The Emotional Load Is Never More Crippling For Women Than At Christmas

I can’t remember a single Christmas dinner in the last five years where I have actually enjoyed the meal that I spent hours cooking, says writer Pragya Agarwal.
Midsection of couple having lunch on dining table at home during Christmas festival
Midsection of couple having lunch on dining table at home during Christmas festival

“Have you had any further thoughts about Christmas?” I ask my husband for the hundredth time this month.

Well, it seems like the hundredth time to me, and I get the sense from his face that he thinks exactly the same. But, I can’t help it. I feel like I am drowning, completely sinking in lists.

I am waking up at night suddenly remembering that I hadn’t ordered the children’s photos and now they wouldn’t be here for Christmas. I haven’t yet bought presents for anyone. We don’t even have a tree. The twins have their nativity play on Friday, and I have to make sure that we have tickets for it and have ordered the DVD. Fortunately, this time their brilliant nursery staff are doing all the costumes, so that is one less thing for me to worry about. I have to make sure that the twins have handmade presents and cards for their grandparents, uncles and aunts, at least the ones who live here in the UK. Our trip to craft and art shop over the weekend ended in a lot of tantrums, meltdowns and not just from them. Now, I have to make sure that I find the time to get them organised and make these things while managing their squabbles and fights over who gets more of my attention, and who has more paint and glitter. I have to think of creative ideas, because that is my “area of expertise”. I hear this a lot around this time of the year.

Me: “What are we having for Christmas dinner?”

Him: “Oh, I haven’t actually given it any thought. I am sure you will rustle up something brilliant as always.”

Me: “What do you think your parents would like for Christmas?”

Him: “Oh, I can’t think of anything. You always come up with good ideas.”

“It is around this time of the year that suddenly and inexplicably we fall back into the stereotypical gendered traps.”

Of course, I can do less, and I have slowly been cutting things off my list for the last few years. Less presents, less food, no cards to relatives, but I find it difficult to let go of everything and the expectations are high. The guilt is always there that I could be doing more. I should make gingerbread men and do more cooking with my children. I should only make handmade presents, make some of my linocut print cards, or handmade decorations for the house. One Christmas I hand printed all our wrapping paper on brown recycled paper. I am never doing it again. But, it is still on my list, because wouldn’t it just be nice to do it?

It might feel like I am complaining. Christmas is after all the time to rejoice and relax. But, I can’t remember a single Christmas dinner in the last five years where I have actually enjoyed the meal that I spent hours cooking. As soon as we are at the table, I collapse in a heap, too tired to even keep my eyes open. “Christmas is over for another year,” is my first thought, and, “I can breathe easy for 11 more months!”

“Women have to do so much of the unseen and under-appreciated work to make the holidays magical and relaxed for everyone else.”

My husband is very self-sufficient. He does most of the cleaning in the house, and he is excellent with the children. Over the years, we have reached a point where we share the domestic labour equally. Some days he does more, and sometimes I do. But, I never feel that we follow any stereotypical gender roles in our house. It has been very important to us to show this to our children, so that they don’t learn that something is a “man’s job” or a “woman’s job”. But, it is around this time of the year that suddenly and inexplicably we fall back into the stereotypical gendered traps.

“Just leave it then. You don’t have to do everything. We will figure something out,” he often says. But, it wouldn’t just get figured out if someone does not figure it out. And, a woman, for some inexplicable reason, through the centuries of ingrained societal expectations and norms, makes it her responsibility to be the one to figure things out, and to keep everyone around her happy. And, we all know that she is also the one who feels guilty if something is not right.

It is not just the emotional labour that women are burdened with at home. We also carry more than our fair share of the mental load. The making lists, and juggling work and home, coordinating the different activities, cooking and decorating, it all becomes the woman’s responsibility, at least in heterosexual couples. Women have to do so much of the unseen and under-appreciated work to make the holidays magical and relaxed for everyone else.

Even in households that have established parity of domestic labour, this season is terrible for gender equality. All the Christmas films reinforce these gendered notions, with most of them failing the Bechdel test. I feel this intense pressure to prove my worth as a mother and a wife, and, even as a feminist, I struggle to shatter the shackles of these expectations that I impose upon myself. The pressure to keep everyone “merry” around this time of the year is enormous, and while a man might get away with perfunctory input, it is often the women who run around trying to make sure everyone’s needs are met.

I can try and promise that I will look after myself more this year, but that would be just another thing to add to my list.

Dr Pragya Agarwal is an academic, writer and speaker.