Making Christmas when you make it

It’s my first Christmas as a single mom and while I’ve tried not to turn this into the single mom blog for various reasons, I have felt overwhelmed by so many conflicting emotions for the past week.

Gah, Christmas. Why do you do this to us?

In my family, as a product of divorced parents myself, holidays were always when we made them–Thanksgiving with my dad on a Wednesday night or a Sunday afternoon. Christmukkah with my mom on December 27. Even birthdays can extend a full week or longer. For me, it was always an indulgence, if for my parents it presented challenges that I only now am beginning to fully grasp.

Now, my children are about to embark on this same experience for the rest of their lives, and bless them, they are as flexible and resilient as children come. The idea of two Christmases, two Thanksgiving, two (or more) birthdays is a joy to my girls and for that I am beyond grateful.  But when I stopped worrying about my girls and slowed down enough to think about my own Christmas this year, the overwhelming force of the change punched me hard.

In my 8.5 years as a mother, I have yet to miss a Thanksgiving, a birthday, a Mother’s Day, a Christmas eve or Christmas morning with my children. This Christmas is the first.

Lopsided Christmas Star| Mom101

And so, we had our own Christmas eve celebration on Thursday night before they left for their father’s for several days.

We decorated the tree, letting the girls hang ornaments wherever they wanted–a painful if gracious exercise for parents with any aesthetic concerns whatsoever. They placed all the Nutcracker ornaments together on a single, teetery branch (“they go together, Mom!”) and clustered all the others at their own eye level leaving me to fill in every branch over 4-feet tall. We completed it with the kitschy, lopsided silver star I’ve always loved that looks extra lopsided this year thanks to a top branch at a 45-degree angle. They loved it so much that Thalia asked to take a picture of it.

I even allowed them to string the extra set of blinky Christmas lights by the window on a slow on/off fade setting, with apologies to my neighbors who are probably reporting me to 311 for a Non-Emergency Tacky Violation as we speak.

The girls recorded video letters to Santa (21st century, baby) and then Sage wrote a letter to Santa too, complete with prices should he be buying–and not making–the entirety of the American Girl Doll collection. Hopefully she will not be disappointed that most of her wishlist will remain one.

Sage letter to Santa | Mom-101

We drank hot chocolate and ate a homemade dinner I prepared from among the 5 whole dishes that they find acceptable these days, and we toasted to love and family with sparkling lemonade in grownup glass tumblers.

Then we danced.

By the clean white lights of the tree, they spun and they leaped and they twirled to my holiday playlist, using their fantasy minds to pretend they were Hermione and Ginny in a couples dance-off with an imaginary Harry Potter and imaginary Ron Weasley. (As Professor McGonnagal I got to be the judge and as always, by some remarkable coincidence, it was a tie.) They fell in love with Straight No Chaser’s 12 Days of Christmas, they rocked out to Springsteen’s Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and they went nuts for Christmas in Hollis which gave me endless joy.

We also had to listen to Frosty the Snowman multiple times from multiple singers, but as 6 and 8-year-olds, I forgive them. Wham’s Last Christmas, however? “SO boring! Can you skip to the next one, Mom?” Eh, she’s kind of right.

Then, as the girls slowed it down and sashed in circles to the sappiest of all sappy songs, Faith Hill’s Where Are You Christmas, which Sage can listen to 97 consecutive times, I lost it.

Not just quiet tears welling up that I could whisk away unseen with a pinky finger, but the quintessential, cliché Ugly Cry.

I thought about the Instagram photos of Christmas morning that I won’t have to share myself, even while tapping hearts on dozens of others. I thought about missing our annual Christmas Eve trek to the 5th Avenue store windows and the joyous crush of tourists at the Rockefeller Center tree, including Creepy Elmo, Creepy Spongebob and Creepy Dora who will take a photo with your kid for a few bucks.  I thought about my dad’s annual ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas conference call reading for all the grandchildren, and how my girls wouldn’t be in my bed for it this year. I thought about the cookies for Santa we wouldn’t leave in the hall by the front door, and the note they wouldn’t write letting him know there was an extra for his reindeer too.

And then I thought about how none of this really mattered to them at all; how happy my girls were to try something new this year and have this makeshift Christmas eve dinner, just the three of us, nearly a week early. It only made me cry harder.

makeshift christmas eve dinner  | mom101

I know I am hardly alone, nor am I the first person to feel this longing on a holiday; this is the neverending lament of divorced parents everywhere. Of military parents stationed overseas. Of working parents with jobs that keep them away. Of relatives recovering in hospitals, families without the means to travel to see relatives, college students unable to fork over exorbitant holiday airfares to bring them home.

