Single mom holiday manifesto

I wrote this a couple of years ago, and revisit each holiday season for both myself and readers. I admit that the holidays are hard for me personally — so much pressure to make them memorable, spend more than I'm inclined to, and be cheerful when I often feel lonely and overwhelmed.

Last year was first time my kids will not be with me on the actual holiday (we celebrate Christmas), something I advocated for as part of my effort to create a more equal parenting relationship with my children's dad. I am mostly OK with it, thanks to the fact I am not very sentimental, but did fret about what I would do on Christmas Eve. I made a couple calls, and was warmly invited to an old friend's dinner party in a pretty part of Brooklyn in her beautiful brownstone apartment. She is an excellent cook, hilarious with a filthy mouth, and her friends are fabulous. I had an amazing time!

Here's my rulebook for muscling through the tough parts and making the most of this time of year. What would you add? What is the hardest part of the holidays for you? The best? Share in the comments!

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Single mom holiday manifesto

  • I will not try to recreate holidays of years past. Those are from another time in my life, and I will celebrate this holiday, this year, in a way that makes sense for this moment.
  • I will create at least one new holiday tradition for my family that is allll ours.
  • I will not resent that I either actually am or feel like the only single parent at the school holiday events.
  • I will not spear or fantasize about spearing with a sharpened candy cane the stay-at-home Pinterest mommies in the neighborhood.
  • I will shop within my budget.
  • I will not over-spend on my kids out of guilt because their family does not look like said mommies' Pinterest boards.
  • I will not argue with the ex this holiday. I will remind myself that my children will not remember that they did not wake up on actual Christmas morning at mommy or daddy's house, but they will remember that mommy and daddy screamed at each other on the snowy front porch on Christmas morning. How to manage your holiday schedule and co-parenting with your kid's dad
  • I will give others the benefit of the doubt. The Fox News republican cousin, the manipulative ex, the passive-aggressive mother — if some iteration of these characters are in your life, you will remember that poor behavior stems from human suffering, and thou shall be gracious, kind and patient.
  • If I am apart from my kids on the holiday, I will not be depressed. I will grieve what I previously hoped the holidays would be, what my family would look like, and I will accept that it is different now. I will visit a friend, go to a movie, soak in the bath, call a male escort, spend time with people in a nursing home, work on my dream career, or attend two yoga classes back-to-back. Love Actually, come to Mama.
  • I will remember that the holidays are at least a little crappy for most people.
  • I will give thanks, and give back. Especially if I am feeling poor — financially, emotionally, socially or spiritually — thou shall find a way to give time, money or energy to others who need it. Because we all need it at some time or another.
  • I will prioritize experiences over things — for myself and my children.
  • I will recognize community. Whether attending a religious service, an office, neighborhood, friend or family party, giving a shout-out in a Facebook community that is valuable to me, delivering holiday cards to service people (crossing guard, barber, grocery store clerk, mail carrier) who are part of the fabric of my life, I will recognize how vast and rich my circle. 5 friends every single mom needs — and how to find them
  • I will ensure my kids give me a gift. It's not all about them.
  • I will not use the holiday or my current situation as an excuse to eat and drink like a sow.
  • I will enjoy good food and good, good drink.
  • I will remember: It really is just another day.

For single moms and divorced families, the holidays can come with some unique challenges: visitation schedules must be negotiated, you may find yourself focused on how the season falls short of your dreams and expectations. Lots of times the financial crunch of these months is especially tough.

But all is not lost. Keep reading for practical solutions to annoying single-mom holiday problems:

7 things single moms can do to not just get through Christmas— but to make it awesome.

1. Plan ahead for Christmas gifts

Moms frequently get very stressed because they feel they can't afford Christmas presents, they are facing the fact that — perhaps for the first time — they are a single mom at Christmas with no help.

