Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative
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When You’re Struggling With Your Mental Health Christmas Can Be Awful

It’s already December and we’re all hurdling full speed ahead into more family gatherings, pressure to find the perfect presents and listening to loops of Bing Crosby sing ‘White Christmas’.

If I’m really honest, I’m a Pinterest mom and I love to get my house Instagram worthy, but it’s also exhausting. Beyond exhausting.The holiday season can be hard enough if you’re feeling good. Racing between your in-laws and parents house with gifts and cranberry sauce in tow, while managing overtired, overstimulated kids is hardly what I consider to be a good time.

Managing expectations is incredibly difficult and I always end up feeling exhausted and like I’ve let someone down because I couldn’t meet their scheduling demands. Forget what I want to do over the holidays (sleep, read books, drink lattes and curl up by my fireplace).

With all the pressure to be happy, I often feel like the only way to cope is to crawl under a rock and wait for January to arrive. And this is all when my mental health is stable and well managed. When I’m not struggling with depression or feeling overly anxious about work, life, and being a mom. There is incredible beauty in the holiday season if we’re able to sit quietly and – wait – sit quietly? I have a four year old.

Baby & Mommy’s First Christmas

Flash back to the Christmas of 2013 when I was barely a month into my new gig as a mom. I’d already spent the first four days of my son’s life as an inpatient on a general psych ward. My postpartum depression was deep and anxiety still out of control. Between the ongoing insomnia and search to find the right medication I spent December in a fog. Literally.

The medication I was trying at that point left me in a swirl of hazy disconnected thoughts. I couldn’t concentrate  long enough to even finish cooking a pot of spaghetti but I still had it in my head that Christmas had to look the same. It took me three weeks to put the Christmas tree up. I’d get a few ornaments on and then have to breathe my way through a panic attack or deal with intrusive thoughts.

Still Trying to Celebrate

Christmas Eve we went to my parents house, like we always do, and it was awful. I could barely stand up straight and couldn’t eat. But I persisted and we celebrated as we always do but all I can really remember is the haze I was in. The following day my husband thought it was a good idea to have his parents over for an abbreviated Christmas dinner. While they brought some of the food, there we were, still trying to cook a massive turkey, sweet potatoes and dessert. Again that medication induced fog lingered for most of the day and I was anxious, exhausted and miserable.

There was so much expectation heaped on what is already a stressful time of year, and I constantly felt guilty that I couldn’t enjoy myself. New motherhood was not what I thought it would be. At that point I hated it and was convinced it was the biggest mistake of my life. I was told countless times by friends, family and even strangers that a new baby is the best Christmas gift I’d ever receive. All I wanted as a gift at that point in time was proper sleep and to be left alone for an entire 24 hours.

Too Much Expectation

We put so much hope and expectation into the holidays. Maybe our strained relationships will magically fix themselves. Or maybe the magic of snow, mistletoe and pumpkin pie can make up for a year of heartache and loss. And of course there’s the idea that we can soothe ourselves with retail therapy. Or our success as parents hinges on finding the perfect presents for our kids.

It’s completely okay if you don’t like the holiday season. You’re allowed to feel stressed, overwhelmed and just downright awful. You don’t need to hide it with a smile or pretend that you’re excited. What you do need to do is acknowledge how you feel and sit with it. Give yourself permission to listen to your mind and body and pay attention to what it really needs.

Take Care of Yourself

Maybe this means turning down invitations to family gatherings or not volunteering for this year’s cookie exchange. If you can find time for extra rest, a bubble bath or a quiet cup of tea in between things on your holiday to-do list, take those opportunities and run with them. Talk to your partner, your parents, your friends and let them know you’re struggling. You’ll probably be surprised at the number of other people in your life that feel the same way.

Use this holiday season to start practicing self-care and setting boundaries for yourself. Think about the pressure you put on yourself to meet others’ expectations. Decide what part of that can stay and what can go. Your mental health is what’s most important this holiday season and finding time to breathe between things on your to-do list is what will get you through to January.

Shannon Hennig is the Program Director of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative.