I wrote this a few years ago, and it is fun to revisit — I consider it an accomplishment to share and laugh about painful experiences, and this is a particularly absurd and twisted one. Funny how life comes full-circle. Today I live in New York City, where my dad is from, and where my parents met, and where both of them presumably became acquainted with lobsters. Once a year my brother and sister-in-law, my kids and I have a lobster boil, usually for my SIL and my birthdays, which are within a day of each other. It’s a fun treat, but always comes with a twinge of childhood misery, not unlike pretty much everything else in life. But who doesn’t?
I’ve shared here plenty that the holidays can be hard for me. For one, well, they can be lonely as a single mom. Also, I tend to get the winter blues, and getting old doesn’t help. Plus, well, Christmas kinda sucked as a kid.
There was plenty of great stuff about the holidays growing up. My mom was really, really into it and our little rental duplex (by Midwestern definition in that it was one-half of two houses stuck together, side-by-side), was decorated to the hilt with decorations handmade by my mother or women selling their wares at church craft sales. To this day my mom makes her famous pecan cinnamon buns, the house smelled of clove oranges drying in the oven, and we often sang Christmas carols in the car. I have plenty of great memories about Christmas Eve with my extended family, and overall I would say that I felt loved and spoiled during the holidays.
It was also really stressful. Despite all the gifting and indulging, there was not much money and nearly every.single.year a fight would erupt at our home. And then there were the lobsters.
I was about 9 on Christmas morning and my brothers, mom and I were lounging in our pajamas, enjoying our new gifts and high on a sugar buzz when the doorbell rang. Outside we could see a delivery man. Now, this was the 80s, long before Amazon and Flowers.com meant a constant stream of deliveries. A package delivered was a big deal. A package delivered on Christmas Day was a really big deal. And a giant wooden crate was a wonder.
After dragging the parcel into the kitchen, we pried open the wood slats with the claw of a hammer and found inside … two giant lobsters, chilling on dry ice, twitching in their half-stupor — along with lemons, butter and a cracker. I had never seen a live lobster before. This was small-town Illinois. All seafood was frozen. Lobsters? Imported live from Maine? We could only assume that my dad had sent the gift.
Next scene in my memory is my mom, screaming on the phone to my dad: “You don’t pay a cent of child support but you have the nerve to send lobsters when I’m struggling to pay the bills!” Typing that story gives me the same pit in my stomach I felt then. The same body-numbing anxiety that permeated that Christmas. I was sure every other child was luxuriating in the warmth of her family. Enjoying fun games and new toys, I knew. Meanwhile my Christmas was about stress and guilt — guilt for wanting to enjoy the treat. Guilt for loving my dad even if he was a douche. Guilt for not appreciating my mom’s overwhelming responsibilities. Guilt for hating her anger. And guilt for not having a good time.
That memory — and other stressful ones before and after — have colored the holidays for me since. Since becoming a mom, all that guilt has grown to include not caring for the holidays despite my kids’ inherent desire to enjoy this time of year. It all got way worse as I went through a divorce and acclimated to life as a single mom and contended with the end of long-standing family traditions. Last year was tough and sad.
But this year I made a decision.
This year I decided to enjoy the holidays. In November I told myself: This year it will be fun. And you know what? So far, so good. I liken it to my son Lucas’s recent bout of grumpy mealtimes. Each of our worry that breakfast, lunch and dinner would be a tantrum-throwing disaster turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Then I made up my mind it would be different, and it was.
So this year I hosted a fun and low-stress Thanksgiving. For the second year we decorated the tree with my brother and sister-in-law then ate chili and peppermint hot chocolate — an annual tradition, I decided. Instead of stressing about expenses and commercialism, I indulged in Christmas gift shopping. I let go of my need to control my kids’ sugar intake and bought a bunch of Lindt chocolates at Rite Aid and stocked up on supplies to make chocolate-butterscotch-walnut-coconut-oatmeal cookies — plus monkey bread for Christmas morning. For the past couple of years I have not sent out Christmas cards — paralyzed by sadness since that was something my ex-husband and I always did together and enjoyed so much. But this year I reveled in sending out more than 100 cards — a reminder of all the people in my life — and engaged the kids in addressing those to their teachers and friends.
All of this is a reminder that the holidays are what you make of them. You can decide to be happy. Sure, there is a place for grief and healing and remorse. But then you move through those stages and start new traditions and indulge in new feelings about the holidays. About life. And about lobsters.
The year after the lobster show-down, my brothers and I were home alone when the doorbell rang. There on the stoop was another wooden crate with a Maine return address. The eldest of my brothers, two years younger than me, and I looked at each other and without speaking a word, hauled the box out to the garbage can in garage. Since one of us was tasked with dragging the can to the curb later that week, there was no way our mom would see it. At 8 and 10, we made an executive decision to save Christmas.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.