If you're like me and avoid stressful tasks, I forgive you. Now, I call on you to make plans to afford Christmas on a tight budget. Briefly:

  • Kids under age 4 don't notice if they don't get gifts
  • Tell the adults in your life you are opting out of gift-giving for reasons of budget and that you care about the planet
  • Set expectations early with kids who you will gift
  • Start saving early. Learn about tools like free bill negotiation services, and budgeting apps like Tiller
  • Set a budget. If you have a budget, don't blow it on the holidays. Remember: the greatest gift you can give your kids is stability, and tha requires financial stability.

2. Buy your ex a gift.

If your kids are little you will sign it from them. Or maybe it will be directly from you. It will be heartfelt — nothing passive aggressive like, say, socks if his holey footwear was a point of marital contention. Just a sincere present, expecting nothing in return, and putting behind you any child support he owes, or apologies not granted or the share of his IRA you’re entitled to.

3. Be flexible about the visitation schedule.

Remember: years from now the kids won’t remember whether they missed your cousin’s annual sing-along. But they will remember you screaming at their dad on Christmas. 29 rules for co-parenting with your ex (even the narcissist)

4. Start a new Christmas or other holiday tradition.

If you are a single mom, your holiday celebration likely does not exactly match what you had in mind when you were a kid dreaming of life as an adult. You’re working with Plan B. While you might find meaning in introducing your children to your own childhood family traditions, or those that their dad helped initiate — introduce a ritual that will be yours alone.

At my house we I launched some new traditions: a chili-and-tree-trimming party in December, and monkey bread on Christmas morning. Give gag gifts (fake poop, squirting lapel flowers) on New Year’s Eve, or new pajamas for everyone on the night before Christmas. How about a Pictionary death match? This is your new life. You need new habits and celebrations.

5. Make the holidays simple.

Maybe you have fond memories of elaborate childhood Christmases you aim to replicate. Or maybe holidays were especially stressful growing up — and you vowed to do better by your kids. In any case, keep it real. Just because William Sonoma catalogs and your annoying cousin with her perfectly holiday-coiffed center-hall Colonial suggest that you should be cooking and decorating and shopping like a freak doesn’t mean you actually have to.

So keep it within your budget. Do what is meaningful and fun, and hire a cleaning person and snow removal person and babysitter. Order in the Christmas dinner, or bring store-bought cookies to the party. Just because you’re not married doesn’t mean you have to kill yourself.

6. Make a plan for when the kids are with their dad.

You may find yourself lonely or depressed if you have nowhere to go on one of the special days, when you’d prefer to be with your children. Instead, make plans. This might include:

  • Ask around and get invited to a party
  • Make a date with yourself to see a movie
  • Hit yoga
  • Dinner and movie at home
  • Masturbate in the tub
  • Go for sushi on Christmas day with your Jewish friends
  • Volunteer at a nursing home, hospital or shelter. 
  • Book an Airbnb for a few nights 47 things every woman should do alone — at least once
  • Go on a date. I went on a very nice Christmas Eve first date a few years ago. It was fun, non-traditional, and reminded me that plenty of other nice people don't have plans on the holiday! 

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7. Take stock.

Cliche but useful: The end of the year is a fantastic time to look back at what you have accomplished this year. Sure, assess your bank account, and review your professional resume.

Also, look at your family. The kid’s grades and trophies are important. But examine the other stuff. Acknowledge the stresses you managed. The tricky situations you maneuvered without committing homicide. The new friends you made, relationships mended or strengthened. Recognize the fact that you are all thriving despite all odds.

Ask yourself: Do my kids feel loved? If you can answer yes, you did good, woman. You did good.

Why I find the Christmas holidays so stressful as a single mom— and what I do about it

Last week marked the second annual Helena and Mommy Day when we play hookey during a weekday to go ice skating. This year we started off our venture in typical style for a 4 1/2 year-old: me holding her up by her armpits, then with Helena scooting along the rail.

