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Help for Holiday Madness

Holiday Madness

Bill Brown

For each of the past three years, I've ordered 100 Christmas cards with photographs of my children, and for three years, I haven't mailed a single one of them.

As the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas passed in a swirl of diapering, nursing, chasing toddlers, and moving piles of laundry, the stack of cards sat on my desk. Every night, I promised myself that I would get to them the next day, and every January 2, I looked at the faces of my babies on the untouched cards. Why couldn't I manage to mail them?

We all have ideas of how the holidays "should be." But just as having a baby changed every other aspect of your life, it will change this too. You might have to put aside some of the traditions you developed through adulthood, but in their place is the chance to dive back into the exuberant, magical experience of Christmas from a child's point of view. You won't just survive, but you'll really love your first December as a mother if you plan for and embrace those changes.

In addition to discovering that I need to have the cards made and the envelopes both addressed and stuffed well before Thanksgiving (which means that on this year's card, the baby is wearing a sundress -- maybe no one will notice!), here are a few other things I've learned, mostly the hard way.

First Thing That's Different: You Have a Baby!

She still needs her naps and feedings, even if you have 16 errands you'd like to run on any given December Saturday. Don't demand too much flexibility from an infant. Come to think of it, don't demand too much from yourself, either. We're often told that babies thrive on routines. But we adults do too, whether it's the order in which you get ready in the morning or how you work your way through the grocery store. You've probably settled into a daily pattern that works for you and your baby, and you don't want to shake it up too much. She has no idea that this is a special time of year; she knows only that being dragged around gets exhausting.

So cut down on all the things you're trying to do. Or, as Kristin Gilchrist, of Iowa City, has learned, plan around the baby. "This year I'll pick one event -- church or a dinner -- where we'll let Ada skip a nap or we'll keep her up late," Gilchrist says of her 18-month-old. "But I'll only do it once! I'm not following anyone else's schedule anymore."

What Makes It Feel Like Christmas for You?
Home for the Holidays

Bill Brown

There are things you must do in order for it to feel like the holidays, and there are things you think you're supposed to do -- but don't really like. Distinguish between them. When you're already sleep deprived, it's easy to exhaust yourself.

For instance, it obviously won't feel like the holidays without presents -- but do you really need matching bows and tags if tracking them down is driving you crazy? Wrap the gifts, write the recipient's name on each one, and be done. Lose the little things that stress you out. Take a step back. Relax.

Focus on your own happiness for a minute. Try to pick the one thing that brings you the most joy during the holidays, and find a way to do it. Baking cookies? Watching It's a Wonderful Life? Going to see the local production of The Nutcracker? Gallaudet Howard, of Newburyport, Massachusetts, swears that this year she'll hire a babysitter so she and her husband can have a celebratory meal together at a restaurant -- a simple goal, but one that would make her happy.

For me, I had no idea how important it was to sit down to my family's Christmas dinner until I couldn't do it. My first Christmas as a new mom, as everyone sat down, Jimmy began wailing. Shushing him did no good. I had to take him upstairs, where I sang and paced and bounced him. I could hear everyone laughing and talking below. Nobody noticed I was missing, it seemed. I began to cry.

Five minutes later, there was knock at the door. It was my mother. "It can be lonely having a baby, can't it?" she said. She sat next to me on the bed. "Let me take him. You go downstairs with everyone." That's a gift only another mother would have known to give.

Extreme Togetherness

I was obviously thankful to spend that Christmas with my mother. But once you have a baby, it's possible that all the grandparents (and aunts, and uncles, and friends) will be clamoring to see him, and decisions on where to go can be laden with emotion.

Robin Thiel, of Fairfax Station, Virginia, mother to 2-year-old Liam, tries to host the festivities at her house so she can celebrate with both sides of the family at once. When that's not possible, she has to take turns with each set of grandparents. "Take a rotating-holiday schedule seriously -- they will," she warns.

