Last year, right around the holidays, Saturday Night Live debuted a sketch that went viral and made my blood boil. In the bit, a family wakes on Christmas morning and begins to sing about their cornucopia of presents jubilantly. A father, daughter, and son are in yuletide ecstasies as they exclaim over a drone! rollerblades! a phone! And Kristen Wiig, portraying the mom, gets a robe.
The characters unwrap a comical number of gifts, but Mom only has the robe. The family turns to their stockings laden with candy, games, and toys. But Kristen Wiig’s stocking is still empty, hanging off the mantle, sad and flat.
I remember this sketch well, not because it was so funny (it was, Kristen Wiig, is a genius in our time) but because of the public response to it. Countless women in my social media feeds shared the video in the coming days with pithy captions like “The truth!”, “It’s me!” and “That’s how Christmas really is…”
And reader, that made me very sad and very mad.
Mother as the family martyr is a familiar trope
There is truth in almost anything funny. This SNL parody of a Christmas morning, in which a mother — playing the traditional role of caregiver, gift giver, and family martyr — is wholly dismissed by her loved ones, resonated so deeply with its audience because for untold women across the country and probably the world, it felt…normal.
I was both shocked and also not. I know that across spectrums of race, religion, and socioeconomic circumstances, mothers in America still do a disproportionate amount of the domestic work in their households. Mothers are still mostly managing the ticker table of endless invisible tasks (parent-teacher conferences, dental cleanings, birthday presents, permission slips, vet appointments, dry cleaning, pick-up times, oil changes, doctor visits, and managing social calendars and social relationships). And Christmas is the absolute crescendo of this kind of thankless work.
I always wondered why my mother was not more joyful during the holidays
I remember being a child and wondering why my own mother always seemed to get so stressed at Christmastime. Couldn’t she feel the magic? Where was her joy?
It took me until my adulthood to understand that her joy was buried somewhere at the bottom of the shopping bags of presents she was buying for everyone in our family. Maybe it had gotten tossed away with the eggshells she cracked while baking a dozen platters of ten different kinds of cookies to be artfully presented on trays and then dropped at the homes of family and friends.
Maybe her enjoyment of the season was muddled up in the obligations to host and attend multiple gatherings or singed while ironing a pretty new velvet dress for me, along with the tablecloths and napkins for her Martha Stewart-Esque tablescape.
It took becoming a mother to understand what was going on
When I became a mother, I understood better the part I was expected to play in the merriest season — to be the unflagging, selfless architect of Christmas joy for my children.
To pick the fluffiest tree, trim it to magazine-worthy glory, and not scream when the baby carelessly tosses an heirloom ornament.
To arrange the perfect photograph for the yearly holiday card and then ensure it gets addressed, stamped, and sent promptly.
To provide thoughtful and affordable gift ideas to all relatives who want to know what to buy the children. To bake something both charmingly homemade and impressive enough for gifting to extended family and friends.
To remember the teachers, the mailman, the grandparents, the nieces, and the nephews.
To get something incredible for my spouse.
And to buy the exact, unique, deeply longed-for gifts for my kids, all in a breathless effort to achieve that perfect Christmas morning moment. That moment of replete, cinematic joy will stay with them forever.
What does playing a role cost mothers?
But at what cost? What if the memory that stays with them, instead of all that Christmas perfection, is the image of their exhausted, depleted, harried mom who has lost her spirit in an attempt to accomplish all of the above?
I decided long ago, when my first son was only a baby, to refuse to play that particular role.
Here’s the thing: we all deserve to have a beautiful holiday. We all have a right to joy. But no one is going to hand it to you. You’re not the kid for whom the whole pageant is performed anymore. Nor must you be the handmaid, toiling in secret stress, obligated to make merry for everyone around you at the expense of your sanity.
If you want a great Christmas, you must remember that the holidays are for you too.
This will look different in every family, depending on many factors too significant to name. It comes down to setting reasonable expectations for what you can do for others while making room for the things that bring you happiness.
What can moms do differently to reclaim their joy?
Maybe you forgo the expense and labor of holiday cards and cookie exchanges and decline the invitations that fill you with dread, saving energy for the gatherings you enjoy.
Perhaps you keep the gift-giving to a Secret Santa-type exchange instead of shopping for dozens of relatives. I expect many of us would enjoy the season a lot more if we shirked off the pressure to travel and opted instead for a Christmas morning in our own homes, where the dress code is more “pajamas all day” than tights and your itchiest sweater.
And as for the whole “Kristen Wiig/empty stocking/Mom just gets a robe” of it all? It would be a cold day in hell before I let the people I love and who love me get away with some nonsense like that.
Don’t model invisibility for your family
As we all know, gift-giving is more about the meaning behind the gesture than any present itself. And when a mom who does so much for her family gets nothing in return, that means something — and none of it is good. None of it aligns with the values of care, thoughtfulness, and kindness I teach my sons. I don’t want to model invisibility for my children, lest they grow up thinking their partners don’t have needs or desires of their own.
Please, for your love of yourself, ask for the things you want. Maybe it is a robe. It could cost nothing — like a Saturday to yourself or a family walk in the winter woods with hot cocoas in hand. But if you have a Christmas wish, say it out loud to your family.
These can be hard boundaries to hold and tough traditions to break. But good things in life often lie on the other side of hard. I promise you there is joy in the slowed-down simplicity of a Christmas that allows you to relax in the glow of your beautiful (but not perfect) tree in a season where you are remembered too.
Mothers of the world, we deserve that magic.
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