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. (Each item used to start with “Thou shall not” but that was annoying, so I changed it). What would you add? What is the hardest part of the holidays for you? The best? Share in the comments!
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.
- 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.
- 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.
Here are 6 things single moms can do to not just get through Christmas— but to make it awesome.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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. Ask around and get invited to a party. Make a date with yourself to see a movie, hit yoga or masturbate in the tub. Go for sushi on Christmas day with your Jewish friends. Or, volunteer at a nursing home, hospital or shelter. In fact, I think I may do that on Christmas Day myself.
6. 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. But 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?
As I've written, this holiday was an unusually stressful one. The family traditions that I've relied 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.
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!
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!
- 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.
- 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?)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
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!
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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.