If both families live within a reasonable distance, consider splitting the day: morning in one place, dinner in another. But you may have been doing this already, and maybe all that traveling with a baby is too much. In that case, remember that you're not obligated to spend the holidays at one place or another. In the long run, though, it helps to find a way to see everyone, even if it means having a day-after-Christmas celebration. (Maybe that's why England and Canada have Boxing Day!) All this love aimed at your baby is a good thing, even if it's exhausting for you to rotate among your baby's many adoring fans.

Kristin Miles, of Easton, Connecticut, has a good attitude about it; if she's going to have to see a lot of people, she's going to put them to work. "Since everyone wants to hold the baby, I try to take advantage," she says. "Sit down and hold your spouse's hand while you have a drink together. Or if you've got guests, sneak away to read while they think you're napping."

Decorating Isn't What It Used to Be
Holiday Madness

Bill Brown

If you're hosting the holidays, it's natural to want to decorate. But put down that Pottery Barn catalog. Heavy candleholders and a baby who can grasp are not a good mix. (Pottery Barn Kids is another story. Felt ornaments -- brilliant!)

Your grandmother's hand-blown glass ornaments? Don't unwrap them. Fresh evergreens? Toddler salad. This doesn't mean you'll never again have an elegant Christmas, but when your baby becomes mobile, her curiosity trumps your artistic vision. Follow her lead on this one, and see the wonder in having a giant inflatable snow globe on the front lawn and a house plastered with lights.

The usual babyproofing rules apply: avoid objects, like vintage decorations, that might have lead paint; choking hazards, like hard candy; electrical hazards, like dangling extension cords; and all the other things, like candles, that you already took out of your life to safeguard your little one. Buy some bungee cords so you can strap your tree to the wall. Now that's elegant!

The Season of Giving -- and Then, Getting the Bill
Holiday Madness

Bill Brown

Another fantasy you're better off reining in: that of being a very generous Santa. The first time I went shopping in a toy store that was blaring "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas," my inner 7-year-old was unleashed. I hadn't been in a toy store for 20 years, but everything was eerily the same. Except for one thing: I now had a credit card and nobody to stop me. I racked up $400 in 15 minutes. Christmas morning was fun, I'll admit, but I wish I had taken $350 of that $400 and put it away for Jimmy's schooling (because even if a toy is made of wood, that doesn't make it educational, no matter what I told myself).

For a baby's first Christmas, and probably his second, you don't need to buy much. Your love is all he wants, and he'll be enthralled by wrapping paper. Even a preschooler is overwhelmed by three or four gifts, and chances are your extended family will provide at least that.

So to quell a shopping spree, scope out catalogs and online stores to make a list while at home. Take a minute to calm down, away from temptation. When you feel the urge to start buying stuff, think about what you want to teach your children: Are the holidays about an accumulation of things or about giving thanks and sharing joy? When you finally go to a store, take cash, not credit cards. You can't spend what you don't have, no matter what Burl Ives sings.

And Now, Finally, Some Good News!
Home for the Holidays

Bill Brown

You won't have time to do all the things you used to do, and you should probably drop the notion of a perfect holiday. But you'll also get to start some new traditions. You're the mom, so you can make those calls! Last December, we all boarded our town's "Santa Claus Express" for a train ride with Santa and his elves. We sang songs, banged on drums and tambourines, ate hot dogs and cookies, and screamed with joy when Santa entered our train car. Before I had children, I would have seen a skinny 25-year-old guy with a thick Bronx accent and a discount-store costume. But with my 2-year-old on my lap, enthralled and terrified, I saw Santa.

5 Things That Are BETTER After Baby

  • Christmas morning. Santa Claus returns to your house! Opening presents is so much more entertaining with children around.
  • Decorating cookies. Focus on the fun of making them, not on the end product, which may or may not be edible, depending on the amount of sugar icing and sprinkles you can consume in one sitting.
  • Not traveling. Once you have children, you can make a strong case for having everyone come to you, instead of having to travel to others.
  • Holiday specials on television. When's the last time you cried when Frosty melts at the end of the show? I did last year, when my son wept.
  • Christmas night. When the kids are asleep, the house is quiet, and you can sit down with a glass of wine, you feel the peace of Christmas.



Originally published in the December 2007 issue of American Baby magazine.