Once, at a con­fer­ence, some­one asked nov­el­ist Nora Roberts how she jug­gled being a writer and a moth­er. She wise­ly answered that the key to jug­gling is know­ing that some of the balls in the air are made of plas­tic and some are made of glass. “…if you drop a plas­tic ball, it bounces, no harm done. If you drop a glass ball, it shat­ters, so you have to know which balls are glass and which are plas­tic and pri­or­i­tize catch­ing the glass ones.”

We all know intu­itive­ly what the balls are. Our kids, our mar­riages, our jobs, our rela­tion­ships, our phys­i­cal and men­tal health. Which balls are glass and which are plas­tic dif­fer from one per­son to the next.

The Guinness Book of World Records tells me that the most balls ever jug­gled is 11. As a moth­er in the midst of the extrav­a­gan­za known as a “nor­mal” Christmas, I’m rolling my eyes. 

Business, hus­band, daugh­ter. Dog. Two cats. Guitar prac­tice, voice lessons, ther­a­py, dri­ving school for the daugh­ter. Guitar prac­tice and writ­ing for me. Live music shows for the hubs. Fifteen pri­vate ses­sions a week to plan, sched­ule, and exe­cute. Emails, texts, social media posts. Teeth clean­ing, hair cut, facial, pedi­cure. In a nor­mal month, I’m eas­i­ly jug­gling 25 balls. Some get dropped, sure. I try to remem­ber that my glass balls are the ones that breathe oxy­gen and the world won’t end if I drop one of the others. 

But like every oth­er moth­er, December throws a lot more balls into the act. 

The hol­i­day sea­son is the most won­der­ful, mag­i­cal time of the year. Unless you are a woman. Then it’s the most over­whelm­ing, stress­ful time of the year. Research shows that year after year, the peo­ple most stressed in the hol­i­day sea­son are women between the ages of 30 and 50, the peo­ple already jug­gling a zil­lion balls. The same peo­ple who are unrea­son­ably expect­ed to man­age the hol­i­day sea­son so that those around them can expe­ri­ence the warm, cozy feel­ings the hol­i­days evoke. 

Women are the par­ty and din­ner orga­niz­ers, gift buy­ers, present wrap­pers, home dec­o­ra­tors, trip plan­ners, card mail­ers, and cook­ie bak­ers. We order the gin­ger­bread house kits, sched­ule the pho­to shoot, scour Goodwill for ugly sweaters, make sure the advent cal­en­dar has a dai­ly treat, move that stu­pid Elf on the Shelf. Dammit, where in the world is the dog’s stocking?

David is an incred­i­bly involved hus­band and father. He does the lion’s share of the cook­ing and will help me out dur­ing the hol­i­days as much as is need­ed. But I have to ask him, give him spe­cif­ic tasks. Organization just isn’t his strong suit. And I’m not sure he has ever cho­sen a gift for any­one in his fam­i­ly in twen­ty-five years. I have friends who say it would be more stress­ful to hand over duties to their sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers because “they just aren’t as good at it.” For what­ev­er rea­son, the truth remains that the lion’s share of hol­i­day chores fall on the shoul­ders of women.

And we love it. We real­ly do (well, not the wrap­ping. That’s the devil’s work). We are actu­al­ly neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal­ly designed for it. Women have high­er lev­els of oxy­tocin than their male coun­ter­parts. This “tend and friend” hor­mone calls us to be kin keep­ers. Kin keep­ing is the act of main­tain­ing and strength­en­ing famil­ial ties. The kin keep­er writes and man­ages the fam­i­ly sto­ry. Our uncon­scious mind cre­ates a vir­tu­al pho­to album dis­play­ing the per­fect hol­i­day and we feel com­pelled to recre­ate those images. Basically, we are the archi­tects of the fam­i­ly cul­ture. We also expe­ri­ence more anx­i­ety than men when the real­i­ty fails to match the inte­ri­or sto­ry we’ve written.

So we run our­selves ragged, end up feel­ing over­whelmed and exhaust­ed and under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed. It’s like the Instagram trope sug­gest­ing that only suf­fer­ing lies in com­par­ing our­selves to some­one else’s high­light reel. It’s dou­bly worse when we are the very ones that curat­ed that reel.

On top of that, many of us (okay, me) feel the guilt of pass­ing on these uncon­scious gen­der bias­es to our daugh­ters. Izzie loves the hol­i­day sea­son, and I go over the top most years to cre­ate a hol­i­day­palooza she’ll nev­er for­get. It’s a crazy train I can’t jump off, even as I’m all too aware that I’m just rein­forc­ing the sto­ry that soon it will be her turn to man­age the hol­i­day expec­ta­tions of every­one around her. 

I don’t want to relin­quish this crown. No woman I know does. But we should acknowl­edge that it’s some­times pret­ty heavy. 

Ladies, I see you, wild-eyed and over-caf­feinat­ed. I’m next to you, not so much jug­gling as drown­ing in the ball pit. Maybe we can catch a few dropped balls for each oth­er this month.

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.