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.