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Holiday Help for Harried Parents Can't Beat an Easy Rule: Simplify

December 08, 1996|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS

The holiday season brings not only happy memories, but also the ghosts of stressful moments past, present and yet to come.

The work-family puzzle can become even more scrambled during this time of year as parents try to live up to an idealized vision of what the holidays should be.

A very few companies on the cutting edge of the family-friendly-benefits trend have found ways to help out their employees.

It might be something as simple as a lunch seminar on stress reduction or parenting during the holidays. Employees at Cigna Corp. in Bloomfield, Conn., can hire the company cafeteria to cater a home holiday party or make a special dessert.

In rare cases, an employer may actually do something substantive, such as assisting workers with child care during school breaks. Otherwise, school vacations mean cobbling together temporary arrangements and using big chunks of parental vacation.

Hewitt Associates, a benefits consulting firm in Lincolnshire, Ill., reports that 2% of 1,050 major U.S. employers surveyed in 1995 offered some kind of child-care program during school holidays. In a similar survey in 1990, the benefit was so rare that it didn't even register.

But the real answer, parenting experts say, is to decide what's important to you and your family, and then let the rest go.

One approach to coping with that overwhelmed feeling is to throw money at some of the extra tasks that pop up during the holidays. There are plenty of service people anxious to ease your burdens in exchange for cash.

Some parents attribute big mental health dividends to paying someone else to hang the Christmas lights (check out local handymen), set up the Christmas tree (some tree lots offer this service) and bake the cookies for the class party.

There are folks who make a business out of running your errands for you for an hourly fee. Wrapping and mailing services abound.

Some stores, generally high-end retailers such as Saks, employ personal shoppers who will run down that elusive perfect gift you need to find.

If you're doing your own shopping and happen to be at an Ikea store, you can park your child in the chain's signature ball-filled room for 30 minutes or so (sorry, potty-trained kids only) while you fight the crowds.

Another approach is to direct your best communication, negotiating and time-management techniques away from the office and toward members of your own family, said Bonnie Michaels, a corporate consultant and co-author of "Solving the Work/Family Puzzle."

"I feel very strongly about this issue. I am just ruthless about keeping it simple," said Michaels, whose Evanston, Ill., company provides seminars and retreats on how to balance work life and family life.

"I just don't think you can do it all during the holidays," she said.

Women particularly fall victim to the do-it-all syndrome and may have idealized memories of what their own mothers--who, most likely, did not work outside the home--accomplished during the season, Michaels said.

The solution is to sit down with your family and discuss what's important to each member: what to accomplish, what to avoid, what traditions to continue and what traditions to create, she said.

"I don't think that families really sit down and talk about this. Everybody goes in their own direction and pretty soon there is chaos," Michaels said. "The kids can't stand the stress. Their parents are already stressed enough."

Michaels advocates eliminating "things that don't add value." Maybe cut back on the decorating, turn parties into potluck events and choose carefully which celebrations you will attend, she said.

"I love to bake, but now I bake only a few special things," Michaels said. "Less is more at this time of year."

"It goes back to deciding what is really important to you," she said. "If you have children and elders, it's a wonderful time to develop closeness and make these holidays really meaningful."

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Has your company developed an interesting way to help employees balance work life and family life? Write to Balancing Act, Business News, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Or send e-mail to nancy.rivera.brooks@latimes.com

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