When I was a young adult, my family and I used to celebrate the holidays by watching Christmas movies like Home Alone 2 (the superior film of the franchise), Miracle on 34th Street (the 1994 John Hughes remake), and Jumanji (it’s a Christmas movie, okay?). One of my favorites from childhood was the iconically tacky 1990 film A Mom for Christmas, starring Olivia Newton-John as department store mannequin Amy Miller, who gets wished into humanity by Jessica (Juliet Sorci), a lonely, motherless child hoping for a Christmas miracle. This movie rubbed my own mom the wrong way, especially when we watched it after our car broke down during an ill-fated expedition to look at Christmas lights. I think she thought I wished for a different mom—one closer to Newton-John’s perky ideal—for Christmas.
Lest we forget, though, that one of the scenes in A Mom for Christmas consists of Amy distracting Jessica’s dad from a Christmas tree fire hazard with her feminine wiles; the memories of Jessica’s mom burned down along with the resulting blaze. Jessica is so distraught by this and Amy’s maternal meddling that she wishes Amy would turn back into a mannequin. Amy trying and floundering to be a mother perfectly encapsulates the through line in most Christmas movies: They’re full of bad moms! Obviously, there’s the Bad Moms franchise, which comes replete with its own Christmas-themed sequel about lacking mothers, but even A Miracle on 34th Street centers on a mother’s choice to be honest about the existence of Santa Claus, which allows the movie and its male saviors to position her as a joyless shrew who’s ruining her daughter’s childhood.
Hustlers (which is a Christmas movie!) also resoundingly focuses on how its protagonists fail to live up to common perceptions of motherhood. Protagonist Destiny (Constance Wu), who is struggling to raise her daughter while reeling from the ramifications of being abandoned by her own mother as a child, latches onto the maternal Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who encourages Destiny to branch out from stripping and join her in committing felonies guaranteed to better line her pockets. Hustlers’ nuanced portrayal of strippers committing crimes shows how money can’t buy love and that, as Ramona quips, “motherhood is a mental illness.” Home Alone and Home Alone 2 are perhaps the crown jewels of the genre, with Kate McCallister (Catherine O’Hara) bearing the brunt of forgetting her son Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) on Christmas—twice! Each time, Kevin’s forced to single-handedly thwart dangerous money-hungry criminals who have no qualms about hurting him or other children.
Child Protective Services should surely have been called on the McCallisters, but most of these films simply depict moms struggling to make the best choices for their children under the weight of the outsized expectations placed on mothers in general. The harsh Christmas lights only further amplify the mental load they’re carrying during the holiday season. Emma Clit coined the term “mental load” in a 2017 comic about how, in addition to household tasks such as cooking and laundry, women—usually those who have children and are in relationships with cis men—are socialized as caregivers to keep a mental record of things that need to be done, such as school pickups, shopping lists, and friends birthdays. If members of the household ask if there’s anything they can do to help lighten this load, it’s often more effort for mothers to explain how to do a menial chore like folding the laundry or putting away the dishes than for them to simply do it themselves. By asking or having to be asked to contribute to the household, it’s clear that the burden of the mental load is not shared, otherwise everyone in the household would already know what should be done and how to do it. Lather, rinse, repeat.
If we happen to also work outside the home for the “first shift” (home duties being the second, according to Arlie Russell Hochschild’s 1989 book), which 75 percent of mothers do, this may include “emotional labor,” a term also coined by Hochschild that is sometimes confused with mental load. Also known as emotional labor, emotion work, or emotion management, it is prevalent in the service industry but may spill over into other industries and often takes the form of organizing morning teas, planning parties for colleague’s birthdays, and generally fostering a pleasant work environment. In this way, the books that Amy Miller reads to not only learn how to become human but how to be a mother to Jessica (which Jessica later metaphorically throws back in Amy’s face to wound her), are an example of the mental load. In Home Alone, Kate McCallister’s mental load is seen when she’s on the plane, counting the heads of her family members and rechecking her personal effects while worrying she forgot something, meanwhile, her unbothered husband relaxes in first class.
The holidays add weight to the mental load: decorating, cooking, throwing parties for which various presents need to be procured, wrangling excitable children who just won’t go the fuck to sleep in anticipation of Santa Claus (it me), arranging presents artfully under the tree, remembering whose turn it is to host, and cooking meals at rotating family members’ households. No wonder bad moms are a Christmas movie trope! They’re too exhausted to keep up appearances as Suzy Homemaker, Holiday Edition. “Christmas is by far the most stressful time of the year for moms,” Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) says in A Bad Moms Christmas. “There are a million things to do and you have to do them all perfectly or you’ll never forgive yourself. And more importantly, neither will your kids.” Maybe my mom wasn’t wrong to feel inadequate next to A Mom for Christmas, a mom who was literally manufactured in a department store—the paragon of Christmas capitalism.
Perfect moms aren’t born; they’re made by some combination of Hollywood, Instagram, and Goop.
Later in A Bad Moms Christmas, fellow mom Kiki (Kristen Bell) cries when she can’t find a toy on the top of her daughter’s Christmas list, which recalls memories of never receiving the Barbie Picnic Van I wished so hard for, and which, to this day, I haven’t let my mother live down! As a melee at the mall akin to the safari girl fight scene in Mean Girls (also a Christmas movie) breaks out, fueled by holiday sales and intense pressure to get the right present, Kiki sobs: “Why am I responsible for buying presents for every single person in my family just ’cause I’m a girl?…. I spend months picking out the perfect presents for everyone and all I get are coupons for free backrubs.” By contrast, when Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) is tasked with the mental and physical load of being St. Nick in The Santa Clause (a film with problematic attitudes toward women and mothers), he responds, “How do I know who’s naughty and nice? What if I don’t want to do it?” Mothers should be so lucky.
I highly doubt the makers of most of the festive season movie canon put as much thought into this as I have. More likely, it’s just another excuse to engage in the misogyny Hollywood is wont to enact. And don’t even get me started on the lack of moms of color, queer parents, and disabled moms in mainstream holiday movies (and mainstream holiday movies starring people of color, period). TV is doing better, but not by much. Perhaps we’re not far enough removed from the bigoted assumptions that moms who don’t fit the mold aren’t parenting correctly in the first place for there to be a nuanced portrayal that adequately captures their holiday-related struggles. Sometimes it seems that Christmas movie producers think it’s easier to not have moms at all.
In a way, the films with bad moms are also those with no moms, as a large part of the storyline consists of a separation between the matriarch and her children. Home Alone, The Family Stone, Hustlers, The Best Man Holiday, Stepmom, The Holiday, Happiest Season, Black Nativity, A Mom for Christmas, Almost Christmas, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, and much of the Disney and Hallmark catalogues all have dead or largely absent mothers. By the same token, these films perpetuate the bad mom trope by keeping dads in the periphery. They’re bad moms by virtue of there being no one around to share the mental load, if Scott’s response in The Santa Clause is any indication. Perfect moms aren’t born; they’re made by some combination of Hollywood, Instagram, and Goop. Looking at mother characters through the perspective of the mental load certainly lends them more empathy, especially when Christmas movie cheer and stereotypes are sprinkled on top.