Book the Christmas night out. Arrange the venue. Sort the menu. Organise the free drinks and the bar. Set the dress code. Book taxis. Send invites. Chase numbers. Chase numbers some more. Marshall people. Organise the Secret Santa. Buy extra presents for the Secret Santa when someone doesn’t bring a gift. Agonise over sending cards to the office. Buy cards. Find something to wear. Attend night out.
Book the food delivery slot. Book tickets to see Father Christmas. Book tickets to the panto/ballet/Christmas play. Buy festive jumpers. Plan the menu. Buy the Christmas tree. Get the Christmas tree home. Buy Christmas cards. Write Christmas cards. Organise a family photo. Oversee the making and extremely slow writing of child’s class Christmas cards. Find £1 coins. Send £1 coins to school. Plan advent calendar. Make mince pies. Make more mince pies. Buy mince pies. Locate Christmas decorations. Decorate tree. Decorate house. Buy presents. Buy presents for your family-in-law. Wrap presents. Entertain children. Find ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Be Santa. Get up early. Cook the Christmas dinner. Decorate table. Serve Christmas dinner. Be nice to extended family. Collapse in exhaustion.
Exaggerated perhaps, and possibly only for those with school-age children, but pretty overwhelming. And if any of it sounds familiar, it is likely that you shoulder the mental load – that is the task of orchestration and project management – of Christmas. At work, or at home.
Now of course not everyone celebrates Christmas but the point remains. To facilitate ‘a nice time’, be that Christmas or any other occasion, the burden usually falls on one person. Despite the situation improving in recent years in terms of gender balance, research still shows that the mental load falls disproportionality on women.
There is a reason that cartoons like this one, and the excerpt from the book below, get thousands of likes within minutes. They’re funny. But they’re also pretty real.
In 2017, a report commissioned by a US nonprofit care organisation Bright Horizons, but which is still no doubt applicable to the UK, found that mothers are “responsible not just for their half of household duties and childcare, but also for organising, reminding and planning virtually all family matters”. The more the woman earnt, the worse it was. Even just looking at holidays and family gatherings, the study found that primary breadwinning women are 30% more likely to organise them.
The reports might show improvement, and the United Nations has done its bit by launching the Unstereotype Alliance to eradicate all harmful gender-based stereotypes from advertising, but none of that is any good if you’re in the thick of it.
So, some suggestions on managing the mental load this Christmas:
Start talking now
Have a conversation now with all the relevant people in your household/wider family with whom you usually celebrate as to what they would like the next six weeks to look like.
Sure, there may be some traditions that you all agree on keeping, but don’t adhere to the well, we always do that. If it is time to find a new tradition, move on.
Set boundaries early
If there is any year to abandon wasteful presents that no-one enjoys receiving or buying and the pressure to reciprocate, this is surely it.
Agree now what gifting/cards and so on that your team at work / family as a whole will participate in, communicate said decision clearly, and then divide up the tasks. At home, every adult in the family buys (and wraps) their own presents – no excuses. You are all busy.
If you have a significant other, you can also take that moment to make it clear what, if anything, you are buying, and reciprocally. I don’t mean tell them precisely (although that might be better) but more a general agreement on budget / type of expectations. Emma Thompson might have realised her husband was a slimy *** in Love Actually but women everywhere also felt her pain in hoping for one thing and receiving something totally …. other.
Divide and conquer
One of the most telling things about the cartoon above is the line “you should have asked”. That’s the mental load right there – the person bearing it doesn’t want to have to ask. They want each person to be clear about what they need to deliver, and to do that without letting the side down, and without imposing on the other party.
If you’ve agreed to organise the Secret Santa for the team, that means actually doing it. Not just picking the names or sending the first email. It means checking that everyone has a name, sorting the drop off location, deciding when the presents will be handed out, making sure you have a couple of neutral back up options, and then actually checking every one has a present.
If you’ve agreed to sort the Christmas jumpers for school, that means doing it all, including working out what size you need, what the theme is, what else they will wear with it, and when you need to do it by.
Likewise, if you’re in charge of laundry, it doesn’t mean putting a load on and shrinking it all in the dryer. It means making sure no-one runs out of clean clothes, that specific kit is clean on the days that it is needed, and that nothing changes size.
Credit for what already happens
Chances are, your colleagues/ partner / support network already does a fair amount and that there is plenty of teamwork already happening. Acknowledge this, give credit where it is due and work out how to move to the next stage.
If you don’t want to shoulder the mental load, you need to let go. Remember that “done” is better than “perfect” and by perfect I mean your idea of perfect. Accepting that another person will have a different perspective and will achieve things differently is part of managing the mental load.
If you’ve discussed generally what is important to the outcome, what values need to be taken into account, and the budget, let others get on with achieving their parts of the task in their own way.
Just as it would be infuriating to be micromanaged in a more professional context, remember that the objective is to have to do and remember less, not treat others like they did it wrong just because it wasn’t how you’d have done it.
On this note, best wishes for the festive season and remember to spread some good cheer!