It’s time for some holiday ground rules


A little tough love can help you actually enjoy this most ­wonderful time of the year. Here’s how to be real without being rude.

So Grandma Althea just invited you over for Thanksgiving week and Grandpa Jones wants to visit you—along with Grandma Jones—for Christmas and Santa’s first visit. Oh, and cousin Jen decided she’s coming for Hanukkah to help you get your nursery in order. Yes, it’s the holidays—when your already busy schedule becomes even busier, thanks to a mountain of holiday to-dos and the stress of face-time with family and friends. But setting the tone and making some rules for everyone can set you free to enjoy this special time.

“First, remember to take care of yourself,” says Lyss Stern, co-author of If You Give A Mom A Martini… and founder of Divalysscious Moms ( “That means do not run around making yourself exhausted.” But if you are inclined to entertain during the holidays, Stern suggests taking a bath before or after your guests arrive or leave. “Just 15 minutes in the bath, and you’ll feel refreshed. I love adding a little lavender oil—it does wonders.”

You are not Wonder Woman

And never be afraid to ask for help. “Remember you are not Wonder Woman,” says Stern, who is mom to two young boys. “I was eight months pregnant with my first son, Jackson, during one Thanksgiving and was completely overwhelmed. For the next pregnancy, which was during the holidays, I made sure to tell my mom and sister that they were going to help cook, and I sent my husband on errands. Surround yourself with positive, helpful people.”

That’s what Rachel Campos-Duffy, mom of five children ages 2 to 9 and author of Stay Home, Stay Happy, did when pregnant with her fourth child. “My friend Debbie is my ‘Mommy Mentor’—a mom who can anticipate my needs and struggles. She gave me the best Christmas gift ever. She came to my house bearing rolls of cellophane-wrapped cookie dough that she had made at home and brought to me, so I could enjoy the cookie experience with the kids, without the work. This Christmas, if someone offers to help, don’t be a martyr! Maybe it’s cookie dough, some help with gift wrapping, or an hour of babysitting. Find a Mommy Mentor to share, help, and encourage you through this amazing journey of pregnancy and motherhood.”

Sharing in a plan with a friend is key, but having spousal support is all-important to handling social and cultural expectations put upon new and expectant moms. “Cultural expectations are always there—from others and from within our own heads,” says Kristin Maschka, author of This Is Not How I Thought It Would Be: Remodeling Motherhood to Get the Lives We Want Today. “Trust me, grandparents have forgotten what’s it like to be new parents, so it’s important that you be very direct with family and friends, and think of it as an education about what the baby, the mom, and dad need to be at their best. So I communicate with my parents, and my husband does the same with his, as often as possible.”

Mother of 8-year-old Kate, Maschka recalls her daughter’s first Christmas: “A family gathering went far too long, and I spent much of the evening hiding in a dark bedroom with my very over-tired 2-month-old baby, both of us sobbing. I still have the photo that was taken right after we got out of the bedroom; it’s a constant reminder of how miserable I was that night. In hindsight, I wish I had given gentle ground rules before going, like saying ‘We can stay on Christmas day for two hours and then mom and baby will need rest, so what time would you like us?’ There are ways to be direct without being rude.”

The gift-giving system

For Maschka, being frank also meant laying down a holiday gift-giving system. “For the first several years, because that’s when excitement takes over with everybody, we put a limit on the number of presents Kate could receive—two—but we said an unlimited amount of books could be given because you can always find room for another book, plus it’s educational. So we gave a place where grandparents and family could go overboard, but at the same time, it limited the overflow of competitive gift-giving.”

Holiday bliss can be thwarted by well-meaning family members who put pressure on you for maximum face-time even before your baby’s born. This is a good time to establish precedent. “You are now in the driver’s seat,” says Stern, who suggests you lose the guilt when giving yourself priority. “You can make the decision as to who, when, what, and where you want to spend your holidays. If a certain time or holiday works best for you, then just let them know.” A lesson learned when her son was a mere eight hours old taught Stern to never be bullied again. “My mother-in-law asked me if I could have Hanukkah the Saturday after I came home from the hospital. Tears just welled up. I couldn’t believe she asked that question as the nurse was teaching me how to breastfeed!” Sterns recommends, “Knowing what I know now: Do not let anyone bully or pressure you into doing anything for the holidays.”

