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REAL LIFE

'90s FAMILY : Christmas Stress Factor Is Coming to Town

November 09, 1994|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Looking at the season's first Christmas decorations at a department store six weeks ago, one working parent said she suddenly felt "utterly defeated."

Others reacted with physical sensations--a constricting of the chest, a pinch in the neck.

Now, only six weeks before the Big Day, what experts call "parent-burnout season" is reaching its zenith.

Even without holiday pressure, we are all more stressed out than we used to be. This year, a study by the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor found that working women's No. 1 problem was too much stress.

Now, especially for the driven, Type-A perfectionists, there's the whole Martha Stewart thing: the tree, the shopping, the wrapping of presents, the baking of cookies, the cards, the parties, the dinner feast. Then there's the whole money thing, especially in the lingering recession. And the whole family thing. . . .

One Orange County businesswoman said that last year she had "stress coming out my ears."

The 54-year-old grandmother went into the season with two strikes against her--she was the family's prime breadwinner and her marriage was foundering. Still, she hosted her company's traditional party, oversaw a special project for suppliers, and sewed red flannel nightgowns for all the women in her family.

On Christmas morning, she said she found herself in the emergency room with a stress-related ear infection.

"You keep pushing yourself a little harder. You say, 'I can just do a little more,' " she said. "You want to be the perfect grandmother and make sure the grandchildren have the perfect Christmas and your employees have a good Christmas and you recognize all your clients. So it all gets cranked up. It's like a vise that keeps cranking down tighter and tighter."

This year, she said, she's doing the health thing. She's exercising, eating healthy and getting enough sleep. She's not making any nightgowns.

Some parents said they take the kids on vacation to get away from all the pressure. Some said they draw names for gift-giving to limit expenses.

One 49-year-old father of three said that over the past several years he has developed a love-dread relationship with the season since the number of packages he's been able to place under the tree has dwindled with his construction-based profession. "I take it as a little bit of a failure," he said.

To ease the crunch, he said, his family has started a new tradition. At least one present must be something they make themselves. "At least it brings a dimension of what Christmas ought to be, anyway," he said.

We burn out when we expect too much from Christmas and ourselves at Christmas, and those who cut back are amazed at how much they can get away with not doing, said Ruth Luban, a Laguna Beach counselor who has developed an audio tape on burnout for people who are too busy to read a book.

Ironically, one of the best things we can do is embrace the season early and start making plans as soon as those commercial decorations go up, she said. Couples need to book baby-sitters so they can grab some time alone. Singles might book some time at a day spa.

Luban said that sometimes, children burn out, too--especially when their parents park them too long in day care in order to accomplish all their tasks. Despite the hassles, we need to involve our children in shopping, budgeting, cookie-making and housecleaning, she added. What we may lose in efficiency, we gain in a more sensible way of living.

"When we model efficiency," she said, "we are raising burned-out, Type-A little monsters."

Most of all, we need to realize Christmas is not a show. One day of the year is not going to make up for all the rest. Said Luban: "There's nothing like burnout to get you to open your head and say, 'What is this for?' "

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