The Mom Does It

This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

In the days after my very small Thanksgiving, I was thinking about how part of me misses the elaborate holidays, mini-vacations, and weekends of the past, when you’d throw a group of people, usually some conglomeration of friends plus their partner, in a rented house, cabin, a beach cottage, a tent, an RV, and try to figure out how to have planned fun, as a new or old friend group, away from the confines of home and work. If you’ve ever been on one of these trips, you might know that there’s always a figure that I think of as the Vacation Mom — sometimes literally, oftentimes figuratively — also known as the “Cruise Director.”

The Vacation Mom finds the Airbnb — or reserves the campsite, because she’s the one who set an alarm for exactly six months before it became available, because she knew that’s the only way you’d get the get one down on the lake. The Mom coordinates the grocery list, and tries to delegate meal duty to different couples and groups, and rarely takes the best bedroom in the cabin because she’s too worried about everyone else being as happy as possible. The Mom fields complaints about the mousquitoes, about the road in, about the leaky showerhead. The Mom remembers the candles and lighter if it’s someone’s birthday; she’s the one who remembers that it’s someone’s birthday in the first place.

The Mom figures out potential fun and engaging activities in the vicinity, and tries to remind everyone to bring appropriate footwear. They brings a set of cards, just in case, and find a gluten-free pancake recipe that everyone can eat. They give a gentle nudge on Saturday that it’s time to start prepping dinner otherwise we’re going to eat at 10 pm. They’re the ones loading the dishwasher, just to make sure there’s silverware for that 10 pm dinner, and putting the beer bottles in the recycling. And they’re up early on Sunday morning, stripping the sheets, making sure you get out of the place by check-out and don’t lose any of the cleaning fee — and then dutifully divvying up the weekend costs afterwards.

You don’t have to be an actual Mom to be a Mom, and you don’t have to be a woman, either. You just have to be the person who takes on the mental — and often physical — load of leisure work. I am fortunate to have a close friend group composed entirely of Moms, and being with them always feels like actual relaxation to me. But I’ve found that I now have no patience for scenarios that promise to reproduce my role as the Mom: I know the responsibilities will default to me, and if I reject them, I’ll feel miserable.

That’s the plight of the Vacation Mom: they’ve so thoroughly internalized the standards of organized leisure that refusing it feels like a failure, a waste. Is it actually a weekend trip out of the city if you don’t even go on a little hike?!?! This attitude has a lot to do with the ways in which bourgeois millennials and Gen-Z attempt to “optimize” all activities and turn them, somehow, into work. As sociologist Elizabeth Currid-Halkett writes in The Sum of Small Things, “today’s aspirational class, many of whom have built themselves up through hard work, infuse even their leisure time with productivity in value.”

That’s true for our hobbies (“I’m learning how to knit!” “I listen to podcasts!”) but it’s also true of how many of us treat our designated, extended time off. A vacation, a weekend, even a night out can’t just happen, it has to run efficiently, and somehow “worth” the time it takes away from our primary focus, e.g., work. (This is less true, I’ve found, with people whose identity is not a closely yoked to their work, whether because of their age or the type of work that they do). Good Instagrams are evidence of a vacation worth its time taken away from work; so are good stories, good memories, actual rest and restoration. The problem is that the later four are often sacrificed in the pursuit of that overarching idea of Peak Vacation Value.

The Vacation Mom, then, is the person entrusted with achieving Peak Vacation Value. “Cruise Director” feels like an appropriate name for the supervisory role because it underlines that 1) it’s a job and 2) no one is really enjoying themselves, but “Mom” does the same, while also highlighting the obligatory, performative, often incredibly gendered role — and the ambivalence that attends it. You don’t like doing it. But it’s difficult to imagine a different way, other than not taking a trip at all, which is what a lot of people, even before the pandemic, were increasingly doing.

It’s no surprise that the Mom is also in charge of the generation of Holiday Magic, which, as Huff Post posted out last year, is almost always made by women. Holiday Cards are the most visible and performative component of (Bourgeois) Holiday Magic. When I was growing up, my mom would take a snapshot from sometime in the year, bring it to Albertson’s, where they’d put it with some vaguely cheese clip-art, and get 100 copies. The new standard is professional photography, preferably quasi-casual with casually coordinating but not matching outfits, printed by Shutterfly or Minted or a similar matte-style online company.

Of course, there were class connotations to the photos and cards that families sent in the past — the type of photo, where it was taken, etc. — but what strikes me about the new holiday card is the need to strike exactly the right note between casual and contained. Every card I receive in this vein is somehow slightly different but absolutely the same. No wonder so many mothers resent them, or procrastinate with them. They’re a lot of work, but they’re a lot of invisible, freighted work. You have to find the photographer, and then you have to find the right outfits, but the right outfits means outfits that your kids will actually wear and that you’ll look non-frumpy in and your husband won’t grumble about, and then you have to make sure your kids are in a good mood for the photographer, and then you have to choose the right shots, and then you have to choose the right word or phrase to accompany it, and then you have to collect everyone’s stupid address and make the case to your partner that yes, it is indeed worth the extra cost to have the service print the addresses on the envelope, and then you have to buy the fucking holiday stamps, and who has time for that, or, quite frankly, any of this.

Can you opt out of the holiday card? Of course! I do, and not just because there’s no socially sanctioned way for people without kids to send them, other than the cheeky pet alternative. But there are all sorts of signals that women fear they’re sending when it comes to actually opting out of compulsory bourgeois practices. Does it mean you’ve given up? That your marriage is struggling? That you’re struggling? That you’ve dropped one ball or all of the balls?

Instead of what it is — deciding that you don’t want to dedicate labor on this particular performance of family — opting out can feel like a freighted failure: Oh, Jessica didn’t send a card this year, I wonder what’s going on. Is that logical? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t internalize it.

I’m reminded of Ann Burnett’s research on holiday letters — and how, over the course of the last 50 years, they became a way to communicate busyness, a certain overflowing abundance of family life that increasingly felt competitive. The busier you were, the better you were. Sometimes the father was the one who wrote the holiday letter, and maybe a father in your life has orchestrated the holiday card today. But I’ve yet to hear of one. What the printed cards do today is function as a sort of Proof of Life. Not for the family, really, but for the Mom. She does so much, including this.

I don’t know what will become of the holiday card this year. I know some people are viewing them as proof of resilience, both to themselves and others, and if you actually do take joy in the manufacture of these photos, take that joy. Many families have found the moments of bliss and togetherness these photos represent, and I don’t think they’re dishonest, or immoral, or bad in and of themselves. I also know that some people have COVID, or are recovering from COVID, or barely keeping their head above water while supervising their children and trying to keep their job, and the idea of a holiday card makes them want to laugh maniacally.

It’s just a photo, after all, but it’s so, so much more than that. Presents are more than presents, meals are more than meals, decorations are more than decorations. They become so through labor, so much of it invisible, and so much of it performed by women.

I don’t want to be the Vacation Mom, or the Cruise Director, or the person in charge of Holiday Magic. I’m working on letting go of the need for things to be more than what I, personally, need them to be. I’m trying to identify the attitudes that suck the pleasure and quality out of the things I used to love. A lot of the problem is my relationship to work. A lot of it is my need, like everyone else, to perform class. And a lot of it is performing, just generally, for everyone else — trying to meet and exceed their expectations, and trying not to make anyone mad at me, things I feel like I’ve never not been doing.

Unlearning ideas about who we should be, what our posture should be towards others, and all the self-abnegation it requires — it’s hard work amidst so much other hard work. But sometimes, I’ve learned, you have to work hard to actually start working less.

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