- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 4, 2011

Culture Challenge of the Week: Multitasking (makes multistressed moms)

For many moms, Black Friday kicked off not only the Christmas shopping season, but the season of overload: too much to do and too little merriment.

Family calendars swell with social obligations - work Christmas parties, neighborhood cookie swaps, school Christmas plays (with socials afterward) and generic “holiday” events hosted by nearly every group on your email list.

Credit card balances climb toward their limits; discounts, sales and urgent offers induce us to spend more than we ought. (But what can we do when the list of people to whom we “owe” presents seems almost as long as Santa’s own list?) And then there’s the shopping itself. Whether online or in stores, our available time shrinks, shrivels and disappears as the “to buy” list lengthens. In the meantime, school, work and normal family commitments continue apace.

The result is predictable: Stress boots mom’s happiness right out the window. And the race to “get it all done” by Christmas leaves family relationships choking in the dust.

Been there? I think we all have. So what’s to be done?

See the problem for what it is. It’s not “the Christmas season” that creates our stress. It’s our own unrealistic expectations, coupled with the hazards of multitasking.

First, multitasking. For working moms especially, multitasking at home generates unhappiness. New research shows that in dual-earner households, dads and moms spend near equal time on work and family tasks, but women multitask more often at home - and it makes them unhappy.

A Michigan State study found that men more easily focus their energies at home, enjoying their children: “Unlike moms, dads … were more focused when in charge of their children.” Other research shows “that fathers are more likely than mothers to engage with their children in ‘interactive activities’ that are ‘more pleasurable than routine child care tasks.’ “

Moms, in contrast, juggle family management tasks, such as errands, shopping, car pools and school activities as a way to spend time with their children. Too much multitasking, however, and mom may rob herself of the joy that emerges at child-speed: laughing, playing and simply enjoying her children.

Second, perfection. Even moms who don’t work outside the home find themselves managing and multitasking at a breakneck pace at this time of year. Chasing the “perfect” holiday experience - an image generated by marketers - shopping, planning and fretting crowd out meaningful family time.

Perfection looks different to each of us. For some, Christmas perfection means setting a beautiful stage: decorations outside and in, a shapely tree and beautifully wrapped presents. For others, it’s scrumptious homemade meals and desserts. And many of us stress over our ability to create the hoped-for perfect family tableau - no fights, disagreements, laziness or discontent.

These are all good things in themselves. But let go of perfection.

How to Save Your Family: Laugh, Be Simple and Don’t Fuss

Be simple. Resist the pressure to “do more” at the cost of your serenity, peace or relationships. Share the Christmas meaning that celebrates the birth of a Savior, whose gift to us was Himself - not riches, status or expensive foods.

Teach by example: Our children need the same gift from us, the gift of ourselves. It matters less whether you buy the gourmet turkey from an organic farm instead of the standard Butterball at your grocer than that you laugh, smile, imagine and remember together.

Give gifts that spur the desire to enjoy each other: concert tickets, a trip to a ballgame or a long-awaited getaway. Small, themed gift baskets - popcorn and a DVD, or hot chocolate, marshmallows and a game of Blokus - create simple occasions that build relationships.

Pare down and don’t fuss. Do we really need so many presents? So many decorations? So much food?

Finally, laugh together. There’s humor all around us if we slow down to see it. Nothing melts the stress away like a good laugh with people you love.

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at Rebecca @howtosave yourfamily.com.

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