Holiday Survival Guide For Women

12/20/2011 10:26 am ET | Updated Feb 19, 2012
  • Joan Williams Founding director, Center for WorkLife Law; Distinguished professor of law, University of California, Hastings; Author

For years I would wake up at 5:30 in the morning every Black Friday, leaving the kids with my mother-in-law, and get to the mall by 6:15 a.m. Every year, I would return six or seven hours later, loaded down with presents, and my mother-in-law would say, "There you are! I took care of your kids while you went out and had a good time shopping."

I don't, in fact, have a good time shopping. Maybe I'm the only woman in America who thinks this, but the only thing worse than going shopping is going shopping in a mall. Still, my Black Friday blitz got a lot of the torture out of the way all in one day, and I didn't have to haul the kids from store to miserably packed store.

One year, when my kids were five and three, I decided I was sick of buying all the Christmas presents for everyone. So I made a deal with my husband: I would buy the presents for his mother, his father, his brother, his sister-in-law, his nephew, our kids, our kids' four teachers, our babysitter, my parents, and my three siblings' seven kids. He would buy the present for Sister Marjorie, his mother's cousin.

Well, I bought my twenty-six presents. He didn't buy his one. Shortly after Christmas, I got a phone call from my mother-in-law: Sister's feelings were really hurt that we had not gotten her something, just some little thing. And I thought: When it comes to husbands, what's scary is what the nice ones do (or don't).

Do things get tense with your husband or partner around the holidays? If so, there's a reason -- and a solution.

The holidays are a perfect storm of three trends. The first is that women are expected to do what anthropologists call "kin work," or the conceiving, organizing, and executing of holiday celebrations, as Micaela di Leonardo details in her brilliant 1987 "The Female World of Cards and Holidays." Maintaining a sense of family "takes time, intention, and skill," she notes -- "and men in the aggregate don't do it." Even women with full-time jobs were defensive about cutting back on "Christmas card lists, organized holiday gathering, multifamily dinners ..." and all the rest of it.

The second reason that many women still feel overworked and overstressed during the holidays is that they still do 80 percent of household management, which during the holidays expands to include everything from RSVP-ing to holiday parties to planning turkey dinners to wrapping presents. If my husband had manned up and bought Sister Marjorie's present, he would have gotten major points -- but who would have wrapped it and mailed it to Connecticut in time for the holidays?

The final problem is the Martha Stewart syndrome. There's been a speed-up in American family life in the past 20 years, a sense that no Halloween is complete without a homemade costume, and that no Hannukah is complete without homemade applesauce. If I were a conspiracy theorist I might point out that the sharp increase in household standards came at precisely the same time that married women joined the workforce in large numbers, ensuring that women would run themselves ragged staying up til 2 a.m. making Christmas cookies -- and still feel they weren't meeting their own standards either at home or at work.

We can change this thing. Here's how, in four easy steps.

PHOTOS: A Woman's Guide To Surviving The Holidays

Survive The Holidays

Have a blessed holidays. Let me know how it works.