'I Put Too Much Pressure On Myself To Make The Holidays Perfect'

Reader Unhappy Holidays writes,

Growing up, my mom would always get stressed out around the holidays. She would have grand plans and when things didn't unfold the way she had expected, she would have a meltdown--yelling, threatening to cancel the holiday, storming out. One year when she invited me to come for Thanksgiving, I suggested that we have the grocery store cook our dinner and that we eat off of paper plates, which I would bring (they make pretty Thanksgiving paper plates!), so we could spend time visiting with family instead of cooking and cleaning up. She still found a reason to have a meltdown.

But my question isn't about my mom. As much as I don't want to be like my mom, I've noticed that I also get anxious around the holidays. I get overwhelmed and feel like no one is helping me (my husband has very different expectations of the holidays and has a mom who did a lot herself). Any advice?

Dear UH,

Your question IS about your mom.  Therapists think every question is about your mom, but yours really is.  To rephrase:

"My mother was loving but volatile at the holidays and likely other times too.  Her standards for herself were unreasonable and it made the house very stressful.  It is likely she felt inadequate in many ways and based her sense of identity on her perfectionism as a homemaker.  I have internalized this negative, stressed out feeling in many ways, but the most salient right now is that I make the holidays into some kind of epic Greek tragedy where I can never emerge victorious and chillaxed.  I feel guilty making this all about my mom, though, because she tried her best."

If this isn't a better translation, then I will eat my hat, and all the gingerbread cookies pictured.  Many people, like this mom, struggle with meeting high standards that well-intentioned but insecure parental figures modeled for them throughout their early lives.  Your husband is also not the problem here, unless he passive aggressively says he would be "cool with whatever" and then is up your butt about not making 3 hams and 12 dozen cookies with elves on them.  (If he is critical in any way, shut this down now, or have him make 12 dozen cookies with elves and then tell him the elves' icing facial expressions don't look mischievous enough.) But if he's like, "Come on, relax, you're making yourself insane," or if he's like, "Nothing I do to help is enough for you," then read this and concede that he may have a point.

The problem is that you, like many people, struggle with thinking you are
as a mom, wife, homemaker, and likely a million other roles too.  Here is your homework assignment, unless you've already frozen your thousand cookies:
  1. Make a list of the things you want your kids to remember when they are parents themselves, about holidays at your house.
  2. Realize how few of these things involve a perfectly set table.
  3. Say a blessing over your good plates or china, thanking them for years of service (I got this thing from The Art And Magic of Tidying Up), and then resolve to use them because you love them and if your kids break them, you will have already come to peace with saying goodbye to them
  4. Make three dishes you like and one that each of your kids likes and have sex with your husband so that he doesn't give a flying F what you feed him.
  5. If anyone else is coming, like your mom, ask them to bring a favorite dish of their own.  If you really want to do this assignment with a flourish, tell them to bring their dishes in disposable foil containers so you don't have to worry about returning their Tupperware.
  6. Introspect deeply about your throwaway parenthetical line "(They make pretty Thanksgiving paper plates!") and what that means about your insecurity about even suggesting this taboo idea to me, a stranger, who has been known to feed her children snacks off of Kleenex because both the plates and the napkins were not accessible (read: I would have to move to get them).  You need to own your statements!  You need a confidence boost!  Make a list of ten things that are awesome about you and put it on your mirror and read it out loud.  For real.
Also, since you sound smart and like a deep thinker, find a good therapist and explore your perfectionist streak and your upbringing and your well meaning but stressed out mother and her impact on you as a human being.  Good luck and thanks for this timely and interesting questions.  Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, CLEAN KLEENEX.  I Have Some Standards.

This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.