There's no doubt that holiday time is lovely, especially here in New York City, where there's a lot of fanfare, hustle-bustle, and if we're lucky, a white Christmas. But I'll be honest: These days, shopping, cooking, cleaning, decorating, and chasing after my 2-year-old daughter (did I mention that I'm pregnant, too?) make the most wonderful time of the year a little less than wonderful. And the gifts (ooh, another candle!) are a paltry payoff.
Okay, becoming a parent does make the holidays brighter in many ways. You get to watch your baby's eyes light up as he gazes upon his first Christmas tree, see him bite his first sugar cookie, and make him giggle at crinkling wrapping paper. When he falls in love with a new toy, you'll decide there really is a Santa Claus after all.
But let me return to my inner Grinch and give all of you brand-new parents out there a quick reality check. This year, you've added diapering, feeding, bathing, and general parenting to your long list of duties, and your seasonal obligations have grown exponentially (having a baby means more presents to buy and wrap, more food and treats to prepare, the pressure to send an updated photo with each greeting card, more thank-you cards to mail, etc.).
I'm not telling you this to be a killjoy; I'm just trying to help you set your expectations a wee bit lower this year so that come January 2, you'll be able to usher in the new year with your sanity intact. Following is my list of new-parent holiday expectations that I've learned the hard way are great big myths. Remember, moms, knowledge is power!
Ha! Don't kid yourself. You may be spending time with parents, siblings, and cousins, but they're not about to volunteer to change a diaper or calm a tantrum. They want to hold your baby when she's happy, play with your toddler when he's well rested, and beyond that, sit back and offer well-meaning advice.
If you're really lucky, someone (likely your mother or sister) will pitch in with some of the dirty work. Just don't count on it. My friend Jen Daily loves her family and her in-laws but didn't find them to be much help when she visited them last year. "It seemed like there was always too much going on. Everyone was already occupied," says Jen, whose son, Miles, is 1.
The embarrassing part for me is that I was the no-help relative for many Christmases before we had our 2-year-old, Grace. My sisters-in-law have four and two kids, respectively, and other than playing with the children when they were in good moods, I did nothing to assist. I felt that washing dishes -- while my sister-in-law tried to hold a crying baby and flip pancakes simultaneously -- counted as doing my share. I was just happy, at the time, not to be in her shoes. There's the bottom line: Managing baby insanity is ultimately the parents' problem. You'll get to relax when you're a grandma.
If you were pregnant last Christmas, you were probably the belle of the ball. Upcoming babies are always the most exciting thing to talk about. Now that baby's here, she's the main attraction and you're...taking care of her.
My sister-in-law Mary K., who's a mother of four, remembers with crystal clarity her first Christmas with her first child. She sat in the rocking chair in the bedroom, nursing. The rest of the family sat in the living room telling stories. "I couldn't even hear what they were saying, I'd just hear loud 'ha ha has!' every couple minutes," she remembers. "I got so frustrated, I started kicking the wall. Not that anyone heard me or came to check on me. It was very lonely."
Are you doomed to miss out on everything this year? Of course not. Even if no one offers to help, there is one very important person who is obligated to give you a break: Dad. He just may not know this yet, which is why you need to see Myth #4.
This, to a certain extent, is true. You probably won't be asked to cook a turkey dinner with all of the trimmings if you've got a newborn. Then again, if you've always made that huge turkey dinner in the past, it might not occur to your relatives to offer to take it over for you now.
What's worse is that you, as a modern mom, will be tempted to hang on to "what you've always done" and not let yourself off the hook. Amy Panos, a colleague of mine, has the same love of baking that I do, and we had similar experiences during our first holidays with infants. We got relatives to watch our babies while we devoted one solid day to baking. But it wasn't relaxing and fun, like it used to be -- it felt like a chore. "For me, I felt like I had to keep up this baking tradition I was known for, but I really wanted to focus on Owen," Amy says of her now 2-year-old. "This year I'm vowing to concentrate on people, not baking."
I, too, have cut way down on my baking and decorating. It's important to recognize, I think, that what made you happy in the past might not make you happy this year -- in fact, your old ways might make your new life a lot more difficult. Thus, your first Christmas as a new mommy requires a lot of self-reflection and adjustment.
My friend Jen is going through this now -- she recently e-mailed me to say that this will be the last Christmas she'll travel (by plane, to two different cities) to see her and her husband's parents. "Now that we have our son, we must start traditions at home and not travel somewhere else on Christmas Day," she wrote. "We plan on letting Miles wake up at home to look under the tree and find out what Santa brought him. It's a tough decision because we're having a hard time letting go of our childhood traditions with our own parents. But once you have children, the holidays force you to create memories and new traditions for them instead of indulging in your own desires."
If you have an older child, you may already be chuckling at this one. Dads -- and I'll admit to making a sweeping, sexist generalization here -- have a unique ability to tune out childcare duties when they want to. Last Christmas I watched my cousin's wife, Vicki, put her kids, then 3 and 1, down for naps, supervise potty time with the older, change the diaper of the younger, retrieve snacks, and so on. She'd occasionally poke her head into the living room, trying to add to the conversation going on in there, but mostly she was on mommy duty.
That is, until she insisted her husband take on daddy duty. And that's the only way to eke out adult time: You must take shifts with your significant other. This might mean prying him away from a football game or an "important" political conversation. No doubt you'll both end each day slightly resentful after hours of trading the baby. But fair is fair: Don't let him get out of his half of the work. Just remember that men aren't mind readers and may miss subtle signals we send. I've sighed and mumbled about being exhausted in front of my husband, Byron, but he won't take Grace until I tell him, "I need you to take her for a while!" He's always willing to help -- if I spell out what I need.
I personally get much more excited about opening gifts for Grace (cute dress!) than opening gifts for myself. Also, since Grace is blessed enough to get a ridiculous number of things from friends and relatives, Byron and I save a little money and hassle by buying her just one special gift from us and one from Santa. That part is pretty easy.
But all those other gifts are a double-edged sword. With everyone from my sister-in-law's parents to my husband's colleagues mailing things, writing thank-yous takes forever. I'm too lazy to return baby clothes I don't like, but I have friends who spend much of January running from store to store, returning, exchanging; it's like holiday shopping all over again, but in reverse without the fun. Also, Grace is amassing too much stuff, and I don't want her to think that Christmas is all about gifts. The bottom line? That adorable stuffed bear from Aunt Myrtle may be more trouble than it's worth.
Maybe. But a kid younger than 3 is just as likely to be confused by Christmas as delighted by it. The stimulation sends some kids into meltdowns. Others just don't have the reactions you envision. My friend Tammy Nicholas said that her son, Will, grinned at every gift -- and cried as each was taken away so he could open a new one.
Yes, it's true. No, nothing is going to make the season as a new mom any easier -- unless you can afford to hire a full-time cook, maid, nanny, and personal assistant. But once you shift priorities and find a new groove, things will fall into place. You'll come up with new traditions. Maybe family members will come to your house instead of you traveling.
Your kids will begin to anticipate Christmas, which is half the fun. They'll get big enough for Nativity plays and helping with the gift wrap and thinking to look out the window for Rudolph. And you'll get to watch the most precious people in your life, your children, enjoy the best holidays ever. Then it's magic all over again.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, December 2004.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.