I'd glanced away for a moment only to then find she had made her way out to the middle of the thoroughfare, determinedly wobbling and moving along with the other skaters. Without any urging from me, she found the best way to learn to skate was on her own.

I'm not sure I've felt the same breed of maternal pride before. There was something in her understated confidence, the practicality of it, and her desire to be free. But a time or two she caught a glimpse of me beaming at her, and she'd reach out to hold my hand again. Those were the times when she'd twist and fall and revel in the cute skate guards who'd miraculously swoop in from nowhere and pop her back onto her little skates.

“No,” I'd tell her when she'd extend a hand. “No, you do much better when you rely on yourself.”

That may be true for amateur skating, but is that what I want to teach her about life?

This holiday was an unusually stressful one. The family traditions that I've relied on my whole life have ended, and for the first time I've decided not to travel back to see my family in Illinois. I felt this enormous pressure to create — out of thin air, on my own — a set of rituals that would define my little family, and shape my children's memories and identities. How could I make it all meaningful – without thrusting stress on everyone around me to make it oh-so-meaningful? How can I do that by myself?

As today, Christmas Eve, approached, I met it with a mix of dread and relief. First the good news: my mom decided to join us in New York, where my brother Josh and sister-in-law Susan also live. The holiday cards and party invites started to arrive. Friends agreed to join us for a party at my house on Christmas day.

But the day was still rife with anxiety, as holidays often are. Coordinating holiday schedules with ex-husbands can be difficult, and in our case we have a brain injury to contend with. We argued about a visitation, I worried about him spending his holiday alone. I worried about my mom, who is also struggling with health issues. Unwell loved ones are always a source of worry, but the holidays heighten the fear of what life might be like without them.

I didn't realize how on-edge I had been until the kids and I returned from a trip to the playground this afternoon. We came home to packages of baked goods neighbors had dropped off. We opened the mail to find a stack of new Christmas cards, just as my brother in Chicago texted to arrange a Skype chat. A friend sent a note saying gifts were on the way, and my iPhone chimed with messages and voice mails of greetings.

We were still standing at the dining table, wearing our coats and hats, marveling at the generosity. “People care for us,” Helena said in that perfect way she has.

I spun around to face the wall, clapped my hands over my face so the kids couldn't see, and let out a single, silent sob. It let out just enough grief and stress, and made room instead for all that love and care around us.

And then we went on with our day — our new holiday. Josh and I made a new version of oyster stew to honor our late Grandpa Ernie who loved the stuff and died last year. And Helena, a puzzle savant just like her Great-Grandma Shirley,  received two 300-piecers. Even more neighbors dropped by with gifts and treats. Tonight, when Helena and Lucas are in bed, my mom will sneak into the living room and fill up their stockings with little goodies she's lovingly collected, just as she did for me and my brothers well into our adulthoods.

When the kids were in the bath and I was cleaning the kitchen, I took the liberty to switch the “White Christmas” channel on Pandora to Babel Gilberto, who always makes me think of my ex-husband. I thought about all the friends and acquaintances he brought into our lives when we were together, and how families and emotional resources can multiply through marriage. And when he had his accident it was all that love that came up around us when our life fell apart. Everyone said what a strong person I was, and maybe that was true. But if it was, it was only so because I had all of that.

And then the kids ran out naked and we looked at the snow falling outside and they were amazed. And I thought to tomorrow morning when they will dig gleefully into their stockings just like I did, and we will sit down to our new Christmas morning breakfast of bagels and lox and then our friends will bring wine and appetizers. That will be our new Christmas tradition, and it will happen because people care about us, just like Helena said.

And somehow that makes me strong enough to be alone.  Maybe because each of us never really is.

How to manage being alone at Christmas after divorce

Those first holidays after a breakup, after divorce, or as a single mom can be so tough.

There are feelings like:

I am such a failure. Now I have a broken family, and holidays will never be what they should.

My kids won't ever know the kind of magical Christmases I had as a child. 

I am so disappointed that my kids will miss the big, extended-family traditions because of co-parenting.

