It’s women who make Christmas happen

IT'S 5pm exactly when the curtain is drawn, revealing a nativity tableau of overexcited seven-year-olds.

Centre stage, dressed in an elaborate angel costume constructed from coat hangers, pantyhose, cardboard, silver lame and an inordinate amount of sequins, is Anna.

Anna's mum, Pam sits in the second back row. She exhales deeply at the sight of her child's smiling face. "School concert, tick" she thinks to herself before mentally moving onto the next Christmas-time task.

It's been a long week.

Crafting Anna's costume has eaten more hours than Pam cares to admit. Getting Anna to and from the extra rehearsals was a nightmare, plus she was doing taxi duties for her sister whose husband was in hospital recovering from a knee operation.

Pam was also up past midnight yesterday, roasting sweet sticky nuts and wrapping them in cellophane and curled red ribbon; gifts for the drama teachers to thank them for their hard work.

Then at breakfast this morning she remembered Mr Stuart is allergic to nuts and had to bake a chocolate chip cookie alternative.

Standing over Anna, she delivered all manner of threats while the child painted butcher's paper to wrap the biscuits in because there was no cellophane left.

And tonight Anna had an emotional meltdown about her performance. She could only be coaxed on stage with the promise of a new Bratz Doll.

So Pam unwrapped the one she'd bought for her sister-in-law's sulky tween daughter and now she'd need to purchase something else to replace it. Sigh.

Pam looks up to see her husband, Ken sneaking in to sit beside her. It's now 5.07pm and he's missed the start of the performance. She rolls her eyes at him. He's lucky that Anna hasn't realised he was absent. The elderly woman sitting to their left leans over and pats Ken on the arm.

"Aren't you a treasure," she says to him warmly.

"It's so lovely. I bet you've left work specially to be here". Ken smiles broadly and shakes his head at the stranger's praise. "But of course I'm here," he says meaningfully. It takes all of Pam's remaining energy not to kick him in the shins.

What’s the bet it’s Mrs Claus who actually does all the work while Santa takes the glory?
What’s the bet it’s Mrs Claus who actually does all the work while Santa takes the glory?

The mental and emotional load includes all the work involved in managing your life and that of the people who rely on you. Organising logistics, booking things in, doing that little extra thing for someone in need, making lists, worrying about people's feelings and planning so that the everyday is manageable.

It's the kind of work that often goes unnoticed but without which, the whole juggle of life falls in a heap at your feet. It's the kind of work that Pam has been doing all week. And it's the kind of work that disproportionately falls on the shoulders of women.

Extremely scientific data collected by absolutely legitimate researchers shows that at Christmas time the mental and emotional load that women carry increases by approximately billion-fold.

You can see it in shopping centres, where hundreds and hundreds of women with lists move urgently between stores while men sit, bewildered on dressing room armchairs. You can see it at childcare pick-up, as mothers reel off to one another the several thousand things they need to get done before dinner.

The annual photograph with Santa requires making sure the kids' outfits are clean, that colours don't clash and that they don't murder each other on the car trip. Visiting the Christmas windows at David Jones sounds like a sweet excursion but involves enormous mental fortitude (and gin).

There are 70 Christmas cards still left to write and send, signing each with the whole family's name even though nobody is helping. And mum is the only one who remembers where the tree decorations were packed away last year.

To get one of the really big ones, you have to order the turkey online a week in advance. It's probably worth getting some extra boxes of chocolates for people you forget to buy a gift for. Is cousin Bella still dairy-free? Then there is next year's photo calendar to order.

Your mum needs help buying gift cards for her book club. The kids' classroom teacher needs a present. The librarian needs a present. Your father-in-law needs a present. The neighbour needs a present. There's the work Secret Santa and damn it, we've run out of sticky tape again.

The scale of the mental Christmas workload is unparalleled and yet it remains largely unseen. Invisible. It's a little like wrapping paper.

Always present, always required, always obvious and yet at the same time so very normal and expected, such that nobody really notices it. It's ripped off, scrunched up and thrown away. As a friend said to me recently, "No one but me cares that I hole-punched jingle bells onto my Christmas invites."

So why does this work fall to women and not men? It all comes down to how we've been socialised. Women carry the mental and emotional load because we're expected to and because our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers carried it before us.

Like with any kind of work, we take pride in the results. We feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. That doesn't mean, however that the workload shouldn't be shared around more equally.

"But I don't know how to do it the way you do," comes the groan of men in households everywhere. Because men are so clumsy with delicate things and just so bad at multi-tasking, didn't you know? Titter, titter.

"But I know how much you enjoy doing that stuff, honey," is an alternative excuse for a bloke who doesn't pull his weight with the mental load. Are we declaring any other work that is enjoyable as therefore not valuable or unworthy of recognition? I doubt it.

"If you don't want to do it, then just stop! You don't have to," is the final contemptuous response of blokes who don't get it. It's a protest that fails to recognise where the blame and judgment lies if this sort of work doesn't get done.

After all, if my husband and I showed up to a Christmas barbecue and didn't bring a plate or a bottle of wine, it would be me - not him - who was considered impolite.

For women, the mental and emotional load of Christmas time is a lose-lose situation. We can't complain and we can't ask for help.

If we do, then we're nags, we're hounding and we're reduced to the old tired cliche of "annoying wife" who won't cut her menfolk a break. The only solution is to make our invisible labour more visible.

So this Christmas season, be lavish in your praise of those who do the emotional and the mental work. Sing from the rooftops that they are great and glorious and giving. Notice the small things, thank one another for that little extra effort and be gracious in the kindnesses done to you, which might normally go unnoticed.

For the women who do this work are the ones holding up the sky, the ones without whom the world wouldn't turn.

To the unseen, the unnoticed and the undervalued: Have a very, merry Christmas.

And thanks.


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