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The Not Naturally Organized Parent's Guide to the Holidays
This year get real about what you can and cannot handle, and remember the joys of spending time with the ones you love
Alison Hodgson Houzz Contributor. Author of The Pug List: A Ridiculous Dog, a Family Who Lost Everything,
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In family life so many things are mythologized and sentimentalized and too often we parents feel depressed — even ashamed — because the experiences we try to create for our kids don't measure up to our expectations.
And that's just normal life; during the holiday season it ratchets up a thousand notches. The commercials are enough to do me in: the immaculate houses, soft and beautiful lights, sweet and freshly bathed children peering over banisters and creeping down stairs, with nary a dustball or dog hair in sight. I want to go to there!
I think it's officially a red flag when you're fantasizing about moving into a commercial. Perhaps you know what I'm talking about. This is why I want to gather all of you, my fellow and dear Not Naturally Organized Houzzers, into a circle of love and understanding. If you're Naturally Organized and the impending holidays having you thinking, "Who? What? Thanksgiving? Christmas! How does this keep happening?" then you're welcome, too. This is a safe place.
Whatever you celebrate, here are a few suggestions to help you make the holiday season a little more manageable and truly bright.
This is the first thing you need to do. Do you have extra responsibilities or challenges this season? Are you moving? Is anyone in your family ill? Honestly look at your life circumstances and consider how you may need to adjust your traditions. Whether your situation is something wonderful like a new baby or hard like a job loss, the desire to have everything be normal, especially for the sake of your children, is powerful, but you may be adding undue and unnecessary pressure. "Not this year" could be a helpful phrase to say to yourself and your loved ones.
Decide what you are not
I know all the life coaches tell us we're supposed to frame things in the positive — for example, "I want to be neat and organized!" rather than "I don't want to be a slob" — but sometimes you just need to grab yourself by the shoulders and get seriously clear about things. Deciding who and what you are not is a good place to start.
In my case, I realized some time ago I am not a confectioner. It took many years of trying before I came to this conclusion. And I know I'm not alone. Every December, if you eavesdrop on just about any conversation where two or more mothers are gathered, odds are one of them is talking about the massive candy-making operation she's running. Some of these ladies barely cook, but there they are churning out hundreds of sweets. I am clear I am not a confectioner. I am also not a seamstress, interior decorator, lighting specialist nor caterer and will make my holiday plans and commitments accordingly. What are you not?
Ask your kids what they enjoy
This may seem obvious, but it's often overlooked. Years ago when my older two were young and I was eight months pregnant and feeling overwhelmed, it occurred to me to ask them what they liked to do during the Christmas season, and their answers surprised me.
Get the Christmas tree.
Turn out the lights and look at the Christmas tree.
Drive through our neighborhood and admire decorated houses.
Read Christmas books together.
Drink hot chocolate.
I was delighted to realize I loved all of these activities, too, and already planned to do every single one. It was such a relief to know the simple pleasures my children were anticipating.
Ask yourself what you enjoy
Here's an idea! I know some of you rarely consider this, but you need to change that — fast. After you poll your kids, think about what activities you love and, maybe more important, what you loathe. We love going to a farm and getting a tree — that's fun for all of us — but you will not catch us driving through those neighborhoods with massive light displays. I'm sure our kids would have loved it when they were younger, but my husband and I opted to drive through historical neighborhoods instead, and the entire family enjoyed it.
After years of hosting Thanksgiving, I decided I don't really enjoy making the meal. What brings me deep pleasure is setting the table. It may sound weird, but I like ironing the cloth and buffing the glasses and setting a beautiful big table. Not a tablescape, mind you. I keep the centerpiece simple.
My sister and mother enjoy making the bulk of the meal. I provide beverages and dessert. And "all family of us" clean up. We make it convivial, and it's as much a part of the day as everything else. With at least 10 people helping, we find many hands truly make light work.
What can you let go of?
I haven't done Christmas cards since 2005 after more than 10 years of sending them. One year it just became too much work and it was a relief to decide to set them aside. I still love to receive Christmas cards from others, but it's one less task on my pre-holiday list. My sister and I have a tradition of decorating cut-out cookies with the kids, and the only reason we do it is because she wanted to. Up until she moved to my town, it was one of the activities I decided to avoid, knowing full well my kids would love it.
Menus are another thing to reassess. I know the Thanksgiving meal is especially sacrosanct, but why? For a couple years our family grilled steak and made a big salad and dessert — I can't even remember what — because no one felt like messing with the turkey, and steak sounded good. Thanksgiving was truly about spending time together rather than preparing a massive meal. I have a dear friend who complains every year about the food she has to make or her brother will pitch a fit, and every year I suggest he could make it himself.
Take a look at for whom you buy presents. My husband and I stopped exchanging presents with his siblings as soon as the first grandchildren came. I was the only one on my side who was married with children, and gifts were a larger part of our family culture, so we continued. But it was a lot for me to cover my nieces and nephews, our own children and my siblings. One year, with plenty of warning, I announced Paul and I needed to bow out of the exchange.
I don't recommend buying your own babies gifts. Grandparents and aunts and uncles can do what they want, but you, the parent, can set that aside.
Set a budget
This can be hard, but it's so worth doing. Once you know your budget, it brings clarity to everything. Take into account stockings, if that's a part of your celebration. Something to consider with children is the number of presents is more important than the cost. If one child gets three presents, make sure the rest do. When they're young it doesn't matter if you spend $25 on one and $100 on another, the perceived fairness is in the number of presents, not the worth.
Make a gift list today
If your child is fortunate enough to have loving extended family who want to give gifts, do everyone a solid and have suggestions for gifts you know your child would enjoy. Something great to consider are memberships to museums or tickets to shows — experiences more than things. My sister-in-law always gives one of my daughters tickets to our local theater company. My daughter selects the play or musical, and the two of them go out to dinner before — a great experience and special time together.
Remember it's not about the stuff
OK, it's sort of about the stuff, but it doesn't have to be as much as we make it. My children lost all of their belongings in a house fire, and from the very beginning it wasn't the particular items they mourned but the loss of security and their actual home. And we learned through that terrible time it doesn't matter so much where you set up your tree or how many presents are under it, but that you are together and love each other.