Care and Feeding

All She Wants for Christmas Is Me

My daughter thinks I’m a horrible mother because I have to work on Christmas.

Collage of a female doctor standing proudly in a lab coat, with a stethoscope around her neck and a medical chart in her hand, and a house covered in Christmas decorations in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chris Ryan/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Fotomicar/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 12-year-old daughter thinks I’m ruining Christmas. I’m a doctor, my husband is a doctor, and we have a 14-year-old (Laverne) and a 12-year-old (Shirley). With the help of a nanny and my mother-in-law, I think we’ve created a stable environment for our daughters—there’s always one parent or grandparent present for recitals, cheerleading, plays, softball games.

I need to work Christmas Day this year. It sucks, but that’s my job. This is nothing either daughter hasn’t gone through before; I am only on call six nights a month—it’s not like I’m some absentee parent.

This is not OK with Shirley. She has always had big feelings and struggled with reality not meeting her expectations. She has the tendency to want to control everyone around her. Her father struggles similarly, and they’re very close as a result. He’s a great help for her, and we’ve also worked with a social therapist.

Our family traditionally exchanges gifts on Christmas Eve. My girls are too old to believe in Santa, and both my husband and I are the children of Russian immigrants, so Christmas isn’t even our big winter holiday! Still, Shirley had a meltdown: tears, screaming, slamming of doors.

Some of her friends and their moms are having a party on Christmas night with a gift exchange. I offered to have her dad drop her off, but she wants me there. According to her, I’m never home (not true), I never go to her activities (I was her assistant softball coach last year), I never volunteer in her classroom or in the PTA (true, I’d rather slit my throat), and I never host sleepovers or parties for her friends (true, but because she hasn’t asked). I’m a horrible mom. Her words.

I’m rocked by these accusations; she’s never been this upset before. I tried to suggest a mommy-daughter weekend date right before Christmas, but Shirley wasn’t into it. I’ve talked to friends who were themselves doctors’ kids, and all of them have reassured me that they didn’t grow up traumatized. Should I let her sulk? Do I ground her for being a brat? What I’m most afraid of is that this isn’t her big emotions and that I’m failing her as a mom.

—Dr. Grinch

Dear Dr. Grinch,

I’m sorry to hear you’re going through all this. But it sounds like you’ve been here before.

It seems clear that the issue isn’t your work but your daughter’s high expectations. While it’s definitely true that she needs to address her tendency toward control—you know this and are already at work on it—it’s also worth remembering that so many of us, kid and adult alike, feel frustrated this time of year when the holiday magic we’re told we’ll experience fails to materialize.

Shirley might be handling her disappointment in a juvenile way, but she is, well, a juvenile. You might check out the work of psychologist Lisa Damour, who writes that it’s natural for girls around your daughter’s age to test their bonds with their parents. For all the reasons you lay out, your working Christmas should be no big deal. Maybe something else is really at play. If Shirley feels it is a big deal, I think you need to accept that, even though there’s nothing you could (or should) do to change it.

I can’t really assuage your fear that you’re failing her as a mother. That always strikes me as the universal condition of parenthood—guilt and the fear that you’re doing something horribly wrong. But in my opinion (and I think in yours too), you’re not. You’re a busy, working parent. You’re a physician, and you still found time to coach a softball team. I’m a stay-at-home writer—a job that affords me perhaps too much “flexibility”—and I’ve missed so many things.

If you’re genuinely rocked by your daughter’s disappointment, you could approach 2020 with the resolution to do more with and for her—a regular date for manicures or the movies, the occasional impulsive shopping trip, hosting the sleepovers she apparently resents you for never having planned before. Her harsh words will always sting, but try to remember, too, that you’re doing something for her by modeling an adulthood that takes responsibility and work seriously.

