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(Image: Getty)
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OPINIONSocietyDecember 21, 2022

The real Santa is more than likely a woman

(Image: Getty)
(Image: Getty)

Christmas mythology may centre around a jolly bearded man, but it tends to be women – especially mothers or women in heterosexual relationships – who really carry the candle. 

A fortnight before Christmas, I scraped my car against a pole while reversing into a carpark. I had rushed into the supermarket 30 minutes before my daughter’s school break-up to buy chocolates for her six teachers – an end of year tradition I’d overlooked in the December madness.

I drove to her school with boxes of chocolates sliding around on the back seat as I waited on the phone for my insurance company to pick up, and as I did, I got a text reminder that our dog was booked at the vet in an hour one of those appointments that if you miss it, you have to wait many weeks to get another slot – and another text came in from another daughter asking for the last four digits on my credit card so she could buy a curling iron in a Black Friday sale for her Christmas present which had to be ordered that day or she would miss out.

My daughter’s school report came in but I forgot the password on the school portal and after three attempts, I got locked out. There were Secret Santa presents to buy for the extended family Christmas, presents to buy for my own family, gifts to wrap – oh we’ve run out of sellotape so that forced another trip to the shop. Meanwhile, my phone pinged with notifications from a couple of editors keen to know – rightly so – if I would get their stories through that day and by what time.

Like most mothers I know, I am the family PA and the administrative gatekeeper. I didn’t ask for this job when I gave birth to my first daughter 22 years ago, but the reality, as numerous studies have shown, is that women shoulder more of the emotional and cognitive labour in households than men.

In my daughters’ younger years, I found the childcare, booked them into schools, dance and music classes, took them to doctor and dentist appointments, worked from home when one was sick, counselled them through friendship troubles, these jobs juggled between my part-time work roles. I was – sort of – happy to do this, but by the time I had three kids, the expectations of parenting became more intense, and running the family was a full-time job, one I managed (often badly) alongside my own paid work. I’m divorced and while my daughters’ father and I may have divided assets and childcare, I’ve managed to hold on to this special role of mine.

Throw in Christmas and, if you see a frazzled woman anywhere, forgive her. Dr Kate Prickett, a Victoria University sociologist and demographer who heads the Roy McKenzie Centre for Families says that international surveys find that women report far more holiday-induced stress than men. During this time women tend to take on the responsibility of managing not just their own family, but are also more likely than men in heterosexual couples to organise the gifts and communication with their in-laws.

In this hemisphere, the Christmas stress is magnified because it coincides with end-of-year events like prizegivings, as well as preparations for summer holidays (which often means pre-Christmas is a busier time at work). Add the pressure of school holidays starting early in December and the need of many women to find childcare while working those weeks, and it’s a perfect storm.

The ‘good mother’ myth

But it’s Christmas – the material expectations, the wish lists, the eating and drinking and extended family – that’s the biggy.  “Doing or overdoing Christmas has become ingrained in norms about being a good mother,” says Prickett. “So the pressure to follow through on making sure Christmas day is perfect and that everyone is happy comes from a sense that this is what good parents do, generally, but more so what a good motherdoes. So while it could be easy to just say to women to do less, weve managed to create a set of social norms that continues to put pressure on women, even when we intellectually get that Christmas will still be special without that one little detail,’’ she says.

Prickett points out her own mother guilt at this time of year. Her family – a partner and two children – are in the process of packing for a move. “I just could not face the idea of having a Christmas tree in amongst the chaos and had already put our Christmas decorations away. We live close to a stall selling Christmas trees, and every time we drive past my kids say sadly, ‘I wish we had a Christmas tree.'”

“They understand why, I absolutely understand why. But I still feel bad about not having a Christmas tree up. None of this appears to phase my partner, which I guess serves a purpose because he can now help me through the silly guilt,’’ she says.

I’m with Prickett. Last week, I was thinking: I don’t know if I can be bothered driving to a place that sells trees, partly because we’re not home for Christmas. That was my thought until a pine branch fell down near our house and I asked my partner to saw off a limb. I searched for our bag of decorations – where did I put them after last year? – and finally, the star and the angel and a jumble of baubles were up, hanging off an angled limb.

Pine needles dropped over the carpet. Where was our vacuum cleaner to whizz around before our guests arrived for Christmas drinks? Oh the vacuum foot was broken and the bag was full. I swept the mess up with a broom and turned my phone on Do Not Disturb, tired of the constant pinging of notifications from someone who wanted something of me.

“Hey Mum what do you want for Christmas?’’ one daughter asks me.

“No more jobs and no more lists,” I snap. “I want nothing to do.”

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