The biggest laugh line I ever delivered was when I told a group of some 300 women at a big Atlantic event in Washington that my husband believes in Santa Claus. Why wouldn’t he? The stockings appeared on Christmas Eve and were magically filled Christmas morning; little elves decorated the tree and put perfectly wrapped gifts beneath it; wonderful smells emanated from the kitchen as Christmas cookies were baked and Christmas meals planned and shopped for; most items on the kids’ Christmas lists were delivered without ever being ordered, if not by reindeer then at least by Amazon.
For many years when our sons were little, my husband would look up sometime in early December and comment in a surprised tone that I seemed tense. And I would explode. I mean EXPLODE. He was genuinely oblivious to the endless lists and extra hours spent decorating, planning, ordering, and nagging. (Have you gotten a gift for your assistant? For your great-aunt Maude? Contrary to popular belief, most of us do not actually enjoy nagging.) To top it all off, when we actually got down to preparing Christmas dinner, with him as the principal cook and lots of relatives helping in various ways, he would routinely accuse me of not doing anything, just managing. Without that planning and direction, of course, nothing would happen at all.
Things changed because of a vacation. He is in charge of family trips, which he spends countless hours planning, organizing, and executing—hours that I don’t really see or give him enough credit for. The boys and I follow happily in his wake, leaving for the airport when he tells us we must leave and looking to him to get us to the gate, the cab, the hotel, and the various sights he has researched and arranged for us to see. He is often stressed and even a bit snappish along the way, even though we do everything he tells us to. In the midst of all this, I am prone to telling him to relax—after all, we’re on vacation!
One summer, as we were following this pattern, I pointed out that he seemed tense, and then it was his turn to explode. In the ensuing discussion, I pointed out that the way he was feeling was exactly the way I felt during the holidays, when he drifted blithely along—doing whatever I asked him to do but never initiating anything. We both had an epiphany and are now more understanding and appreciative of just how much work the other puts in.
He now takes items off my list, or even makes his own list, but with a twist. When we decorate the Christmas tree together, truly together, he rejects many of the ornaments I have found and ordered over the years as tacky. He now finds things for the kids’ stockings on his own initiative (in our family everyone gets a stocking forever), with the result that our sons laugh as they pull out gifts alternating between an iTunes giftcard (Mom), an anthology of modern drama for our actor son (Dad), cute socks and candy (Mom), CDs of a selection of classical pianists for our musician son (Dad), posters of 100 craft beers or 100 rap musicians (Mom), reproductions of commedia dell’arte prints (Dad).
I once would have told him that intellectual self-improvement is not really what stockings are supposed to be about. But now I know and accept: If he is going to do things, he will have his own ideas about how they should be done. If I want them done differently, I can do them myself. Moreover, if I leave it up to him, some things won’t get done at all. He really doesn’t care if the mantel is decorated or if we have special pastries for Christmas breakfast, for instance. So if I’m doing them, I’m doing them not for him but for myself.
And now, when he introduces his own holiday traditions—like wrapping everything in stockings, which is his family’s tradition—I have to be prepared to accept his ideas, just as he accepts mine.
That’s what marital equality actually looks like—at the holidays and throughout the year. Not micromanaging, but letting go. Trusting. Sharing. Accepting. Believing, if not in Santa Claus, then at least in your mate’s ability to make the holidays happen without your supervision. That leap of faith can make its own magic.