This Holiday Season, I’m Saying No to Literally Almost Everything

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[F]or a season, no had to be the answer to almost everything. But over time, when you rebuild a life that’s the right size and dimension and weight, full of the things you’re called to, emptied of the rest, then you do get to live some yes again. But for a while, no is what gets you there. — Shauna Niequist, Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living, pg. 51

It’s been occurring to me (slowly) that there a million different ways to live a good, meaningful life — and I can choose what to prioritize so that my everyday matches up with what I really believe is good and meaningful. There’s no one way to be a woman. There’s no one way to be an adult.

Over the past few years, I’ve started openly admitting to myself what I do and don’t like, what I do and don’t believe, what I will and will not prioritize. I’ve been incorporating these things and rearranging my life to get those priorities to the forefront.

And you know what?

I haven’t found a single shred of peace because I am so dang exhausted all the freaking time.

That is a (slight) exaggeration. Some things have stuck. But most things haven’t. There are too many learning curves and lifestyle changes required to “live my best life,” and beyond that, never-ending to-do lists clutter the way. Factor in my years of being depressed, pregnant, and/or sleep-deprived (which are quite a few in the college and early parenthood years), and the good stuff never gets done.

I began to suspect I was not made for a good, meaningful life…just a stressed-out, scraping-along one.

Then I read that Shauna Niequist quote. This, I realized, was my problem: I kept adding lots of good things without cutting out anything else. I kept trying to sustain a lifestyle that was exhausting and stressing me out while simultaneously transforming it. And perhaps the biggest revelation of all was that the person I needed to say no to the most was not work or friends or family or random acquaintances. It was…me. Me and my ideas and ambitions and callings.

Not a permanent no. Not a dismissive no. Just a realistic, not-until-you-eat-your-veggies-and-learn-to-go-to-bed-on-time no. A not until you make space, time, and energy no. A not right now, not this year no.

I am always brimming with ideas. I am a perfectionist. I love aesthetically pleasing, ethically sound, people delighting things. I just don’t have the energy, know-how, talent, and/or time to put all those beautiful, meaningful things into action right now.

And this is why the holiday season is a nightmare for me. It involves so many wonderful things that tax my extremely limited domestic skills. Look at all these cute kids’ crafts! How fun would it be to make and deliver cookies to my co-workers with my adorable toddler in tow? This Thanksgiving pie looks delicious. I bet we could copy those decorations into our living room arrangement!

I get excited and inspired and make a to-do list one night…then spend the rest of the season feeling guilty and dull because I keep procrastinating and procrastinating until finally the holiday has past. No cute crafts. No homemade cookies or pies. No coordinated decor. Nothing.

I’VE RUINED THE HOLIDAYS.

If there’s one thing going for me, at least I give up now. I rarely reach the extreme holiday burn-out other moms feel just because I am finally at the point where I wave my white flag before I’ve even begun to fight. I’m too busy wrangling my anxiety to force my way through decorating 4 dozen sugar cookies. Progress?

But I don’t want to do just nothing. I love the holidays. I love holiday traditions. I love good food and pretty decor and fun activities. I want to make meaningful, joyful memories with my family. No matter how tired and burnt-out I am, I don’t just want to bury my head in my pillows and just survive. (I mean, I do, but my soul doesn’t. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.)

I had a Great Awakening over all this when I bitterly observed how my husband experienced none of this stress or pressure to make the holidays happen. If I, the wife and mother, was dead, I grumbled, we wouldn’t have any holiday cheer! He doesn’t have a Pinterest page. He’s never picked up Parents magazine. The kids would grow up without Sunday Advent readings and salt dough ornaments and paper chain Christmas countdowns and Hallmark movie marathons and Christmas light-seeing and matching Christmas jammies!

And then an ornery part of me said…So?

Would anybody even care if they grew up without those particular things? Would anyone even notice?

I was like the reverse Grinch: Maybe Christmas, I thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, I thought, means something more.

If I and my stressed out plans that never came to fruition anyway OR ended up turning Mama into a Stress Monster were out of the equation…what would happen? Only the things my husband wanted to do — because he, a simpler soul than I, is motivated not by ideals and mom guilt but by what genuinely brings him and others joy. What would happen? Only the things our kids wanted to do — the things that mattered so much to them that they pestered Daddy to do them, the things to which they brought their own energy and planning and joy.

