There’s a term in psychology called the “happiness trap.” Boiled down, it essentially names the phenomenon that occurs when all of our surrounding circumstances dictate that we should be happy. The more pressure we feel to be joyful, the more anxious we become in the process.
The holidays create the perfect storm for the happiness trap — walk into any department store, scroll through social media, open a holiday card, and you will be aggressively hit with joy — music reminding you of the joy of the season, beautiful arrays of cookies effortlessly decorated (with any “mess” deliberately and aesthetically placed), picture-perfect families spending time together with no hint of conflict.
The reality, as we all know and experience, is often very different. Anxiety and conflict don’t take a holiday just because Frank Sinatra tells them it’s the season to be jolly. Add a family into the mix, and you have a recipe for something far less sweet and appealing than pumpkin pie.
To handle these moments of stress, it’s important to identify potential for conflict before it happens. We’ve come up with a few scenarios to help, and important do’s and don’ts to manage your anxiety.
You Have the Right to Do Things Your Way
To the women and men who raised you, you will always be their little girl. It can be impossible for them to wrap their head around the fact that you are now raising children of your own, and because they still see you as their child, they may have trouble trusting your ability to be responsible for kids. You may find yourself fielding questions about your discipline choices, feeding routines, or sleeping techniques; catching your parents scolding your children or encouraging them to do things you don’t allow; or making passive aggressive comments about your decisions.
Our natural tendency is to take those comments to heart. After all, we may tell ourselves, they do have more experience. Resist the inclination to let these thoughts convince you that you are a bad parent or that your preferences are not valid. Parenting is not a matter of right or wrong — there are many styles and time and personality can dictate which one is the best for you and your family.
DON’T: Make concessions to “avoid conflict” — that sets a dangerous precedent for the future and gives opinionated folks the green light to intervene.
DO: Gently but firmly communicate the choices you’ve made for your family, and explain how important it is for your children to have a consistent authority, which is you.
Breaking With Tradition Can Be a Good Thing
It’s so obvious that it shouldn’t have to be said: life with children looks a lot different than life without them. But it bears repeating and remembering, particularly during the holiday season, as the traditions of holidays are more often about preserving sameness than embracing change. Navigating those traditions with children can have its difficulties: the family snowshoeing trip to see the sun rise on New Year’s Day is probably no longer a viable tradition for your growing family, but breaking with tradition is a difficult thing to do without hurting feelings and creating resentment.
So, how to avoid it? First things first: you have to do what is best for your family. Once a child enters the scene, your most important role is that of mother, and your highest duty is to that family that you’ve created — not to your parents, not to your siblings, not to your in-laws. Of course, those relationships should still be cherished, but they are no longer your priority.
DON’T: Allow yourself to be guilted into something that you know isn’t right for your family.
DO: Start a new tradition! So that your extended family doesn’t feel abandoned or hurt by your new priorities, try suggesting an activity that is doable for everyone.
It’s Okay To Say No
The holidays may be the most wonderful time of the year, but try telling that to your anxiety. The “season to be merry” is often a pressure cooker for stress; with the combination of social expectations for the holidays and removal from a regular routine, it’s a recipe for a mental breakdown. Everyone in your extended family wants to hold your newborn baby at Thanksgiving dinner, your 2nd grader needs 5 dozen cookies for a Hanukkah bake sale, fifty of your friends and neighbors have already sent you Christmas cards, your daughter’s list to Santa is 4 pages long — single spaced and double-sided.
Try to take a step back. Most of the stress of holiday obligations comes from so many demands occurring all at once. Release yourself from fulfilling these expectations — communicate to your family that newborns are susceptible to germs and keep your baby close, buy the cookies instead of baking them, send Valentines instead of Christmas cards, make yourself a budget for gifts and stick to it.
DON’T: Get sucked in by all the things that you’re “supposed” to do.
DO: Set boundaries for yourself. Make a list of all the things you’d like to do for the season, and set realistic goals in terms of money and time that you want to spend on those things.