.
“I see it in my friends and relations. It’s very gender-driven; it’s about women believing that the fun in Christmas is in their hands,” she says, adding that sometimes the responsibility can become too much.
“When a woman works too hard she can become stressed and turn into a bit of a cross-patch. Women can get very stressed over Christmas – to the extent of experiencing murderous rage. That’s because when you kill yourself with effort you lose all sense of perspective, along with all the fun, joy and happiness. It’s a problem.”
Pressure on mothers also comes from Instagram and Disney, she believes. “There are so many elements to getting it right – from bringing the kids to see Santa to decorating the tree and making the dinner – and it’s a sham created by people who want to make money out of it.”
The idyllic depiction of family Christmases on social media and in movies, she believes, feeds on women’s sense of identity which is so often wrapped up in the home:
“There’s a sense that it reflects on the mother’s identity,” she says, adding that all the responsibility for Christmas preparations can make for a heavy mental load. “The father will do what he’s told but the mother’s the project manager and chief bottle-washer combined,” says O’Malley who offers tips to women on how to reduce the mental load of Christmas.
– Recheck your values: do you want an Instagram Christmas or a happy family one? “You cannot have both,” says O’Malley, adding: “Look at Christmas and decide what you want – is it fun and joy or perfection? Don’t choose perfect.”
– Don’t try too hard: “Trying too hard sucks the joy out of things.”
– If something goes wrong don’t let it ruin your day: “Don’t let a few burned vegetables ruin your Christmas!”
– If you find yourself getting angry or stressed go somewhere quiet for a few minutes: “Get out of the mayhem,” she advises. Go somewhere quiet and think about what you want from Christmas.
– Be realistic in your expectations as to who does what. “Don’t ask your partner or kids to do something they’ve never done before,” she advises. Distribute Christmas chores according to ability.
– And remember: there will always be someone who won’t pull their weight!
'I do everything from the gift-shopping to the decorating'
Helen Bullock adores Christmas.
Her husband, she says, just isn’t interested.
“I like the whole thing – he likes to avoid it,” says the Co Galway-based schoolteacher, who claims that, when it comes to Christmas, it’s all down to her.
“He just has no interest in Christmas so I do everything. He won’t even hear of it ’til around December 20th,” says the 31-year-old, who is mother to a three-year-old boy. “I do everything from the gift-shopping to the decorating.”
“I’m organised,” she says. “I’m currently engaged in Santa shopping – on my own! I love the atmosphere of Christmas. I grew up in a very Christmas-orientated house, where Christmas was a big family time.”
It’s not that her husband actively hates the festive season, she explains, he’s simply uninvested and uninvolved. “He likes the house decorated and looking nice. He has no issue with Christmas per se; he’s just not that interested!”
So when it comes to getting into the festive spirit, Helen teams up with like-minded friends with husbands who are equally unenthused by the festive season.
“I’ve found a group of friends with kids who are of a similar age – their husbands are useless at Christmas! There are four of us and we pick an evening to go to dinner and do some shopping and go to the panto without husbands or children – it sounds awful, but it works for us.”
On December 1st, the group spent an evening in Cork city, where they attended the “adult” panto at the Spailpín Fánach pub.
“A lot of men aren’t interested in Christmas because they’ve always had everything done for them – they grew up with mammy doing everything and they have the expectation that Christmas just happens!”
The burden of Christmas epitomises the battle of the sexes, believes Donegal mum Amanda McLaughlin (35), who has a 15-year-old daughter.
“For most women, Christmas is the most stressful time of year. “Typically, it’s a battle of the sexes – men are clueless when it comes to Christmas and they don’t understand the shopping, or buying the turkey.
“The onus is on the mother to have everything perfect. Everyone just expects women to get on with it. It’s a very traditional role for the mother, and it’s outdated.”
