COLUMN: Holiday labor division perpetuates sexist roles

One person should not have to decorate the house, plan holiday traditions, cook, clean, buy gifts, organize gatherings and do numerous other tasks.

Cela is a sophomore journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about daily life for The Maneater.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, according to holiday songs, but for who? Oftentimes, the person behind the curtain creating the holiday magic is forgotten. Their work comes at great personal cost.

What makes it feel like the holidays? The string lights? The tree hung with ornaments? Gifts underneath it? Unfortunately, ordinary people don’t have elves like Santa to help them during the holiday season. Instead, someone must engage in the emotional and physical work of creating holiday spirit through setting the scenery and preparing the gifts. While who takes on this task differs from family to family, most often it is the mother or matriarch.

It’s important to recognize that this opinion refers largely to families with two heterosexual parents. This is not to erase or forget the many different types of families and what family members may compose that unit. Regardless of familial composition, it’s essential that one person does not feel obligated or responsible for all holiday duties.

My mother recalls the holiday season when my sisters and I were young as the most stressful time of the year; juggling work, time off, shopping for gifts, engaging in holiday traditions, setting out cards, organizing who will host and who will bring what dishes stretched her brain to its limits. The task of keeping endless mental lists — in addition to dealing with young children — was incredibly stressful.

Growing older, the holidays lose some of their magic as one sees the work of the person behind the curtain and they take off their rose-tinted glasses. It’s not Santa and his reindeer magically dropping off gifts under the tree but gifts from grownups/caregivers who painstakingly shopped for gifts months in advance to create the magic in the morning.

The holiday season is steeped in sexism and the division of labor. Besides the gendered toys, sexist songs and questionable classic holiday movies, the division of labor starkly reinforces stereotypes and oftentimes puts a large amount of stress on the matriarch/woman in the family. It is the man’s job to cut down the tree, set it up, string lights and basically do anything involving outdoor manual labor. The woman must cook, clean, get gifts and decorate, all on top of her actual job and other outstanding responsibilities.

Almost 50% of women in the United States report higher levels of stress during the holidays. Donning too many hats can bring about increased stress that may affect menstrual health, vaginal health, mood, sex drive, fertility and cause other bodily symptoms. In addition to their paid work, the domestic work of creating holiday magic is often delegated to the woman in the relationship.

Making holiday magic should not be all up to one person, and families cannot assume it will be the mother. It’s time to step up and help out those bearing the brunt of the work for the holidays.

Data from the U.S. Department of Labor showed that the number of hours women work outside the home is increasing, and the number of hours men work inside the home is increasing, causing the division of labor to be more equal. However, it is not equal yet. The increases have not been at the same rate; the data shows that the number of hours that women work outside the home has increased more than the number of hours that men work inside the home.

In regard to household activities, on an average day, 46% of women do housework — like cleaning or laundry — compared to only 22% of men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally, women spend 1.1 hours a day providing physical care to children versus men, who spend 27 minutes daily providing physical care in households with children under the age of 6.

COVID-19 and schooling children from home is another stressor for working mothers, especially those with young children who require more supervision. Juggling numerous responsibilities and deciding which balls they may have to drop takes a mental and physical toll.

The holiday season can also bring about decision fatigue, a term coined by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister meaning “the emotional and mental strain resulting from a burden of choices.” Making a million small decisions in a day exhausts the brain and may lead to hasty behavior or an overall internal shutdown.

Although holiday meltdowns may be funny to watch on the internet, they don’t have to happen in real life. To avoid decision fatigue, delegate work and decide what is most important, leaving what isn’t behind. Additionally, limit social media usage. It’s okay to use social media for inspiration, but it’s important to realize that curated images only reflect perfectionism and idealized versions of reality.

For families, this means that the matriarch should feel able to pass on different tasks to others, and other family members should be ready to take on more responsibilities and help. When holiday stress threatens, invest in activities that stop stress in its tracks and switch mental and/or physical gears.

One of the main reasons the holiday season can be so stressful is that there are various expectations and traditions that tick the boxes to creating a “perfect holiday season.” To avoid this kind of stress, don’t “should” on decisions, such as “I should have done this.” Instead, replace should with could and add an alternative option.

Abandon perfectionism. A silver lining of not being able to hold large gatherings is the absence of the expectations and prying questions from relatives as well as less pressure on the host to clean and cook.

This holiday season, rekindle and hold spirits high by keeping in mind what is truly important. Create whatever kind of holiday magic is fit for ending the year and don’t let what should create joy create unnecessary stress. Everyone deserves the gift of rest and relaxation.

In pursuit of racial and social equity, The Maneater encourages its readers to donate to The New Georgia Project. The NGP is a “nonpartisan effort to register and civically engage Georginans.” Donate at: https://secure.actblue.com/donate/new-georgia-project-1

Edited by Sydney Lewis | slewis@themaneater.com

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