A parent’s guide to surviving the holidays

Jackson, August, Santa, and Avery

The holiday season has always been one of my favorite times of year. I love the anticipatory nature of the month of December, the excitement that comes with seeing neighbors out stringing lights, the harried hustle in the department stores. My enjoyment of the holiday is probably rooted in the fact that Christmas was always big in my family, and it was built around traditions: cutting down our own tree, taking the annual trek to Macy’s on Market Street for the light show, hanging ornaments with “It’s A Wonderful Life” on the in the background. I knew that, when I had my own kids, I’d want to give them those same magical experiences. 

Well … I’m not saying that Christmas loses its magic when you become a parent. But its luster can certainly be dimmed at times by reality! Our annual trip to Macy’s? I spent this one sweating like a monster carrying one twin on my chest and the other under my arm, frantically searching for the restroom to deal with a diaper blowout. I cursed under my breath every time our extra-wide stroller wouldn’t fit through doors. On the way home, I almost broke my neck running for a Regional Rail train while hauling almost 35 pounds of baby and a stroller down the steps at Jefferson Station, towing along a screaming 4-year-old who was convinced I was going to get on the train without him (I didn’t — tempting!). Magical, indeed.

Hectic and holidays go hand in hand — but I’ve found there are ways to weather the chaos and still embrace the spirit of the season: 

Save your sanity where you can

It’s an unfortunate reality that the leadup to the holidays for many parents is focused far too sharply on gift-buying. As August and Avery are about to have their first Christmas out of the NICU, Ashlee and I wanted to include them in Santa’s gift-giving (Jackson would be suspicious if not!), but didn’t want to spend a ton on gifts they wouldn’t care about nor need. We’re all about hand-me-downs in this family and the twins have a whole attic-full of Jackson’s baby toys waiting for them, so we went shopping upstairs! We picked out the toys we’d be bringing down for them anyway (and that Jackson won’t remember having), wrapped them up and,voila! Christmas for a baby on a budget. 

Babies are money drains in most areas, but one thing parents definitely don’t need to spend a lot on is expensive toys. When Jackson was young, we found he enjoyed the boxes for his toys more than the gifts themselves.

To save some money, check out online yard sales, thrift shops and consignment events for pre-owned toys, go the DIY route for homemade sensory toys, or gift something meaningful from your own childhood.

Strategize for the stress (and mess)

I’m a Type-A person who thrives on organization, and the very thought of what a Christmas morning with three kids will do to our living room makes me itch. And that’s not to mention the haul of gifts I know they’ll get from family and friends as well! 

So, I’m gearing up to head into battle now, going through both Jackson and the babies’ toy bins and being much less judicious than I normally am about what we should save. Essentially, if they haven’t touched it in the last week, it’s out of here! I’m Marie Kondo-ing everything from their clothes to their books to their craft supplies because I know that the ranks are about to swell. (And naturally, this all has to be done when Jackson isn’t home — as all kids seem to have emotional relationships with objects they find out are heading out the door!)

Disorganization is a trigger for stress for me, but each parent is certainly different. Some may dread the family and social interactions of the holidays, others the financial burden or the disrupted schedules. No matter the source, identifying your triggers and planning ahead for how to reduce their impact can go a long way to feeling more in control this holiday season.

Forget perfection

The holidays are steeped in tradition for many. The expectation to do the same thing, eat the same thing, see the same people, take the same picture–and that brings with it an intention of perfection. I admit to being guilty of pursuing perfection when it comes to the holidays–but, now that we’ve gone from one kid to three, I find myself running out of that steam a lot earlier in December! 

It takes a mindset shift to let go of your expectations, for both yourself and your family. When decorating our Christmas tree the other night, for example, my eye was twitching as I watched Jackson hang not one, not two, not three, but four (FOUR!) ornaments on the same branch–at the tip, literally laying on the floor. The perfectionist in me wanted to lunge at the tree and place them strategically throughout the rows of branches. But I shoved that person deep inside and instead noticed how Jackson smiled at the branch after he hung each godforsaken ornament on it. He was super proud of his work, and that made me super proud of him.

The same happened with our Christmas cookies. I let Jackson pick out the icing colors at the supermarket and as much as I steered him toward red and green, he opted for pink and white. He poured entirely too much of just about every ingredient into the bowl, spread his pre-K germs all throughout that dough and, when it came time to select cookie cutters from our random assortment, he went with Christmas classics like the pumpkin, Easter bunny, an airplane and the letters “A” and “J.” As odd as the end products were, he donned his Santa hat, we listened to Christmas music and had a great time putting our own spin on a perfectly imperfect experience.

Let yourself see the magic

Through the shopping, the spending, the cooking and the wrapping, it can be hard to get in touch with that magic the holidays once held for many of us. But it’s still there — and you can see it when you really see your kids.

For instance, recently Jackson’s energy level has been off the wall. I swear his pre-K class feeds him candy canes before he comes home, because he’s diving off the couch, running from front door to back, and trying to dance on the dinner table. It’s endless and exhausting, and it’s easy to get frustrated, annoyed and irritated. 

But as much as I want him to act more mature or calm down, I’ve been trying to remind myself that he is still a little boy — a little boy who believes that a big man with a beard is going to magically enter our house with a sack of toys he brought from the North Pole. He’s a boy who every morning runs excitedly from room to room looking for Poopy the Elf (yes, that the Elf on the Shelf’s name), cackling at the elf’s antics and whispering, when he thinks no one can hear him, if he can ask Santa for extra presents. This is a boy who can’t wait to wear his matching Santa footie PJs with his brother and sister on Christmas and who eagerly ran into a store at the mall to buy Ashlee a Christmas gift she would “just love” (a bobblehead of what looks like an anime character that she certainly has never heard of). 

When I’m at the height of my irritation with Jackson’s boundless spirit, I’m trying to remind myself that it’s that pure innocence that also makes this time of year so magical for him. I know it won’t last for too many years, so I’m trying to let my stress take a back seat and instead soak in his excited energy (couch-jumping and all!) while I can. Because it really is magic to see.