Tips for a stress-free holiday season

Local Moms share their holiday traditions, and how they deal with the stress and challenges of the season

While the holiday season brings much joy and excitement to many households, it can offer its share of challenges as well, particularly for busy parents. Moms often shoulder a lot of the extra responsibilities that come up during this hectic time of year. Four local mothers shared what the holidays are like for their family, and what they do to maintain calm and make the season bright.

Melissa Ballard Sullivan juggles full-time work, graduate school studies and family life. With three daughters, Mary-Margaret, 20; Lily, 14; and Emma, 12, and son John, 16, life is busy, busy, busy with daily commutes to several schools, sports and other family activities. A Manchester native, Melissa lives in the city still with her husband Dave and their children. While she is from a family of three, Dave has eight in his family.

Thanksgiving is big for the entire Sullivan family, who get together, renting out an inn in North Conway for more than 40 years. “We love getting together,” Ballard Sullivan said. “The Sullivans all have beautiful voices and host an annual talent show.” One of her husband’s sisters step dances, and now a niece dances as well.

“There’s a lot of Irish songs sung,” she said. “We always start off our Thanksgiving day with a Mass. There’s nothing like embracing your Catholic tradition at a home Mass. It brings everyone back to the days when priests said Mass outside on the mass rocks on the coast of Ireland.”

Her husband is a former police officer, which necessitated the family holiday plans accommodating his work schedule. Ballard Sullivan said that it’s important if you have a young family to start your own traditions within your immediate family.

“Life changes and so will where and how you celebrate with your extended family.” What are important are the new pajamas, the Santa’s snack and stories, the decorations and smells that the kids will remember she said.

 She remembers a Christmas Eve when her husband was working and she assembled a doll carriage, putting on the handles backwards and being too tired to fix it.

“I can remember sitting at my mother’s house visiting later in the day, pretty much in a trance,” said Ballard Sullivan.

She said she focused on keeping it simple, and planning ahead, although even with the best-laid plans, there’s always the unexpected — a virus, cold or ear infection and always at the holiday.

“The kids come first. As the Sullivans always say, there are 12 days to Christmas. Who we don’t see or share with at Christmas we’ll celebrate Little Christmas or the Epiphany!”

Ballard Sullivan said that during the holiday season, her house has both cobwebs and Christmas trees and that’s OK with her. The focus is on family. Her kids look forward to special treats made only at holidays, such as pork stuffing and pork pies to celebrate their French heritage as well as pierogies and homemade kielbasa and babkas from their Polish heritage, too.

“My husband and I always have a Bailey’s toast and Santa has always appreciated the shot we leave for him as well.”

Jennifer Kidwell loves the holidays. She and her husband live in Litchfield with their three children; daughter Morgan, 15, and sons Jacob, 12 and Jack, 8.

“Family is everything and we have lots of wonderful traditions we look forward to each year.”

Kidwell is originally from Maine, and her parents still live in the central Maine area. Her dad is a fourth-generation forester, land manager and business owner — her younger brother is now the 5th generation — and her most favorite Thanksgiving tradition is to go in the woods and chop down their own Christmas tree.

“We do this every Thanksgiving weekend, with my parents, my sister, my brother and their families. The best part is seeing all of the cousins running around looking for the ‘perfect’ tree,” said Kidwell.

 The family always spends Christmas Eve and Christmas day in Maine. In fact, her kids have never been at their own house on either day. Kidwell said that they know the priority is to spend time with family.

“My parents invite over 50 people in each Christmas Even for a time of music, fellowship and fun,” she said. “It’s tradition for people in the town I grew up in to go to my mom and dad’s home for Christmas Eve!”

She is from a very musical family, and even now it’s a special night to share gifts of music. The kids sing, dance, recite poems, play guitar, piano or the autoharp and her parents sing a few carols with a group of adults. They finish the night with everyone singing carols, and then her dad will read part of the nativity story.

Kidwell feels the most stressful part of the holidays is finding the perfect gifts for people, but her family tries to eliminate the stress of buying gifts for all of the adults in the family by having each adult pick a name and then purchasing stocking gifts for that one person. She and her husband try to purchase just three or four gifts for each of their children—something the kids really want (within reason), something to read, something from Santa, and something to wear.