I really miss my in-laws, and traditions in their family. 

I lost my family. 

I hate being alone. 

Is it possible to celebrate Christmas alone?

All of these feelings are normal — and common. 

In addition to the suggestions for how to party solo during the holidays (including how to find other humans to enjoy!), you may find that you could use some professional help.

Good news is that online therapy is widely available, very affordable, and so convenient. Counseling apps like BetterHelp, which has an A+ Better Business Bureau rating, lets you choose from thousands of certified, licensed therapists, for fees starting at $40/week for unlimited contact through phone, chat, email or video sessions.

Learn more about BetterHelp now>>

Or research other top-rated online therapy sites, including TalkSpace and Online-Therapy.com.

Open letter berating myself about my holiday nonsense

I wrote this single mom holiday letter to myself last year and I am very proud to say that nearly all my shopping is done and the Christmas cards did not require a rush-fee! Also: there are five bottles of wine (and a couple six-packs of decent beer) still awaiting their fate as hostess gifts, and I'm proud to report that I'm feeling more festive and much less stressed than I have in years! 

Dear Emma,

Each and every year the holidays are a stressful mess. It's getting a little embarrassing- I mean, it's the same shit show each and every year. Would you get your act together for 2014? Please? Pretty please? Let's recap what you did not learn this year — the fact I'm writing this list now — a full week before Christmas — says something about the severity of the situation. Come on already and get your act together!

  1. Buy 10 bottles of decent wine Nov. 20. You will need them to entertain guests and when attending parties. Stop going to the effing liquor stores a million times. This is an annoying, stupid waste of time.
  2. Likewise — stock up ingredients for your signature holiday dish (bacon-wrapped dates, since you ask. If you live in the NYC tri-state area and know me, I forbid you from making these. This is my jam. Ok?)
  3. The little packet of spare Christmas tree lights? Tape them to the inside flap of the ornament box. This location is now documented in this post. You don't have to remember it.
  4. The day after Thanksgiving dig into your stash of gifts and wrapping paper. Figure out what you already have. You hate waste and crap laying around the house. So do something about it.
  5. List. Make a freaking list of gifts already. Just make the list, then buy that stuff the first week of December. Be done with it. You hate shopping and malls and crowds. What is it with all this self-punishing, last-minute shopping? You're ridiculous.
  6. Order the goddamn picture holiday cards well in advance. I mean, really, Emma — how many times do you have to learn this painful, stressful lesson which sets you back an unnecessary $30 for rush shipping?
  7. New Year's resolution: Cease your endless year-round cursing of the tacky dollar stores populating your neighborhood because without them you would be screwed during the holidays.
  8. Stop stressing over inane crap. You fancy yourself an expert on managing overwhelm, for crying out loud. Why the freak-out over whether the holiday cards fit perfectly inside your client gifts? Who cares?! Lighten up!

Next year, come Nov. 1, pull up this letter. Read it. Follow your own advice. And get it together for once.

Love you!

Emma

P.S. Read the Single Mom Holiday Manifesto every Nov. 1 for the rest of your life.
 
Struggling this time of year? Learn about single mom Christmas help resources.
 

What are you most excited about this holiday? What are you most stressed or sad about? Share your single mom holiday tips in the comments!

Are you part of my Facebook group, Millionaire Single Moms? No income requirement, though BIG GOALS and a POSITIVE MINDSET required! Join now and share about your single-mom holiday experience!

What about Mother's Day? Happy Mother's Day to you, you incredible single mama!!

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, noted blogger, and bestselling author. 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.  Find out Emma's top Single Mom Resources here.

26 Comments

  1. Nicole on December 24, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    I keep re reading this as I spend the first Christmas eve ever without my kids. Normally I have them Christmas eve but this year we switched. I’m okay with it but this post is so powerful to remind me that I’m in the best place I can be right now and not to compare my experience with others and the Christmas’ of the past.