A mother never relaxes because there’s so much to do
Christmas, says the An Post employee, who lives in Malin, is like a competition for women but one without a prize. “There’s no prize for the mothers who put too much pressure on themselves to have the most nicely decorated homes and the most successful presents. A mother never relaxes because there’s so much to do. Christmas is a big burden for women, far more so than for men. You’ll get a present from a couple and more than likely the man won’t even know what it is.”
However, Amanda says, it’s often women who bring much of the work and stress of Christmas on themselves. “If women are not competing against other women, they’re competing against themselves in their own head.”
Social media also exerts huge pressure – on the mothers of teenagers in particular, she believes, “because mothers are the ones who have to listen to the complaints”.
This Christmas Day, predicts Amanda, plenty of teenagers will post photographs of themselves with their new iPhone X, which costs more than €1,100.
“I think there’s more pressure now than ever on mothers because of Instagram and all these curated images of wonderful family dinners and perfect Christmas scenes,” says 33-year-old PR executive Christine Duggan, from Skibbereen. “You’re supposed to reach this level of perfection.”
The mother of two children – aged 2½ and 5 – is a bit apprehensive about “doing” Christmas dinner in her own home for the first time this year. “This year my parents are coming to us. It’s their first Christmas away from home in 45 years and suddenly I’m starting to feel all this responsibility coming down on my shoulders. My mother always took responsibility for Christmas and this year the baton has been handed to me.
“I work full time and tend to leave a lot of things to the last minute, but my husband is asking whether I’ve I ordered the turkey and ham and done this or that. Suddenly, I seem to be the person who’s “doing” Christmas – my husband’s role seems to be the typical male role of serving drinks and being entertaining.
“It looks like I’ll be doing the thinking and planning, while my husband will probably pop in and out reminding me about things that need to be done.”
They are a thoroughly modern and democratic couple, and he’s normally “very good around the house”, she says, but it seems, the Christmas preparations are Christine’s affair.
“I’m seeing that when it comes to Christmas, it’s very much up to the woman – definitely the pressure is on me. My husband is quite sanguine about it because he doesn’t see it as his responsibility.
“He’s already saying things like: ‘It’ll be grand, it’s no bother to you.’ He says he doesn’t know what all the stressing is about, but that’s because of an assumption that I’m the one who’ll be taking care of everything. He’s not worrying about having good dinner-ware or cutlery for the Christmas table, or having the children dressed in nice clothes!”
Her mother “did” Christmas all her life, Christine recalls, and now she’s seeing that the pattern repeating in her own family. “I’m only now realising how much my mother did for Christmas, how much she invested in Christmas and for very little thanks, let’s be honest.”
Christine will take on much of the responsibility for the preparations and the work, she says, but when she needs help she intends to press her spouse into action. “I’ll call on him, and I know he’ll do it. I know that if I didn’t ask for help when I needed it I’d be resentful.”
But why is Christmas still the woman’s job?
“It always seems to be the women who take responsibility for these big occasions. I think it’s ingrained into society’s mind-set and into women’s mind-set,” she observes.
Mother of 11-year-old twins, Dublin-born Sherna Malone automatically assumes much of the annual responsibility of organising Christmas for her family.
The 46-year-old sales and marketing manager with the Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery, Co Cork, says that, when she was a child, her mother made Christmas incredibly special – and therefore, when she became a mum, Sherna automatically assumed this mantle.
Men don’t see their fathers doing it and they’re not as invested in it
“Growing up is very much about role models – and this is what I saw. Men don’t see their fathers doing it and they’re not as invested in it – mother does the Christmas cake and the mince pies, ordering the turkey and organising the gifts.
“In my age group, it’s mostly mothers who do it. Maybe that will change with the next generation. It would be a good thing because it can be quite a juggle for a mother, trying to do everything.”
The reality is, says Laura Erskine, for MummyPages.ie, is that many mums feel under pressure, not only to ensure that everyone gets the gift they desire at Christmas, but that they also have their best meal of the year, and a wonderful time to boot.
“Many of our mums are fed up with being so heavily relied upon by their partners and extended families to make the magic happen, regardless of family or financial circumstances.”