“With 15 people in one home on Christmas morning, it’s a fun, crazy, exciting time,” said Kidwell. To stay organized prior to the Christmas holidays, she tries to order online as much as possible and if she has to go out to the stores, she tries to make a list before heading out the door.

While the holidays can be stressful for many families, for some the emphasis is on keeping those busy days as regular as possible. Patty Lynch, a single Chelmsford, Mass., mom of two to son Chris, 24, and daughter Cassie, 11, said, “The holiday season is like any other time of the year for our family.”

Her son works at a local electronics store and she said he does the best he can during the holiday, but her daughter has multiple special needs as a result of having a stroke in utero and she needs a solid routine in place each day — one which allows her to know what is planned for the day, but not too far in advance because she will get overwhelmed and have anxiety.

“Honestly, being a single parent working full-time and having a direct selling job with Princess House makes life a bit more crazier than most,” said Lynch. “All I can think about for the holidays is that there is no school and no routine for my daughter so those days will not be pleasant ones.”

When there are family and friend events, Lynch assures her daughter will not get overstimulated by arriving late on purpose and at times will also leave early.

“There is a lot of redirecting so that she does not get into her explosive behavior,” Lynch said. “I watch her with an eagle eye in fear that not because she means to hurt anyone, but sometimes it just happens because she does not know her own barriers. When I hear someone say they got hurt or is crying, I quickly look to see where Cassie is and pray she had nothing to do with it.”

Needless to say, the holidays are a bit more stressful for Lynch because there are more events to attend and people to see and too much stimulation for her daughter.

When it comes to holiday traditions, Lynch must keep it simple. Santa comes to their home, but she said he brings just one gift and fills the stockings because he needs to make sure there are enough gifts for all children. Lynch gets only one or two gifts under the tree so Cassie is not overwhelmed.

“I try to make homemade ornaments with Cassie’s picture in it to give as gifts each year,” Lynch said. She wishes the family had more holiday traditions but for now, “I

live on survival mode, one second, one moment, one day at a time. If I can do an activity or family event we do, but nothing is ever set in stone. I look forward to a smile on my daughter's face with no fighting, throwing, or accidents after a visit.”

Cassie was adopted from the Ukraine when she was just 18 months old and Lynch had no idea she had any disabilities. The stroke in utero resulted in many, however: epilepsy, slight Cerebral Palsy and explosive behavior issues as well as others. “Looking at her, you would see a typical normal child who loves to keep going. She hates to sit still,” said Lynch.

Nashua photographer Sharon Ward has two daughters, Megan, 15 and Sarah, 13. She stays away from stores and malls for as long as possible, saying she finds that consumerism adds greatly to her stress levels as well as hearing holiday tunes in October.

“I try not to do any shopping until at least late November or sometimes even early December,” Ward said. “I like to save the Christmas spirit for where it is appropriate during and after the advent season after Thanksgiving. Although it may still be a little stressful, I am not prolonging the stress over three months.”

While she doesn’t necessarily get stressed about the shopping aspect of the season, she finds that it’s more about being ready in the mindfulness so she can focus on what it is all about.

“It’s my busy season for work so I get stressed more about getting that all done so I can enjoy the season,” said Ward. “I do not focus on shopping and buying for my family. We do minimal shopping and now that my girls are both teens, this Christmas we will actually be focusing more on doing for others than shopping for each other.”

Some of their favorite traditions include spending a day searching for their Christmas tree, which they cut down each year. Then they stop for hot chocolate or coffee. Each Christmas Eve, the family opens one gift after attending Mass. For Ward, the best part of the holidays is “the peacefulness of being in the moment of the season, when we sit by the fire and realize this is what it is all about — Jesus’s birth and spending time with family and friends.”

Pamme Boutselis is a N.H.-based freelance writer, a content director at Southern New Hampshire University and a serial volunteer. She blogs regularly at Along the Way. Follow her on Twitter @pammeb.

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