Cranberry sauce, sparkly centerpieces, parade floats, a full Thanksgiving table, and an ache that something isn’t quite right…
There are times of the year that tend to accentuate the reminder that I’m a single mom. The holidays are one of those times– I may expect tidings of comfort and joy, but instead am reminded that life didn’t turn out the way I may have hoped or expected. My son is not with me on every holiday, and this year, Thanksgiving is the one where he will be several states away celebrating with other family members.
Maybe for you, holidays are hard because “family” looks different than you imagined at this point in life. Whether you are single, walking through a divorce, grieving the loss of a family member, or the holidays just bring stressful family dynamics to the surface, I want to tell you you’re not alone. Over the past few years, I have learned a few ways to make the holidays feel a little less achy, and I want to share some practical advice, words of hope, and a prayer for encouragement with you today.
1. It’s Okay to Grieve
Holiday movies, commercials, and ads often feature a specific type of family—mom and dad, kids, grandparents, all happy to be together. When I sat through my first Christmas church service without my son, I felt a tangible emptiness in my heart as I looked around at these “whole” families and missed mine. Tears stung in my eyes through “Joy to the World,” because in all honesty I didn’t feel much joy. When sadness rises to the surface at the holidays, I’ve learned not to rush past those feelings or cover it up with festive activities and food, but to let myself grieve. Divorce was heart-breaking and single parenting is hard. The traditional holiday activities and celebrations may accentuate the difficult season you’re walking through, so it’s okay to give yourself permission to feel sad or angry when those waves wash over you.
2. Choose Gratitude Over Comparison
At the same time, I’ve learned that comparison is not helpful. When I put unrealistic expectations on the holidays that don’t match up with my current circumstances, I am bound to feel disappointed. If I stare longingly at the families that look different from mine, I lose sight of the good that God has given me right now. Instead of dwelling on the grief or comparison, I find it helpful to celebrate the blessings of this current season. Last year, I paid my good friend Kristin to take family portraits of me and my son. Those photos are an absolute treasure- a remembrance of the family God HAS given me. I thank Him for my support system, the fact that I have a job, for my apartment and our wonderful neighbors, and the mountain sunsets around me. If you can train your eyes and heart to focus on a few good things each day, it’ll be easier to make it through this season with a little more joy and a little less envy.
3. Chosen Family
Just as God reminded me that Emmett is my family right now, I also believe there is a gift in widening our definition of family. If you have friends who invite you to take a seat at their table for a holiday meal, it might be helpful to say “yes” and be around other loved ones. If you have a great church or support group, those people can be your chosen family to get you through the hard stuff. Even if your current home or family life isn’t a place that brings comfort, safety, or peace, I encourage you to think about the other places in your life that DO give you a sense of belonging. Cherish the time and memories you can make with those people. You are not a burden– I can guarantee those chosen family members are glad to open their arms and homes to include you.
4. Remember, Money Can’t Buy Happiness
One thing I’ve learned over my years of walking through recovery and serving in recovery ministry is just how EASY it is to fill up our empty places with the momentary satisfactions of this world. In a time of aching, we are sometimes tempted to treat ourselves or loved ones to delightful luxuries or creature comforts. But a shopping spree, spoiling our kids to make up for the tough home situation, or over-filling on food and drink will never fully satisfy the ache in our hearts.
“The LORD will guide you always; HE will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58:11)
From a practical standpoint related to money at the holidays, we don’t have a lot of money in my one-income household. So each year I intentionally pick one special gift for Emmett. One year it was a beautiful easel and art supplies. Another year, a friend helped me hand-paint small wooden buildings that represent my son’s favorite places around Roanoke to accompany his train set. This past year, I invested in a year-long membership for the two of us to the local transportation museum. The joint membership was less than $40, and we probably went 10 times this year. Every time we visited, it was a reminder of a special Christmas present and created opportunities for new memories together.
5. Make New Memories
Speaking of new memories, this may be a good time to establish some new traditions. For us, we make new ornaments by hand and watch lots of Christmas movies with popcorn and hot chocolate. We take drives to see the Christmas lights in local neighborhoods. We bake a lot- even if it’s the cheap slice and bake sugar cookies or banana bread with extra chocolate chips from our leftover bananas that week. While old traditions may bring up bittersweet memories, think of new ways you can celebrate this season with friends or loved ones.
6. Take Care of Your Heart
Take a walk, have a peppermint latte with a friend, or sing Christmas hymns with a local choir. Stop to breathe in the crisp winter air and look up at the sunsets over the bare trees. Pay attention to what you need, and don’t be afraid to take care of yourself too. If you’re like me and you are quick to make sure everyone else is okay, now is a great time to check in with your heart and make sure you’re getting the space, time, and love that brings YOU some health and joy in this season too.
7. Remember Those Who Are Hurting
One of my favorite recent holiday memories was from a Christmas that Emmett was not with me. Instead of staying at home and feeling sad, I chose to get up early on Christmas morning to serve breakfast with my church for a few local shelters. We sang songs, ate lots of bacon, and the kids had an indoor snowball fight with big white cotton snowballs. It took my mind off of my sadness and reminded me of the bigger picture of this holiday season. Think about ways you might be able to bring encouragement to others in your life or community this year (joining a Thanksgiving 5K for a good cause, baking cookies for an older person in your neighborhood, offering to watch a single parent’s kids so that they can shop, or serving at a local animal shelter or rescue mission on one of your Saturdays off).
8. Think About the “Reason for the Season”
While Thanksgiving prep takes hours or days of time, the meal is often over within 45 minutes. While the weeks leading up to Christmas can bring a flurry of shopping carts, gift wrap, parties, and high expectations, it can be really good to remember that Christmas itself is only 24 hours of the whole year. It also helps me keep things in perspective to remember the “reason for the season,” by dwelling on the season of Advent. Advent begins shortly after Thanksgiving and carries us through the month of December, by preparing our hearts for the coming of our King. I remember that while my holiday seasons are sometimes filled with sadness or longing, the Israelites waited expectantly for the Messiah to come for thousands of years. There are some wonderful devotionals that can lead you through simple Scripture or prayer prompts, with the reminders that ultimately this time of the year is a time of expectant waiting and celebration.
Last year I worked through Ann Voskamp’s Advent book, The Greatest Gift. This year I’ll be using my friend Jessica’s Christmas devotional Wonderful. Another activity that could involve kids would be a Jesse Tree series of ornaments which include one ornament and a verse to symbolize different parts of the Christmas season for each day leading up to Christmas. Emmett and I have a set of handmade ornaments from our church, but you could easily find a set online (a quick Amazon search pulled up this set for less than $10).
No matter what it is that makes your breath catch in your throat when you think of the holidays, I am praying for you. Sweet friend, here is a prayer just for you:
Dear God, We believe that your Word is true. We thank you that you are close to the broken-hearted. That you are redeemer, a perfect Father, and a great comforter. Father, I pray for my sister or brother that is reading this prayer right now. Embrace them closely within your loving arms. Remind them that you are right there with them in this hard season. Father, give us wisdom in how to handle our time, finances, and emotions in the coming days and weeks. Remind us Lord where we can show others, you, and ourselves love during this season. As we remember the period of longing for Christ, remind us Lord that YOU fully understand longing, suffering, and most of all, redemption. Fill us with hope, Lord, that all will be well. We love you Lord, and we thank you for the true reason for this holiday season- the birth of our Savior and our rescuer. In my season of longing, grief, or sadness, I thank you that you are right there with me. Amen.
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P.S. Special thanks to Kristin Dunker Photography for my favorite pictures ever of me and my family! 🙂