Not everything we do as mums is about the mental load. There; I said it. Some things are just for fun, and it’s okay to let other parents enjoy what they enjoy, even if you don’t.
I’m not saying the mental load isn’t real. The list of all the unseen things I do to keep my family of five fed, watered, safe, healthy, and vaguely nurtured is huge. That can be a heavy weight to carry. It’s also true, as our Family Editor writes, that knowing how to explain the mental load to your partner, if you have one, is important for maintaining your sanity as a mum, not to mention keeping your relationship on the rails amid all the pressures that parents face.
But today, as we officially usher in the month of parental mental overload that is December, I’ve noticed a new narrative emerging among mums online and it’s making me uncomfortable. It’s this: if you’re a parent who partakes in Elf on the Shelf then you’re somehow letting down all the other mums whose mental load is, well, already putting them way beyond capacity. Way to make them feel like failures, with your Elf on the Shelf ideas and exhausting enthusiasm for another thing mums are meant to do.
For the uninitiated, Elf on the Shelf is the frankly absurd but hilarious modern parenting practice of moving a toy elf around your home nightly throughout December in a bid to persuade the kids that Santa’s little helpers are keeping an eye on their behaviour ahead of his annual checking of the naughty list.
To the critics who say that such things are essentially evil practices based on the heinous crime of LYING to my child, let me say this. You’ve utterly missed the point. Engaging in an elaborate effort to keep the kids believing in Santa only just gets going when they realise it isn’t real. That’s when the fun begins. I’m not lying to my child; I’m teaching her that we can collude in a game of make-believe that we both know isn’t real but which brings a little spark of festive delight to days that are otherwise busy, dark and cold.
And as for the whole lying thing - oh, please. Don’t we lie to our kids in a hundred different ways that no-one gets excited about? You’ve never said there aren’t enough pennies in your purse to buy that crappy plastic toy today when technically your bank balance proves otherwise? Never implied that the biscuits are all gone or that Bluey is in bed now - when neither statement would get you a pass on a lie detector test? You’ve NEVER hidden in the kitchen to scoff a square or two of Dairy Milk alone while the kids snack on organic apples? Because that’s a lie of omission, you know, and if you’re about to say that’s not the same as lying about Santa then, respectfully, I think we’re splitting hairs.
Once more for those at the back: encouraging a belief in Santa or a nocturnal Elf is not a lie. It’s a story. A game. A bit of good old-fashioned harmless, childish fun. Most kids think Peppa Pig lives in a little house on a hill in Peppatown. But if you don’t sit them down to disavow them of that notion no one accuses you of deception.
If the Elf is not for you, that’s fine. If Father Christmas feels off-key for your family then by all means, you do you. Motherhood imposes enough challenges on us that we deserve, at the very least, the beautiful freedom to choose how to shape our family life our way.
But let’s curb the Elf on the Shelf backlash. Please, no more insinuating that Elf mums are making the Elf refuseniks look bad. As for the notion that my choice to perpetuate the Santa myth is making life difficult for your household? Or that I’m forcing you into awkward conversations you’d never have to have if it wasn’t for my selfish adherence to Elfism? Dude, your kid will encounter diversity in the world in a million different ways - working out how to help them handle that is one of the privileges you get as a parent. It’s not for me to curtail my household’s habits because they annoy or inconvenience you - it’s for you to embrace the chance to teach your child that people are different and that it's a thing to celebrate.
But perhaps here’s the real point of my plea to end anti-Elf sentiment. The family traditions we adopt - and those we choose to eschew - must be deeply rooted in the memories of our childhoods. My dad, who died suddenly during the pandemic, was the King of Christmas. He dressed up as Santa for charity events when I was a kid. The lengthy letters Santa left on Christmas morning always looked suspiciously like an attempt to disguise my dad's distinctive handwriting. And when, soon after the arrival of my third child and his only granddaughter, I told him about Elf on the Shelf, he went out and bought an Elf of his own the very same day so that the shenanigans could continue at his house.
One Friday afternoon during Lockdown we met my parents - our ‘support bubble’ as we called it during Covid times - for a cup of tea. We laughed nonstop for an hour, my kids gathered as close to my dad as social distancing allowed, and we all fist-bumped at the door; a gesture that will never feel enough for what turned out to be our last goodbye. The next morning I had to shatter a seven-year-old’s world with the news that the person you love most in the world can be there one moment and gone the next.
So cut me some slack when I stay up until midnight sticking googly eyes on everything in my fridge to make that now-ten-year-old laugh on a frosty Friday morning. My Elf antics don’t have to make you question your reluctance to waste time on a trend you can't be bothered with. It’s not about signing up for more maternal burdens. It’s about tapping into the silliness and joy my dad was so good at sharing with everyone around him. You can never have too much of that.
Elf on the Shelf accessories we love
A few of my favourite things to help your Elf on the Shelf antics...
Elf on the Shelf Christmas Tradition Set with Elf Book, £22.95 | Amazon
My favourite Elf set and the one that started our Elf adventure. You get a hardbound copy of the original storybook that sparked the much-loved tradition, along with the Elf itself.
Creation Station Peel & Stick Wiggle Eyes, £2 | Amazon
Stick them on empty tin cans to create a 'choir' and position the Elf as the choir master or pop your Elf on the fridge with a note that says 'All eyes are on you...' and stick these on an assortment of items in your fridge.
Wisdom Fresh Effect Dental Floss, £2.64 | Amazon
Wrap the Elf up in several layers of dental floss and leave a note from the Tooth Fairy explaining that she caught him getting up to no good in the night but has it all under control!
The Everyday Elf Idea Pack, £9 | Porky Penguin
The most ingenious Elf accessory of them all - 24 cards with brilliant Elf on the Shelf ideas for every day of December that you can choose according to the level of effort you're prepared to put in! You also get 24 prop cards AND the option to scan a QR code for an image of how your scene should look, plus extra printables to download if you're going all in.
For more parenting fun have a read of 72 cheap activities to keep children entertained or if your mind is already on all-things-Christmas then check out our guide to this year's top Christmas toys. Or for more reflections on parenting read 18 things I know on my son's 18th birthday.
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As a parenting specialist for more than 15 years, Heidi has written for most national newspapers and for a wide range of consumer magazines, including Mother & Baby where she was the Shopping Editor for six years, looking after regular consumer features including buying guides and gift roundups.
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