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Holiday card stress: Why parents strive for perfection

Courtesy Kiersten Murphy

The Murphy Boys just wanna have fun (in their holiday pic): Sean 12, Matthew, 10, and Ryan, 4.

Season’s Greetings From The [insert your family name]!  Oh yes, it’s that most wonderful time, when so many of us grab our cameras and try to wrangle our kids into nice clothes to show everyone how much they’ve grown and just how adorable (and matching!) our family is this year. 

But getting that perfect holiday picture and sending out all those cards often cause more stress than satisfaction.

For blogger Sarah Chang, who has a toddler and another baby on the way, December already feels chaotic, without the added pressure of trying to accomplish one more thing.

“It’s all too much,” Chang says. “Making sure my address list is up to date, getting the right picture.” And although she loves receiving cards from other families, she says the anxiety of creating that perfect holiday tableau causes her to procrastinate, which means paying extra to rush the order. So Chang has decided to send out New Year’s cards instead of Christmas cards to buy herself a few extra weeks.

And it’s not just parents of young children who feel the strain of creating a flawless holiday photo. Ashley Jacobs, a 25-year-old social media editor and personal finance writer in California, says her mother still strives for that perfect Christmas card and tries to get the absolute best snapshot of their family throughout the year.

“[My mom] turns every potentially big occasion that we’re all together — a graduation, holiday, family vacation, or even just a random moment — into an opportunity to take the Christmas photo,” Jacobs says, although she keeps hoping each year is the last that she’ll be counted as a kid on the family holiday card.

Now that she and her 19-year old brother are adults, there’s the added debate over which picture is, in fact, the perfect one, as they both rarely look their most photogenic in the same shot — and both want to weigh in before the image gets mailed to hundreds of people.

Kiersten Murphy, mom to three young boys and a college consultant in Washington, says she used to feel her fair share of holiday card stress about getting the perfect photo. But she’s over it. Over the past few years, she realized that the key to holiday card happiness is to embrace your family’s natural chaos and let kids be real on camera.

“When there’s some good fall foliage, I literally toss clean sweaters on [my sons] and tell them they have to get outside for a few minutes for the Christmas photo,” Murphy says. “Some of the best photos are those where they are goofing around, being brothers, tickling each other.” 

Who are we really trying to impress with these cards anyway? Sure, we want our friends and relatives to think we have it all together as parents, but let’s face it: anyone who’s ever had a child knows we aren’t fooling anyone.

Take Christy Bagasao, mother of seven children ages 1 to 15, and publisher of the Simple Homemaker, a site dedicated to “making life a little less complicated and finding joy in the simple things.” After years of sending out a “huge number” of homemade Christmas cards, an “intense” process by her description, she decided she was spending a disproportionate amount of time making these holiday cards for people she barely knew anymore. While the relationships might have been important to Bagasao at some time, the vast majority of people on her list weren’t individuals she felt super close with at this stage in her life.

Nobody, Bagasao points out, sends out real family photos — the real parenting moments we all experience throughout the year. Reality and the holiday card don’t exactly mesh, in her opinion. Which is one of the reasons, she suggests sending out a holiday email with real news about your family, and a spontaneous candid of them from the year, as a doable alternative to the more traditional and often stiff or stuffy holiday mailing. For example, she says, you can tell your friends and relatives the fun, hectic truth about what you’re family is like day-to-day: “Whoa, life is crazy! The baby spit up on my printer, and the teenager is learning to drive!”

Blended families can add an additional layer of complication and holiday card stress.

Angie Sullivan, a lawyer in Los Angeles, defers to her boyfriend, whom she lives with, for their Christmas card with his two daughters, ages 6 and 9. His thinking, she says, is that their card should reflect their life together, and as her role in his children’s lives has increased, her visibility on the card has gone from a small picture of her and the kids within a larger photo montage to a more standard posed photo this year of all four of them with her dog Charlie. “We’ve taken the kids’ temperature along the way,” says Sullivan.  “They are completely comfortable now with the outside world thinking of us as family.” And so their card reflects that reality. 

If it is all too much for you, there’s nothing wrong with opting out of the whole holiday card thing either — and saving a bundle in the process. Heather Flett, co-author of “The Rookie Mom Handbook” reminds moms that this is certainly something you can let slide from your never-ending to-do list, and cut from your holiday budget. 

“Mailing printed cards from the trendy greeting card companies and postage are so expensive,” Flett says.  “Skipping a year is more than sensible to protect your family’s budget.”

But, she warns, be honest and ask yourself: is your self-esteem going to plummet when you receive everyone else’s perfect cards? If the answer is yes, Flett suggests placing a Post It on your mailbox or your mantel during the peak holiday season with a reminder: “We are my favorite family.” Or better yet, she says, write: “We saved $300 by not splurging on a professional photo session.”

Of course, Flett also reminds parents, it’s absolutely free to post a great holiday picture on Facebook. If most of the people on your mailing list are your Facebook friends anyway, you’ve achieved the same goal. And in some ways, the standard of what constitutes the perfect picture might feel looser for parents when they’re posting on their Facebook timeline rather than sending something through the postal service.

Whatever you do, make sure that you and your spouse are on the same page when it comes to where, exactly, your Christmas picture is going to go. Stacey Glick, a literary agent and mom to four daughters in New Jersey, “obsessed” over their holiday photo this year, and worked hard to get exactly the right one before Thanksgiving. She asked her nanny to help her get all the girls dressed and their hair done, and she finally got the perfect shot, and was designing the card when her husband beat her to the punch and posted it on Facebook last week. Glick says she made him take it down.

“Though I’m still using it,” she says. “I’m usually more of a 'get them out before the New Year' kind of girl anyway.”

More holiday survival tips from TODAY Moms: 

Should you ever take kids to adult holiday parties?

Christmas creep begins now: Start managing kids holiday expectations now

Surviving the family holiday meal and that extra helping of parenting advice

Video: Dr. Phil says 'pick your battles' during the holidays