    • Emma on December 27, 2015 at 6:00 pm

      xoxoxo

  2. Rachel on December 23, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    Call a male escort. XD Yes!

    This Hannakwansmas, I am broker than MC Hammer because I’m about to close on my condo right after I got hit with the expenses of making v2.0 of my business that is launching after New Year’s. Super exciting? Hell yes. But also kinda scary. So in lieu of presents and buying drinks, I told my loved ones I’d pet my toad for them for luck while she wears a Santa hat. It was a hit! She seems to have brought me a little luck too with new gigs. Yay!

    The holidays can also just be a depressing time of year with the manufactured cheer and uggghh PINTEREST. But you can always flip the script and make your own new traditions that buck the old ones or what most people do. It felt really awesome to avoid the stores in person and online this year. Then that last point is so spot on, it’s just another day. Lots of people have to work on Christmas and growing up in a mixed-faith household I can say that, hey, it’s not a be-all end-all for everyone.

    • Emma on December 24, 2015 at 6:36 am

      Rachel, we need to hang out.

      • Rachel on December 24, 2015 at 2:15 pm

        I’m merely a boro away! :) I’d love to get your insight on various entrepreneurial stuff!

        • Emma on December 25, 2015 at 11:11 am

          where?! ejohnson76@yahoo.com – let’s do this

          • Rachel on December 25, 2015 at 11:05 pm

            The boogie down Bx! Just emailed :)
            Happy Hannakwansmas!

            • Emma on December 27, 2015 at 6:00 pm

              Didn’t get it!! Try again?



            • Rachel on December 27, 2015 at 11:30 pm

              Gmail gremlin! I tried from my other addy– try hitting me up at info AT sonictoad dot com if the message still didn’t come in. :)



  3. Lisa on December 23, 2015 at 10:20 am

    My divorce was final in Oct. my ex has the kids 5 yo & 9 yo from Christmas Eve noon to Christmas Day noon.

    Creating new traditions dosen’t work. My kids tell their Daddy what I’m doing & then he just copies me!

    I haven’t really seen it yet but what is your advice on your mom still in your ex husbands life? There is no reason for it. They aren’t related and he isn’t even her landlord any more.

    He is a narsatist and while the advice for me is to not engage, focus on the kids etc how can I do that when my mom treats him the same as always i.e. accepting gifts from him, talking to him like nothing ever happened etc.

    • Emma on December 23, 2015 at 11:39 am

      Sounds like your mom’s loyalty lies with him. That is painful, but not much you can do about it except express to her your feelings and accept it.

  4. Pilar on December 23, 2015 at 6:27 am

    This year I am excited about doing all of what you wrote. I even feel as if I wrote it. I thought it would be sad to have to build a life again but it really has not been. I am keeping what I liked from the past, removing what I hated and adding new things, those I always wanted and could not do and those I never even imagine I would do. Eg. I kept going as a family to get our Christmas three and decorate my home right after thanksgiving. I got that from my ex sister in law, who by the way, was not the best sister in law, but I don’t think about that. I already moved on from that shit. The point is I liked the tradition so I kept it. I kept doing my Mexican Christmas celebration but I dont fight to have the exact day with kids I just use one of my weekends with kids. They don’t care when the party is. They care having a party with friends and pinata. I removed fights, I removed the insane number of toys that Santa brings. Kids are learning that mom asked Santa to bring only one bigger present and few smaller in their stockings. That is because we are a minimalist family who believes that less is more. They have to think 3 things they want and they will only get one. We also value experiences over things so Santa brings tickets to a show or a small week end trip to an ammesument park or lIke that. We are also Santa helpers so deliver toys to kids who are alone. We adding praying and church time which we did not do before because dad was not religious. Kids love it. I added awesome things for me when kids are with dad. First, forgiveness to his family. I am happy now kids are with his family. I realized that before it was hard for me so it is awesome that kids get to go and I don’t have to :)
    I added time with friends, a fancy diner with someone to celebrate – a excuse to dress up. A date or two while I am alone and sex is that turns to be an option ha ha.

