Stop the Madness

Minimize your stress during the holiday season by learning to say no and focusing on what's really important.

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Even under the best of circumstances, the holidays can be notoriously nerve-wracking. Add pregnancy or new motherhood to the mix, and the activities that are supposed to make the season warm and fun can simply turn into sources of more pressure.

It's a time when all the traditional images--from glowing Madonna to holiday Superwoman--set up a double-whammy of expectations that can lead to stress, sleep deprivation, poor diet and sometimes even depression, explains Danville, Calif.-based Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in perinatal mood disorders and co-author of Beyond the Blues: A Guide to Understanding and Treating Prenatal and Postpartum Depression (Moodswings Press, 2003). However, many women don't even notice the toll until the holidays are over. "They are so distracted with doing everything just so, that it's often afterward when they crash," Bennett says.

Whether you're in your first trimester and feeling queasy and tired, in your eighth month and expecting the stork to arrive at the same time as Santa, a brand-new mom or one who's anticipating her child's first holiday, this is the year to relax, renew and concentrate on you and your baby. Here's how to take the season's madness down a notch.

Define what the holidays mean Start by spending a little time with your partner and older children, if you have any, to decide what you want from this holiday season. Do you want to celebrate your faith? Reconnect with family or friends? Spend quiet time at home? Take one last pre-baby vacation? Defining the holidays makes it easier to decide which activities to participate in--or bow out of.

Learn to say "no" to unnecessary obligations, and don't feel guilty about it; martyrdom becomes no one. Example: The Anthes family in Arlington, Va., usually has a huge Christmas card list, but at seven months pregnant, Sheryn Anthes didn't have the time or energy for the task. "We sent cards to a very small group that year and made up for it two months later by sending baby announcements to everyone," she recalls.

Break the mold You don't have to keep doing the same things in the same way at the same time because it's "tradition." Some "holiday" activities easily can be done at a different time of year when you may be under less pressure. Charities need volunteers and donations year-round, rather than being deluged at the holidays and then ignored, and many people would appreciate receiving presents more on their birthdays. Perhaps your extended family would enjoy a Christmas get-together in July, when the weather is warmer and travel is cheaper.

Think outside the "gift box," too. When people ask what you'd like, tell them what you'll be needing most is their help and time--and maybe a freezer full of dinners.

Start early Get as much holiday preparation as possible done in advance, especially if your baby is due in December. Shopping throughout the year helps you avoid crowds and traffic while taking advantage of sales. Charlene Hoang, a mother of four in Stafford, Va., bought and wrapped all her presents well before Thanksgiving. "In December, all I had to do was put up the crib, clean house, drive around looking at Christmas lights and enjoy my older children's anticipation," she says.

Tend to your body and soul At home, save yourself work by hosting holiday potlucks. When going to parties, plan ahead for taking care of yourself. Arrange a "let's go" signal with your husband or decide in advance how and when you'll make your exit. Snatch moments alone, especially when you're in a crowd. "Just walking outside, breathing deeply, looking at the sky and checking in with your body every hour or so can prevent tremendous stress from building up," Bennett says.

And remember that any number of studies have shown that giving to others and volunteering for a worthy cause yield substantial physical and emotional benefits for the giver, as well as the recipient. So make a charitable contribution, help out at a shelter, visit a retirement home.

Finally, pregnancy is a creative process that often stimulates spiritual thoughts, even among people who don't consider themselves religious. If you find that the hormones and the holidays are calling you to examine your faith (or lack thereof), take this opportunity to do so. There's no more appropriate time than when you are starting a family.

Find out more For information on nonmaterial alternatives to the traditional stress-inducing and budget-busting holiday rituals, go to the website of the Center for the New American Dream, www.newdream.org/holiday.

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