Last year, a client of mine plopped on the couch in my office right after Thanksgiving, sighed a long, tired sigh and admitted to “dreading December.”

These are the unspeakable thoughts that can be said behind a therapist’s door but that few dare to say when everyone else looks like they are enjoying the bustle of creating magic and memories for their children and doing it with grace and ease. (Note: this is an illusion.) She was tormented by Pinterest and all the great ideas that made her think, “I should do this!  I could do that!  My house would look great if I made those!”

Her questions to me were:

“How do I get it all done and have fun doing it?”
“How do I deal with the ‘icky family stuff’ that comes with the holidays?”

Here’s a list of ideas I gave her. I’m sure they can work for you too!

Making Priorities that Work for You

1. Take an inventory of everything you expect to accomplish.
2. Circle the ones that make you happy.
3. For those you don’t enjoy, can you skip or make them less work?
3. Make “jobs” more fun by inviting friends – baking cookies, wrapping presents, addressing holiday cards.

Dealing with “Icky Family Stuff”

1. Treat time with exhausting relatives like a sprint relay that takes a lot of energy for a short time.
2. Find activities such as baking cookies or shopping to do with your select relatives to take the focus off negative conversation.
3. Stay calm and polite, and when you feel yourself breaking – take a bathroom break.
(This is also a good time to “pass the baton” to your spouse.)
4. Play “stupid and cheerful” to avoid falling into family drama.
5. Take breaks to just play with the kids.

Here’s the full letter from the mom most recently freed of holiday stress:

Dear Kerry,

I just had the best December I’ve had since becoming a mother! I tried some of the things we talked about. I want to tell you which ones worked for me so that you can tell other moms that they don’t have to settle for feeling overwhelmed and stressed about getting ready for Christmas.

The best thing I did was to make an inventory of everything I expected myself to get done in December. I circled the ones that made me happy. For the ones I didn’t enjoy, I asked myself if I could lower my standards or skip it. I made some of the “jobs” more fun by inviting friends to do them with me. My girlfriend came over with her kids and we spent the day baking cookies and it was a blast! The kids were happy and so were the moms! My sister-in-law and I got together while our husbands who are brothers watched our kids and we had a “wrap-and-gab-fest” and got almost all of our wrapping done on one Saturday afternoon.

I loved your story about the girlfriend who had great memories of her mother having a huge cookie exchange every year. I remember the daughter had worked so hard to keep that tradition alive even though it was a lot of work and stressed her out. She was so surprised when her mom told her that the big exchange had only happened a handful of years. She couldn’t believe it! That helped me decide that as long as the things I do for my family are done with a good attitude, it doesn’t matter quite so much whether or not they happen every single year because I am still creating great memories for my kids.

The last thing I have to share is how dealing with my “icky family stuff” went. My stepmother-in-law always stressed us all out and somehow I usually ended up being the one who got stuck sitting and politely listening for an eternity. This year I treated time with her like a sprint relay that takes a lot of energy and can only be endured for a short time. For little chunks of time, I was the politest daughter-in-law ever. Then when my heart rate started to rise because I was getting annoyed with her, I excused myself to go to the bathroom. On my way, I kissed my husband’s cheek and whispered that I was passing the baton to him. Then it was his turn to go be a polite, listening son-in-law while I went for a walk or played with my kids. I felt so much calmer knowing that I had an “exit plan” when I’d had my fill of being the good daughter-in-law. It also helped when I asked my mother-in-law to walk or shop or cook with me because then there was something else to focus on other than just the problems that she couldn’t stop talking about. I also tried the idea of wearing a scarf and/or necklace over my heart and fiddling with it as a reminder not to let her suck me dry. I was determined to save some of my energy for my kids and husband. The idea sounded silly when you mentioned it, but I think it helped. I took more breaks from her and as a result, I had more fun with my kids.

Thank you for helping me have more fun and peace of mind this year! Now maybe my kids won’t be as likely to remember Christmas as a time when mommy was stressed and grumpy!!