I heard his little footsteps at 4:30 a.m. “Mama, the stockings are full. Can we open presents?” I had finally collapsed into bed at 4 a.m. after staying up wrapping, cooking, and stuffing the stockings to make Christmas morning as Norman Rockwell as I possibly could. I told him to hold his horses until 7 a.m. and rolled over for a few hours of exhausted slumber.
I was thankful I wasn't working overnight Christmas Eve like I had the previous year. There is nothing worse than getting slammed and stuck working late when I have two little boys waiting impatiently for me to get home Christmas morning. Yet even Christmases I'm not working, I somehow never manage to be the happy, excited, picture-perfect Christmas mom. I'm usually the haggard, exhausted, don't-point-a-camera-at-me mom on Christmas morning. Such is the trouble with trying to juggle a full-time compliment of ER shifts and motherhood during the holidays.
Eleven months of the year I feel like I'm just barely keeping my head above water as I juggle doctoring and parenting. Every December I begin to feel like I'm drowning in shopping, wrapping, getting the house company-ready, decking the halls, cooking, and making it to holiday events. Yet I continue to submerge myself beneath additional pressures to make the holidays picture-perfect for my sons. I'm still trying to create the same kind of holiday post-divorce as when they had a “normal” nuclear family because I want them to have those “normal” Christmas memories.
Last year I thought about redefining normal. I lugged the ginormous nine-foot fake tree down two stories from the attic, set the box up on its end, topped it with our angel Christmas tree topper, and taped some ornaments to the cardboard. It made my sons laugh, but I couldn't leave it that way because all kids want a traditional Christmas tree, and every parent wants them to have it.
We working moms kill ourselves trying to be Martha Stewart and Betty Crocker because we're wracked with mom guilt if we can't give our kids that idyllic childhood with the twinkling Christmas tree ever year. Mom guilt is an almost universal phenomenon stemming from an antiquated cultural notion that “good mothers” are home whenever their children are. We moms hold ourselves to the mythical standard that “good mothering” demands a mother's total self and mothers' needs do not count.
We are in the workforce trying to be equal to a man while simultaneously trying to mother the way our own housewife-mothers and grandmothers did, as if our sole task were raising our children. EPs are highly motivated, capable people used to being able to handle it all. What happens in December if we EP-moms can't handle the throngs of flu patients in the ED and then have enough energy to bake cookies and set up all those tedious little Dickens houses? Guilt. What happens when our career interferes with our ability to be home for the holidays and we are absent Christmas morning or New Year's Eve? Guilt. For the transgression of having her own life, a mother is more culpable now than ever, in society's eyes and in her own.
Unfortunately, we often feel like we're the only ones who don't have it together and view other moms as outstanding parents when our mailboxes start filling up with their Christmas cards or when two weeks before Christmas we run into that mom who beams, “I'm completely done with my shopping and wrapping.” We agonize in secret about how many future therapy bills we're incurring for our children by what we think we're failing to do. Rarely do we show one another how out-of-control we sometimes feel, especially during the holidays when parental expectations are exceptionally high.
This is particularly true of physicians who are trained to appear invulnerable. The result? Each of us tend to live in an illusory world where mothers all around us look as if they are coping so much better than we are, and we are alone with our pitfalls and embarrassing lapses in attentiveness. The reality is that we are not alone at all. Almost every mom is in this same boat.
The key to letting go of holiday-mom and doctor-mom guilt may be simply a question of perspective. Parenting is an ever-evolving work in progress. We should stop judging ourselves and feel more compassion for ourselves. Society should definitely modernize the antiquated concept of motherhood. Good mothering does not require mothers to focus so intensely on their children that they give up crucial parts of their own identities.
Moms need to stop holding themselves to unrealistic expectations, especially in December. We don't have to let go to the point of putting presents around a tree in a box, but we should let go of some self-expectations that our kids never even cared about. Like sending Christmas cards. They couldn't care less if their picture ends up in someone else's mailbox. And personally baking Christmas cookies. Go buy some peppermint bark. They'll like it just as much. The holidays are not meant to be as hard as they feel for most of us.
Thankfully January always comes and brings with it clean slates, fresh starts, and new hope. When I make it to the end of another December and look back on the month, the only thing that will matter is whether my kids were smiling and having fun over the holidays. The other stupid trivialities I stress over every year simply won't. It's time to stop sweating all the small December details and remember that the holidays will be a success as long as our kids feel loved.
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