For the moment, alas, I don’t think you can punish her for weaponizing your parental guilt. You’ve tried to offer workarounds and alternative arrangements so she can be with her friends and have a good time—maybe keep reminding her of that proposal, but otherwise, live with her sullenness. Time drags when you’ve got a moody preteen, but I have a feeling this will pass sooner than you think.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son has nine grandparents and great grandparents split across seven households. Which is a blessing! Many of them send Christmas presents for my son—sometimes multiple presents. But they almost never wrap them or have them wrapped. Many send the same “Sorry, but can you wrap these?” emails every year. Am I totally out of line to kindly ask them to please wrap them or pay to have them wrapped?

It wouldn’t be a huge deal if it was one grandparent. But this is more than 10 gifts I have to wrap—plus, buy all of the supplies. I’m overwhelmed this time of year as it is. Do I suck it up? Can I push back?

As a side note, I never complain about the gifts—they can buy my son whatever they want. But generally they ask me to suggest specific gifts, which is great but also semi-annoying because I have to do the work of finding links to different gifts for each grandparent and basically shop for them. So passing on any of the workload here would be amazing. Again, it would be fine if this was for one or two people, but not a whole group.

—Drowning in Gift Wrap

Dear Drowning,

I understand that this time of year is overwhelming and tiring. But yes, you suck it up! Helping your older relatives navigate the internet and spoil your kid is your holiday gift to them. If you don’t want to wrap these presents, don’t! Your kid cares more about the toys than their presentation. You can pile them up inside a reusable grocery bag and he’ll still be thrilled—as long as you take a second to acknowledge with your son whom each gift is from. As for the gift suggestions, maybe it would help unload some of the burden to offer them some basic categories instead? “He loves books!” “He loves to build.” “He loves art!” That way you’ve given them some guidance but freed yourself from the specifics. The holidays can be exhausting, sure, but this problem is so easy to solve without hurting your relatives’ feelings or making more work for them.

Dear Care and Feeding,

This year, my family decided that all of the adults would participate in a secret Santa where everyone draws names and only buys one gift. I am so glad to put an end to the annual exchange of medium-priced wine.

However, kids are not included in the exchange. And my son is the only little one—the other grandkids are in their 20s and 30s and actively avoiding having kids. What do I do if everyone (aunts, uncles, grandmas, great-aunts, great-grandmas) gives my kid a Christmas present, and we give them nothing in return?

I feel uncomfortable with that, but I also don’t want to have to buy everyone a coffee table book because they can’t help but buy cute kid stuff. Can I let this be, or will people be hurt that the gift giving isn’t reciprocal?

—Can’t Be Santa to All

Dear Can’t Be Santa,

It’s better to give than to receive! Many people, myself included, find giving gifts to children uniquely pleasurable—buying “cute kid stuff” is fun when you’re not required to do it year-round, and kids can get so sweet and excited when you give them even a little trinket. It’s sweet and harmless fun, and I think, especially around this time of year, people want to give and don’t do so with the expectation of getting. Just send thoughtful thank-you notes and don’t worry.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Recently my daughter’s second grade class learned about doctors. While working in a small group, my daughter’s classmate Judy told her she had been to the hospital three times with her dad because he got “too drunk.” This was said to my daughter alone, and I don’t think the teacher heard. Should I say anything about this to her teacher or other school administrators? Is having a parent who has a problem with alcohol something a school should be informed about? I have no reason to believe Judy is being abused, but I know having a parent who may be an alcoholic is tough for a young child. My inclination is to keep quiet and mind my own business. But am I doing a disservice to Judy by not letting her teacher know what she could be facing at home?

—To Report or Not to Report

Dear To Report,

Kids at second grade age are unreliable narrators at best! But I think your impulse is generous; teachers are uniquely able to advocate for their students. My first instinct was to tell you what you’re already inclined to do: mind your own business. But maybe that’s abdicating your responsibility. It takes a village and all that. You should be aware that in many areas teachers are mandatory reporters of neglect or abuse; you say that’s not the issue here, but even this might demand that the educator intervene. I don’t know whether that affects your decision. I still think it would be within reason to take the teacher aside and say, “I’m sure this was misunderstood, but I wanted you to know that Judy said this to my daughter. It’s almost certainly nothing, but I thought you ought to know.” Then you can leave it at that.


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