That sounded like an amazing holiday season to me. It hadn’t occurred to me (no, really, it hadn’t) that I could choose to opt into only a few good things and leave the rest I didn’t like or couldn’t fit in. I didn’t have to choose between a guilty fetal position and a non-stop stress fest. It wasn’t all or nothing. I just had to say no, nopenot this year to all the lovely, brilliant, meaningful ideas that whirred through my brain one day and left me depleted for the rest of the season.

I said no to almost literally everything. Even the things I said yes to, I had to say no to more traditional (re: elaborate) ways of doing them. My criteria was no longer, Isn’t this a gorgeous, fun, awesome idea?! They were these, in this order:

(1) Do I want to do this?

(2) Do other people in my family want to do this?

(3) Do I have time and energy for this? (E.g., does this involve planning, shopping, and decision-making? Will this event or activity occur in close proximity to other fun events?)

If there was any sort of hesitation, weariness, or “Hmm, maybe this could work if I…”, I nixed it right then and there — no matter how great of an idea it was.

And our Christmas was lovely. Because while I did cut out a great, great deal, I said yes to things that really mattered in ways I could actually enjoy them.

Basically, I mooched off the energy and planning of other people by showing up to and going along with things instead of offering to host them or plan them.

I caroled with my choir. We attended special church services. My in-laws put on Christmas movies for the toddler and made a yummy German-themed Christmas dinner. Relatives invited us to cookie decorating.

We cut down and decorated a Christmas tree per tradition because all three of us wanted to. Decorations were whatever we pulled out of the Christmas box and placed around the dining and living room. I did all my stocking stuffer and gift shopping online. I only gave a gift if I wanted to and had an idea for. I imperfectly wrapped them in store-bought paper without affixing fresh pine branches with red twine.

We opened presents and stockings on Christmas morning, just us three. No special breakfast…just Cheerios and orange juice in a snowman mug. We hosted a simple Christmas brunch for local family — a charcuterie board, deviled eggs, a couple sweet breads, all prepared by my husband, bless him. The toddler and I napped a ton that day, and we took a cue from him when he asked to go home and play with his new trucks instead of visit with family longer.

We all immensely enjoyed this Christmas — all of us, even me, the tired, super-pregnant, Grinchy mom and wifey. I enjoyed everything we did, instead of resenting it halfway through. I didn’t miss the things we didn’t do because I was too busy being present with the things we did do.

Is this how I want every Christmas to be? Is this how I’m advocating everyone’s Christmas should be? Well, no, not in the sense that a Christmas devoid of crafts and movie marathons and special meals cooked with kids over a beautifully decorated table is inherently superior. But yes, in the sense that everyone’s Christmas ought to be the size and scope that everyone in the family actually wants and can handle that particular year.

I am not hating on beautifully wrapped gifts or elaborate decorations or kids’ crafts or anybody who just couldn’t have Christmas without them. Those traditions and activities are immensely enjoyable to certain people and in certain contexts and seasons, and I love seeing my Facebook feed filled with families in matching Christmas jammies and detailed gingerbread houses and Advent lessons and St. Nicholas Day celebrations. There are so many traditions I loved as a child that I can’t wait to share with my babies, and many that I want to borrow from Pinterest, Parents magazine, and Instagram. Beauty and goodness are beautiful and good even if they can’t fit onto this year’s itinerary. I don’t need to personally squeeze them all in until I’m a hot mess in order to appreciate them.

That’s all I’m saying: they can wait until next year. Or the year after that. Or after that one. Or maybe never, and it’ll be okay. There are so many joyful things to do during the holidays — but they will only be joyful if we say no to the other good things we don’t actually have time, energy, and real interest for.

3 thoughts on “This Holiday Season, I’m Saying No to Literally Almost Everything

  1. heather

    I’ve never understood people who stress themselves out over holidays – especially using the justification of “making memories for the children.” Kids don’t care about the things that adults stress over. Living like that means that the memories they will be making is of being forced to participate in things they don’t want to do with arguing parents and then probably being resented for not appreciating it properly. That’s no fun.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I think it’s a combination of anxiety, lack of mindfulness, grooming to do things you don’t want to do for the sake of others, and cultural pressure to signal to others or yourself that you are a certain kind of person. Because you’re absolutely right: when you come screeching to a halt and question the whole reason you’re doing things, you realize NOBODY CARES! Or nobody cares in proportion to how much energy you’re exerting.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Oh, and I just want to highlight and star and all-caps your excellent point about how kids get resented for not being properly appreciative of all the things parents do “for them.” The fact that many parents can’t accept their kids’ real feelings (including indifference or dislike) around holiday traditions shows that all this stress is really, deep down, about us parents needing to feel validated…not about bringing joy to our kids.

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