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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

A Parent's Guide to Surviving the Holidays

Thanksgiving is just over a week away, and every major American retailer is doing its best to remind you that Christmas is hot on its heels.

The holidays are usually a combination of leisure and stress for most people—budgeting for gift-giving and wrangling with your boss for time off, followed by lazy afternoons drinking eggnog in your pajamas. But for working parents, the holidays can be a particularly difficult time as we try to do the impossible: alter our routine without causing massive meltdowns.

This is my first “real” Christmas as a mom, since last year I was on maternity leave, and my 12-day-old son came along wherever my breasts went without much of a fuss. This year will be quite different: I am working for a busy startup, my husband is with a new company, and my son is on the verge of walking (and, judging by his fearlessness, I think he’ll quickly graduate from a walker to a climber).

I consulted with some of my veteran working parent friends and colleagues and asked how they make the holidays more of a celebration and less of a series of logistical nightmares. Here are the best holiday survival tips I collected.

1. Create a Shared Calendar

Having everything in one place helps you and your parenting partner keep track of holiday events, work commitments, and childcare arrangements. A large calendar on the refrigerator would suffice, but I like using a shared Google calendar so it’s accessible from anywhere and can be shared with grandparents and other family members. It can also be helpful to add any big work deadlines—end of year reports, annual reviews, and the like—so you’ll know when each other may be extra-stressed.

2. Do Not, I Repeat, Do Not Spend Your Holidays in the Car

If you’re lucky enough to live within driving distance of both sides of your family, it’s tempting to try to see everyone during the holidays. But driving to multiple locations and spending hours and hours in the car so you can see every aunt, uncle, and step-cousin-in-law can lead to a disastrous holiday season. First, the end result will be that no one will get any quality time with you: You’ll be too busy loading, unloading, and placating your over-tired kids, and then it will be time to leave again. Second (and you might remember this one from your childhood), forcing your kids to spend the holidays in the car will make them truly hate the most wonderful time of the year. And finally, jetting across state lines is not exactly a recipe for a relaxing time off for you.

It’s important to set up a realistic schedule that works for your family: This might mean alternating Thanksgiving and Christmas, alternating years, or, as one of my colleagues does, celebrating Christmas in the spring with one set of grandparents. The calendar day doesn’t matter—what matters is spending time together. And speaking of quality time:

3. Back-up Childcare Counts as Quality Family Time

For working parents, childcare can become a real nightmare around the holidays. If your kids are in school, they probably have at least a week more vacation than you do. If your kids are in daycare, your daycare provider is ready for a much-needed vacation and likely plans to take an extended holiday. Meanwhile, the end of the year can be particularly busy for professionals as we try to tie up loose ends with budgets, forecasts, year-end reviews, and next-year plans.

So, take advantage of grandparents, aunts, and uncles who want to spend time with your kids, and ask them to take care of your little ones before or after Christmas, during those days when school is out of session but businesses are open. It’s a great opportunity for them to see your kids one-on-one, and there are usually plenty of holiday-themed, kid-friendly activities for them to check out.

4. Simplify Shopping

Before you were a working parent, you had time to stroll through the mall, gingerbread latte in hand, selecting gifts for the whole family. But those days are gone, and it’s important to make your shopping routine more efficient.

First and foremost, start early. Shop online as much as possible (during your lunch break or mental health break at work, if possible), and have gifts delivered to their final destination (wherever you will be celebrating) so you don’t have to lug them in the car. Stalk your family’s Pinterest boards for gift ideas. Even better, talk to your extended family about doing a Secret Santa exchange, donating to a charity in lieu of gifts, or having a big potluck dinner and exchanging recipes.

5. Purge and Donate Toys in Between Thanksgiving and Christmas

On that note, it’s natural for well-meaning grandparents and family friends to want to spoil your children and give them large, loud toys. (The amount of stuff that my son has accumulated during his first year of life is alarming.) While those toys seem like treasures to kids, you see them as piles of sticky clutter that threaten to overtake your home and trip you in the middle of the night.

To avoid this dangerous and aggravating situation, and to teach your kids a little bit about the spirit of giving, go through toys between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and donate as many as you can to a local organization.

Above all, don’t let the holiday season become a series of stressful events. Reign in the expectations, establish new traditions, and enjoy your precious time off with your kids, family, and friends.

Photo of holiday shoppers courtesy of Shutterstock.