Adds Campos-Duffy: “My cousin’s wife is Jewish and her family doesn’t mind giving up Christmas for Thanksgiving, so figure out if one family has a preference. It could actually be a very easy compromise. After my husband, Sean, and I traveled to our parents’ houses for many holidays, we decided we preferred for the kids to wake up in their own beds on Christmas morning. Now we have an open invitation for grandparents on either side to join our family.”

Say ‘no’ and ask for help

Office-party politics can be as difficult as family well-wishers. With swollen feet and tired body, you might not feel the good cheer attending an office party. “If it’s an office potluck event,” Maschka says, “send some food along as your contribution with a vacation-type postcard of ‘Wish I could be there.’ That would also work if you’re out on maternity leave. But if you want to be at the party, again be direct and ask for an idea of the schedule because ‘Hey, I can only be on my feet for an hour or so.’?” If you don’t feel up to merrymaking altogether, “Offer to contribute something that doesn’t require you to bake or cook,” Campos-Duffy says. “Pregnant women often underestimate how much people are willing to help them out when they’re tired and uncomfortable in the weeks before they deliver. Ask for help.”

Although the holidays usually strengthen family bonds, Stern acknowledges, “When it comes to family, saying no can feel impossible. Stay strong and remind yourself you need to take care of you and your baby first.” Yes, you can dare to just be a guest. “Volunteer for next year’s holiday and say you’ll be feeling more centered then.” Concludes Maschka: “Put your needs out there, and surround yourself with supportive people, not those who assume we can handle cultural expectations at this busy time in our lives. Believe me, everyone will learn how to adapt to your new family.”

All-star advice for saving your sanity

Nicole Sullivan, mom of Dashel, 2 and Beckett, 2 months: “Between family and friends, I have 25 kids on my holiday list. I break it down into age groups and pick one gift for each age category, and buy all the same thing—usually online—to make it even easier for me. So for three age groups, I only need to think of three separate gifts. This helps me handle all the holiday stress better.”

Milla Jovovich, mom of Ever, 20 months: “Take time for simple pleasures during hectic times. Read a book for 5 to10 minutes; I’m going through the whole Patricia Cornwell series now. This is not the time to be uber-intelligent.”

Heidi Klum, mom of Leni, 5; Henry, 4; Johan, 3; Lou, 2 months: “I write things down so I don’t forget anyone or anything. It’s all about planning and thinking ahead.”

Courtney Thorne-Smith, mom of Jack, 20 months: “The best thing I do is not reach for quick fixes. So that means no sugar, which is especially difficult around holidays, and no coffee. But sipping on a cup of green tea—full of anti-oxidants and really mild—helps calm me down.”

Samantha Harris, mom of Josselyn, 22 months: “We flew to Minneapolis over the holidays to see family and it took its toll on me. Josselyn got sick on the way back, and I’d been running like crazy for my jobs so I ended up getting sick, too. I learned not to be a martyr and try to make everyone happy.”

Jo Dee Messina, mom of Noah, 10 months: “I know what it’s like to feel frustrated and helpless when drowning in debt. This is the first holidays with Noah and we won’t be going for broke.”

Post these guidelines on your fridge

  • Don’t be afraid to say “no”
  • Set aside some “me time” for R&R
  • Seek support of positive people
  • Lay down holiday gift-giving laws
  • Dare to be a holiday guest
  • Find out schedules of holiday parties
  • Take care of you and baby first


— Bonnie Siegler has covered entertainment, general interests, and trends since 1995. Based in Southern California, she is an internationally known writer whose work has appeared in InStyle, Family Circle, and Good ­Housekeeping.

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