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The night I put my forehead on the table at dinner, my husband -- in that dim-but-starting-to-get-it way of married males -- deduced that maybe life had become too much of a joyless slog for me. "You need to have more fun, honey," Haywood said. "Why don't we have some people over?"
"A dinner party?" I snapped. "What I need is a break, not more work."
Haywood was right about one thing, though: I do need to have more fun. The problem is that he's disinclined to plan this fun -- and not because he's lazy or incompetent. It's a quirk of his blithe and optimistic soul to believe that good things simply happen, dispatched from the heavens by a beneficent universe.
My husband's idea of "planning" a get-together is to phone me from the golf course to spring his great idea of bringing the guys home for pizza and ask if I could maybe call their wives to join us? My reaction to such a proposal? Me, with the house where breakfast plates sit in the sink, dog hair wafts down the hall in tumbleweeds whenever the air-conditioner kicks in, and my harried self is still unbathed at 5 p.m.? I'm thinking this does not sound like a viable source of stress relief.
Now I've read all the standard advice about how to reduce stress, increase joy, and just generally feel more delighted with life. Spend time with friends! Go on a date with your spouse! Pamper yourself with a massage! Take up a new hobby! Take a family hike! And it all makes sense, it really does. What could be nicer than a home filled with love and friends, or a family life spent in shared adventure?
But one of the great ironies of all these stress-reduction strategies is that every one of them involves a bucketload of stress to pull off. Just to dine out with my husband, I have to coordinate with our 16-year-old to make sure he'll be home to babysit his younger brothers, 10 and 11; call around to be sure at least one neighbor will be home in case of an emergency; shower, dress, and feed the kids; make sure the cell phones are charged; issue elaborate instructions about what the younger ones are and are not allowed to play on the computer in our absence -- and whom the teen may or may not let in the door -- and then, finally, go to the car, where my head immediately falls back against the headrest, prompting Haywood to say, "Uh, maybe you'd better not have any wine with dinner."
As for having people over, don't even get me started: the housecleaning, the shopping, the cooking, the flower arranging, the music mixing, the renting of a new video to keep the kids quiet, the fretting about what to wear. My husband thinks these "requirements" are imaginary, the figments of my personal paranoia. He's convinced that our friends would be perfectly happy to eat takeout on paper plates. Yet I know I'm not alone in this anxiety and exhaustion: My friend Sally once got so worn-out cleaning and cooking for a dinner party that she was still in the shower when the first guests arrived. Unaware that her husband had opened the front windows, she heard a car door slam and yelled, at a volume sufficient for the whole neighborhood to hear, "What kind of losers come to a dinner party on time?"
When I reverse the equation, of course, I admit that Haywood's right. I'd be perfectly happy -- make that thrilled, exultant! -- to be invited at the last minute to a friend's house for takeout, even if the house were a wreck, the hostess had flat hair and there was nary a tulip in sight. So why can't I imagine that others would feel the same way? Why do I turn potentially fun and rewarding activities into more stress?
Why? Let me count the pathologies:
First, there's "Martha Stewart Syndrome." If we believe that perfection is the norm, then we also believe we're alone in our shame whenever we fall short. "I put all this pressure on myself because I need to maintain the charade that I can do it all," says Anna Gray Hart, a preschool teacher in Houston. "I can work, be the perfect wife and mother, keep a spotless house and cook a killer meal from recipes I know by heart, and I can do it all with a cheery disposition. In reality, I'm desperately looking for recipes online, exiling my children from the house, borrowing ingredients from my neighbor, and vacuuming up the last bit of dog hair even as the guests arrive -- all to 'prove' I'm superhuman."
Then there's that good-girl bugaboo, responsibility, observes Susan Wagner, a Web site manager in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. When her first child was a baby and it was Wagner's turn to host the playgroup, she'd clean the house from top to bottom, prepare two meals (one for the kids and the other for the moms), and make dessert from scratch, "all so six toddlers could drag toys all over the house and leave cracker crumbs in the sofa," she says. Planning parties, outings, and vacations is still our job, even if we have the full-time salaried versions, too. And as we surely know by now -- cue your own mother's voice here -- any job worth doing is worth doing right. "We don't want to fail," says Wagner, "so we overcompensate."
Or we're so defeatist we can't imagine that fun can exist without stress. "I keep hearing about how stress relieving scrapbooking is," says Christine Ives, a patient representative at a Morrison, Colorado, medical practice who'd like to join her friends in this hobby. "Knowing me, though, I'd always have a half-finished project hanging over my head, and I'd spend way too much money on supplies."
