BEHIND DOMESTIC LINES

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IT’S NOT ABOUT THE ELF

By Jami Ingledue

The Holidays are so much work for moms, because the invisible “jobs” that moms are traditionally responsible for–we are the keepers of family, of community, of traditions–weigh on us heavily. All of those jobs are at their most important at Christmas.

And this is a beautiful thing. I love the fact that so many cultures, whatever their religions, have similar celebrations in the middle of winter, around the shortest days of the year, that are all about lighting up the darkness and feeding people and sharing bounty and being together. Think about that. Think about how much that meant when food and warmth were hard-won and earned only through difficult physical labor. And in the darkest of winter, when we ourselves need these things most, we are sharing them with others. This is the best of our humanity, no matter your religion.

And we are the keepers of that. What a sacred duty. And so at Christmas we feel compelled by forces often beyond our understanding to make everything beautiful and magical and perfect and make everyone feel happy and valued.

In this modern world, that can make us lose our minds. Because that is a huge load to carry anyway, but when we now have social media showing us all of the holiday photos of perfect tree-cutting expeditions and clever Elf-on-the-Shelf shenanigans we can easily think we have to do all of these things. (For parents lucky enough to live in countries without the Elf, it’s a little doll that “watches” kids on Santa’s behalf and is generally put in a different, clever place EVERY FREAKING NIGHT.)

And the invisible mental load of pulling all of this off is HUGE. And it’s almost always the mom that does it, let’s be honest. The one who thinks for months about the right gifts for people, that takes care of all of the little tangential gifts like teachers and the UPS man. That plans the meals, that makes sure everyone has a stocking, that remembers to buy a gift for the dog and bake cookies for Santa. That remembers to use different wrapping paper for gifts from Santa. It’s a million small things that add up to a gigantic load.

So why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Why can’t we just simplify and cut back? Because we are in charge of making everyone happy. Because we are in charge of carrying on family traditions, and we have a short number of years in which to create these magical memories for our kids. Because we are in charge of tending precious connections with family and community.

We are trying to put a bubble of perfection and happiness around this day, so that it will sparkle and shine in our kids’ memories–this one day of the year where being with family is the focus of everything, where we celebrate our love and care for each other and put everything else aside.

But the irony is this: look back at your own Christmas memories. Is it the stuff that makes those memories precious? There are some special gifts that might stand out in the mind, but no. It’s the togetherness. It’s the focus on love and caring and laughter, and forgetting about our burdens and responsibilities for a day, and being fully present. It’s the sense of wholeness and belonging and love when we take down the same stocking we use every year at the family Christmas, knowing that Grandma filled the toe with oranges and nuts, and it’s remembering this long after Grandma is gone as we see our own kids take down their stockings. It’s the crystallization of the knowing how precious we were to her, and how precious our kids are to us.

This is, above all, the season of the soul, and that is what we need to protect, that is what we need to put a bubble around. The presents, the specific things we do every year, whether it’s cutting our own tree or making special cookies or moving that damn Elf–these are not what’s important. It’s the tradition of them that is important; it’s the crystallization of our love, put into physical form, that takes the same shape year after year. It is the comfort of knowing that this demonstration of love will continue, a beautiful chain connecting one generation to the next.

And if we were not lucky enough to have those memories stretching back in our own families, it’s making that chain for our own kids from scratch out of our own love, which is in itself a beautiful act of creation.

But here’s the thing: if we try to cram too much stuff in there, if we make ourselves tired and crazy and broke and grumpy, then we are not protecting the season of the soul. We’re taking away from it. We’re depleting it, just as we are depleting ourselves and our bank account. There is a point of diminishing returns where we can’t appreciate all the stuff, all the presents and “fun” activities, because it’s too much, and that makes it not special anymore.

We can make it special by putting more space around it. And to do that we have to have healthy boundaries for ourselves. We have to set down the notion that we must do the emotional labor for everyone, that it’s our job to make everyone happy. All we can do is be thoughtful and appreciative of others, with gift-giving and all other ways; and if that doesn’t make people happy, that is not about us.

We must also set boundaries against our own ego, that wants to show Instagram all of our perfect holiday photos and keep everything neat and perfect. That wants to wow everyone with our gift-giving prowess and mad decoration skills. That wants to amaze our kids by giving them ALL THE THINGS.

But then it just becomes noise. It’s not the perfect presents that make the holiday magical; it’s not the perfect activities, it’s not cramming more and more into our schedule and under our tree, and it’s not the Elf. It’s making space in our crazy modern lives for the season of the soul;

Jami worked as a librarian for over a decade before choosing to stay home when her son, now 6, was born. She also has a 17-year-old daughter. She makes all-natural soap and body products and sells them through her company, Dancing Bee Farms (dancingbeefarms.net). She also spends a large amount of time ringing her senators and has begun a chapter of MOMS DEMAND ACTION. She lives with her husband, daughter, and son on an acre of land in rural Ohio, where they keep bees, garden, and brew beer.

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