The working mom's guide to taking the holiday stress down a notch

Jennifer Folsom, author of the upcoming guide to modern working motherhood, "The Ringmaster," gives her best tips to help quell the holiday chaos.
Jenn Folsom volunteers with her sons, Will and Josh, at an office-sponsored holiday volunteering event, Operation Miracle, in December 2016 in Washington D.C.
Jenn Folsom volunteers with her sons, Will and Josh, at an office-sponsored holiday volunteering event, Operation Miracle, in December 2016 in Washington D.C.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

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By Jennifer Folsom

The sprint from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is a beast for most people, but if you have kids and you’re working outside the home, there’s often a trifecta of over-scheduling, guilt, and unmet expectations.

Does the following sound like you? You feel horrible that you must miss the preschool holiday caroling party at 11 a.m. because you have a meeting downtown at 10:30 a.m. Your to-do list seems to grow with every item checked off, and yet, as you’re rushing from your daughter’s Nutcracker dress rehearsal to your son’s Boy Scouts canned good collection drive (while frantically checking your work email) you find yourself wondering: Is it January yet?

The holidays are busy. There are extra commitments and activities on top of your normal circus. Add on all the baggage from your own childhood holiday expectations and feeling you don't want to sacrifice your little angels’ “perfect holiday” because you work, and you have a recipe for disaster.

I’m here to tell you two things: it will not be perfect, and that’s okay.

The upside to adulting is that you are in charge of your time, you can say “no,” and it will all be alright. It’s my 16th year as a working parent during the holidays. Here are a few survival tips that may help quell your Christmas Chaos:

1. Rein it in.

You don’t need to give every single person you know the perfect gift. Ain’t no shame in the same-gift game. Find the perfect small gift. Buy a dozen and share with everyone from your cube-neighbor to the newspaper delivery guy. And most of our kids have MORE than they will ever want or need. Our family sticks to the four gift rule: something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read. Draw names with your extended family or agree to only exchange gifts for the children. We all have too much crap anyway.

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2. Just say ‘no.’

I once insisted on attending three holiday parties in one night. That was dumb, and not a lot of fun for me or my husband. Two parties per night, max. And it’s okay to say no to client or vendor parties. Or to your friends that host direct sales parties (ask them to send you a link, they gladly will). You probably won’t make it to every year-end or holiday event for each child, and everyone will survive. Why is the piano recital at the same time as the end-of-season sports banquet? Are they conspiring against you? No, but ’tis the season for a calendar collision course.

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3. Order gifts to your office.

Ship gifts to your office so you don’t have to Heisman your kid when he launches out of the minivan from daycare pickup, running to get the box left on the front step.

Schedule a late work night in December, pour yourself a little cocktail, put that laptop Spotify app on holiday music and wrap away. All the recycling goes in the office bin and you arrive home with wrapped packages to slip under the tree or gift after you light the menorah.

4. Only do what brings you joy.

I have a love-hate relationship with holiday cards: love to get them, hate to give them. Every year it became a family battle royale to get the right photo, wrestle with mail merge labels and bribe the boys into assembly-line the distribution.

So, I gave it up. One year I made an Animoto video, another year I sent Valentine’s Day cards. Take the pressure off yourself if you can’t get it together to get cards out the door while wrapping up year-end at work.

5. Impromptu is better.

Look, you can’t orchestrate the perfect holiday. Rather than scheduling all the things you want to do during the holidays, leave space for the magic to happen. One of our favorite holiday traditions is for the boys and I to sneak out for an hour or two (can be done ANYTIME) to be elves practicing random acts of kindness. They get to choose what we do, we’re together and we feel good.

And when you have the inevitable candy cane-induced meltdown, don’t freak out. Just realize that it’s probably happening in every house in the neighborhood. It just isn’t what you see in the picture-perfect, InstaChristmas posts.

Do what I do: Throw your kids in the car in their pajamas, give them a plastic coffee mug of warm milk or hot chocolate, and take a little ride around the neighborhood and look at all the pretty lights. There really is magic in the season, you just have to take the time to notice it.

Jennifer Folsom is vice president of client delivery at Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm RIVA Solutions Inc. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and three sons, 17-year-old twins Josh and Will, and 12-year-old Anderson. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood, "The Ringmaster," will be out Jan. 7, 2020