Emotional Labor Is Even More Exhausting This Holiday. Here’s What To Do.

Usually by this time in December, I am a tightly wound ball of anxiety, constantly checking and rechecking the calendar and gift lists to ensure that the holiday season proceeds without any major catastrophes. This year, I am still a tightly wound ball of anxiety, but for very different reasons.

In terms of the holidays, my calendar is mostly empty save for a couple Zoom parties and a drive-in Christmas movie. We, like many people, are not having our usual festivities this year. And in a time where there’s already so much emotional exhaustion and anxiety, I’m struggling to figure out how to make a pandemic holiday memorable and magical when so many normal traditions are off the table.

“This year necessitates a lot of creativity in making sure family ‘stays close while apart,’ which means potentially coming up with an entirely new plan for the holidays,” said Cathy Cassani Adams, a licensed clinical social worker, co-host of “Zen Parenting Radio” and author of the forthcoming book “Zen Parenting.”

“The uncertainty is at an all-time high, but women feel tasked to carry on and find as much holiday spirit as possible,” she continued. “It’s a new kind of exhaustion ― less about a busy party season, and more about staying optimistic and figuring out new ways to find joy.”

The lack of standby festivities amid the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t necessarily eased the burden of emotional labor that normally comes this time each year. Instead it has created a void into which women are throwing unmatched effort in order to make sure the season is still merry and bright.

How do we make holiday memories when we can’t physically be with our loved ones? How do we create joy for our children while we’re silently grieving? How do we replace the things we’ve lost?

While these are daunting dilemmas we’re facing, there may be a silver lining on the cloud of this pandemic holiday season. Being forced to reevaluate our holiday load gives us a chance to make lasting changes that will benefit us in years to come. Everything is on the chopping block this year, whether we want it to be or not, so it’s the perfect time to align our holiday efforts with our deeply held values.

“This holiday season will go down in history as one of the most innovative,” said Dee Evans, a life coach consultant and author of “Procrastination: A Kingdom Perspective on the Theology of Work.” “You don’t have to throw out all of your holiday traditions, but be open to modifying them and creating new ones.”

Even though we may be loath to add another Zoom to our quarantine schedules, Evans stresses that connection is vital and suggests using all our available technology to stay close to loved ones ― whether that means sending TikToks back and forth or sitting down to Christmas dinner with grandma and grandpa on video.

There are going to be some necessary tradeoffs both out of safety (not traveling due to COVID-19) and self-preservation (you just don’t have it in you to do the holiday cards this year). It’s important to frame these tradeoffs in a way that doesn’t induce shame and guilt.

Eve Rodsky ― author of “Fair Play,” a book that helps couples rebalance all of the work it takes to run a home ― said that instead of saying, “I feel guilty because I didn’t put up the Christmas tree” it can be life-changing to shift that language to “I made that decision because … ”

“The uncertainty is at an all-time high, but women feel tasked to carry on and find as much holiday spirit as possible. It’s a new kind of exhaustion ― less about a busy party season, and more about staying optimistic and figuring out new ways to find joy.”

– Cathy Cassani Adams

Instead of feeling guilt for what doesn’t get done, focus on the why for making that decision. When it comes to emotional labor, women are rarely making their decisions arbitrarily, so it’s important to remind ourselves to feel empowered in our decision making instead of constantly second-guessing ourselves.

The real key to creating a holiday season that feels right (even when everything feels upside down) is focusing on your values.

“We’ve been pared down to our essential core and our value systems are becoming clear,” Rodsky said. She noted this has created an opportunity for us to feel less guilt and shame than in previous years. There is no gold standard to live up to this holiday season, we’re all just figuring it out as we go.

And we don’t have to figure it out alone. While many women in heterosexual relationships feel like they are unsupported in their emotional labor, especially during the holidays, it doesn’t have to be that way. This year is the perfect opener to have new conversations about how we want to share the load during these unprecedented times.

“You have to communicate with your partner. It’s a practice,” said Rodsky, who notes broaching the subject of unpaid labor isn’t necessarily “starting a conversation” but rather “shifting a conversation.”

You may not talk about emotional labor, but you’re almost certainly communicating through passive aggressive actions and unspoken resentments that show in your body language. It may feel vulnerable to put your needs into words, but it’s certainly better than letting them simmer beneath the surface.

When we decide to co-create our expectations for the holidays, in this year and beyond, it can help us clarify what is truly essential in our lives as we talk it out. Together, we can figure out what brings us joy. What helps us cope. What helps us heal.

“While many of us would like to leave this year behind, the hope is that we can take this understanding with us in 2021 ― instead of going back to our over-the-top holiday expectations, we can make choices that align with what we value,” Cassani Adams said. “We can take care of ourselves and focus our energy on what serves and honors the people we love.”