And what psychological profile of the modern American woman would be complete without guilt? "My nails are always a mess, but I just can't bring myself to spend $25 on a manicure," says Miller Callen, an at-home Nashville mom of three. "Any pleasure I'd get from it would be canceled out by how bad I'd feel about the extravagance."
Often there's a heaping helping of skewed priorities as well, says Claire Michaels Wheeler, MD, PhD, author of 10 Simple Solutions to Stress. We love our family and friends and want to make them happy, she says, but "we often lose sight of what's really going to please them." Will your friends actually care if your guacamole isn't homemade? No, but that doesn't stop us from thinking it needs to be.
Finally, there's plain old competition -- even when there's exactly one contender in the contest. For her daughter's fifth-birthday party earlier this year, Maribelle Lewis, a medical technologist in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, prepared a kids' meal of chicken strips, hot dogs, and pizza, as well as an adult menu that included both white and yellow rice, chicken, shredded beef, potato salad, tossed salad, corn on the cob, lasagna, and meatballs. "I'm known for great kids' parties, so each year I feel like I have to top last year's," Lewis admits.
It's not clear why women, far more than men, get so caught up in the idea that fun is a competitive sport, but Dr. Wheeler has a theory: Girls have been told since the '60s that they can have it all -- a loving marriage, well-adjusted children, meaningful work -- but no one ever warns them how hard it's going to be. Consequently, says Dr. Wheeler, "we have unrealistic expectations of ourselves as mothers, wives, and career women because our culture has agreed that we should excel at all of them." So we spend our time and energy trying to reach this unattainable goal and don't give ourselves permission to just blow it all off and have a good time. But it's possible to do just that with five simple ways to take the stress out of de-stressing.
A relaxed person is better company than a harried maniac, so cut corners wherever you can. When planning vacations, think about what will make everyone happy instead of what sounds exciting. (When I ask my kids what they liked most about our once-in-a-lifetime road trip across the American West three years ago, they say, "Cable television and the hotel pool.") When entertaining, forget about the 29-ingredient recipe you found online and stick with your make-ahead lasagna. Clean only the rooms where the party will take place and close the bedroom and family bathroom doors. Says Dr. Wheeler: "They're private for a reason."
What if the guests open those doors anyway and discover your secret messy life? Most people will actually like you even more because you've taken the stress off them to reciprocate perfection. "Perfect people are boring," says Lone Morch Schneider, a portrait photographer (and reformed perfectionist) in Sausalito, California. "Showing a human face permits others to do the same."
When people offer to help, accept. For casual dinner parties, going potluck -- or even just asking your friends to bring an appetizer or dessert -- is an easy way to lighten your own load without transferring the stress to your guests. For more-formal gatherings, pick up side dishes from a gourmet grocery or spring for a cleaning service so you can concentrate on the meal.
The point of a fun activity is the fun: You get together with friends to enjoy their company, not to show off your domestic skills; you go on vacation to spend time with your family, not to cram a zillion activities into one week. "What's important is the attitude you bring with you," says Jay Winner, MD, author of Take the Stress Out of Your Life: A Medical Doctor's Proven Program to Minimize Stress and Maximize Health. The most perfectly planned event won't guarantee your guests a good time if the process turns you into Ms. Hyde.
It's 3 p.m. and you're going to dinner at a friend's house tonight. Quick: Are you truly hoping she's running herself ragged attending to every detail or are you hoping she's calm and looking forward to a good time, too, even if it means a less-than-four-star meal? "We want our friend happy and relaxed," says Dr. Wheeler, "and we need to be better friends to ourselves."
Life conspired recently to teach me these lessons firsthand. Haywood and I had invited three couples over for dinner, none of whom we knew very well, so I felt obliged to put on a show. I set aside a whole day for cleaning and shopping and cooking. The menu included a complicated shrimp dish and an even more complicated dessert that I'd never tried before and was an idiot for even considering. (Have I mentioned that I've never baked cookies without burning the first batch?) When one of the couples called at the last minute to say they still hadn't found a sitter, we said, "Our kids will be here, so just bring yours along." With a bunch of kids in the house already, it made no sense for the other couples to pay for a sitter, so we invited their kids, too. With eight youngsters in attendance, an immaculate house was out of the question, so I vacuumed a little and let the rest go. And since there'd be toddlers crawling in every guest's lap, an elegant meal served on china and crystal would be more of an imposition than a treat.
We ordered pizza and ate ice cream for dessert. And it was so much fun!
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2008.