  5. Henry Motyka on December 22, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    I have always said that if I give as much as possible to others all year and especially during the Holiday season, I will have the nicest Christmas. And that is even if I am down and out. And sure enough, I have done that and the nicest thing happened to me today. I call it a Christmas Miracle but really it is giving to others.

    • Emma on December 22, 2015 at 4:46 pm

      That’s awesome – care to share, Henry?

  6. Sugar Jones on December 22, 2015 at 1:39 pm

    I was having a tough night last night. Not only is it Christmas week, this is also the week of both of our kids’ birthdays. And with my ex holding back any support, it’s especially difficult. Then this morning, I got this in my in-box. It was just what I needed to read at just the right moment. Thanks so much!

    • Emma on December 22, 2015 at 4:46 pm

      :) so glad to hear that!

  7. Dejah Hobbs on December 22, 2015 at 11:43 am

    I could have used this two weeks ago. My son went to his Dad’s for the first time and I missed him so bad! He is back now and I appreciate him so much! I will keep these wonderful thoughts with me for the rest of the holiday season. First and foremost stop eating like a sow to bury my grief! Thanks!

    • Emma on December 22, 2015 at 4:46 pm

      Hi Dejah – just remember that you are not alone!

  8. Laura on December 22, 2015 at 10:35 am

    “call a male escort”- bahahaha! But really, it’s all fantastic.

    • Emma on December 22, 2015 at 11:32 am

      ;) no judgement

  9. Bobbi-Jo Romanishan on December 22, 2015 at 10:21 am

    Thank you, Emma! Great words to live by. My sons are with their father this year on Christmas Day and through the weekend. My personal manifesto and Christmas plan is…

    Thou shalt go to Bermuda and luxuriate in the splendor of the spa and enjoy blissful solitude.

    Merry Christmas!

    • Emma on December 22, 2015 at 11:32 am

      loooooovvvveee it!!! xox safe travels!

  10. Gabby vaughan on December 22, 2015 at 10:09 am

    Emma you just know how to shed the light on a topic.
    Things we all think to ourselves yet may not say outloud or even properly admit to ourselves.
    Loved the comments on self talk… And the final comment that it is actually just another day. The strict rules not to compare etc are so clever… . The back to back yoga class just to pass the time struck a cord as did the kids remembering the fighting or lack of not what house they wake up at.
    You are like a comedian the way you see simple thought processes and articulate what we all experience.
    So clever. Keep writing for us all xxx and a big Ol happy Christmas to you from down under in oz xxx

    • Emma on December 22, 2015 at 4:47 pm

      Hi Gabby – thanks so much for these words, just what I needed today! xxx

  11. Jodi on December 22, 2015 at 9:58 am

    This year is difficult as a single Mom. Divorced for 5 years now, my Daughter is age 7. I am also without my dog who I had for 12 years and had to put down last December, the end of a 3 year relationship with a guy that I was dating and engaged to for the past 3 years, and most of all without my Daughter on Christmas Day because it is her (manipulative) Father’s and his wife (the other Woman) year for the holiday. So yeah it sucks! However, the way I am doing Christmas this year is by celebrating the small moments with my Daughter; baking and cooking together, honoring the Elf on the Shelf, opening the nativity windows on our Advent Calendar, as well as volunteering at church during one of the Christmas eve services, continuing my Yoga practice, spending Christmas Day with friends, hosting Christmas dinner (Paleo style) at my place the day after Christmas. It is a wonderful and magical time of year, but I too have the ups and downs of emotion. I have accepted the place where I am so I can be at peace even thought this is not the way I wanted it to be for my Daughter.

    • Emma on December 22, 2015 at 4:48 pm

      Hi Jodi – glad you can focus on the positive of the season. For 2016, maybe we can work on not being bitter overall?

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