They are all in my hearts right now. I feel them in a way I couldn’t have understood so precisely before.

But I hope that they also know that Christmas is when and how we make it. It can be a random Thursday night. It can be New Year’s morning. It can be a Facetime call for a Clement C. Moore reading, or a letter for Santa thanking us for cookies that the girls get to come home to late Christmas afternoon, ready to open gifts for Christmas #2.

My own desires aside, I know I am remarkably fortunate that my girls have so many people who love them and want to be with them this time of year. I try to remember that that comes first, even if waking up alone Christmas morning is something I’m avoiding thinking about.

“I’m just…so…happy,” I assured them, when they rushed to me to see why I was crying.

“Well, you must be really happy,” Thalia said, skipping back to the dance floor. And I was.


46 thoughts on “Making Christmas when you make it”

  1. Right there with you Liz. My son is 13 and this will be my first Christmas Eve/Day without him, and not relishing it. It is a little easier because he is older and he was with his dad Thanksgiving 2012 so I have had major holidays without him at the table.

    But….still really? No bueno.

  2. Oh, you are making me ugly-cry right here behind my laptop. I do love that your girls have so many people who love them so much and will make their holidays special, no matter what day they fall on. But for you, I can only offer this big virtual hug and hope you know how many people love YOU too.

  3. That’s a whole lotta change. I’m glad you wrote it down. Your new traditions will be so beautiful, too, because they belong to you and your girls, but the old ways need time to fall away with love, too. This season brings so much of that, it seems, for everyone in different ways at one time or another. Thinking of you this year especially.

    1. Laurie you are always so supportive and amazing.

      Damn, all of you and your nice comments. I’m getting all teary again.

  4. Your post is so touching for a zillion reasons, but what stands out is what a loving mother you are. You made it all about the dance of life…some dances are effortless and so are a struggle, but you made this new dance so fun for your girls. You did that. And I commend you for it. You’re a fantastic person. Xo

  5. I don’t have much, other than this, no matter the hurts that I accumulated through my parents’ divorce and the second marriages, my faith in the magic of holidays and special occasions never wavered.

    I’m sorry for your heart, but I have to believe that $22 cocnuts can help somehow.


  6. These are not tears on my cheeks. These are not tears. These are….

    My heart breaks not only for the millions of those who cannot celebrate as they dream but also for The Day that we’ve all learned can only happen on The Day. Like you I’ve had to decide that holidays will be celebrated when the family is together and not when the calendar decrees. It helps, but the tears still come. Even after all these years.

  7. The worst thing about not being with your kids’ other parent is that they’re gone when you want to be with them—that you’re sharing them when you’d rather not. There is so much value in realizing the good in this no matter how much it sucks.

    1. Oof Michael. I just read it. Thank you for sharing it; and your template looked a lot better than mine in 2007.

  8. It sounds really, really hard and like you are doing a brilliant job of consciously adjusting to the new normal. My heart hurts when I put myself in your shoes. I am not good with change. I am thinking of you. I have confidence that the girls will grow up knowing how to be flexible and how to look beyond the surface of things like dates on the calendar. As you did, and I did, and all the rest of us who have two households worth of parents and gained valuable assets from the lives their parents moved onto. Namely, long-term happier parents.

  9. While I haven’t faced holidays without my children (and I really, really hope never to have to), I can identify with having a family in flux. Our holidays may not be of the Rockwell variety, but we make them ours nonetheless, and I cherish the intimacy. What matters is not how they appear from the outside, but how they feel to us on the inside.

    Lots of love to you, mama.

  10. I’m so there with you, or will be soon. I’m trying to convince myself that Xmas is a moveable feast. And remind myself that I’m Jewish. xo

  11. That was a beautiful post Liz! My heart hurts knowing you’ll wake without the girls on Christmas morning but it’s also filled with joy because you understand that even though the two of you are no longer together the girls need both of you. You’ve done a remarkable job raising the girls! You’ll be in my heart Christmas morning! Love you!

  12. Oh ouch. The downside to your being such a good writer is the same as the upside: You make us understand your feelings so well. I’m sorry you will be away from your kids on Christmas. I wish you joy at unexpected moments to ease any hurt.

  13. Liz,
    You probably don’t remember me, but I met you at Dad 2.0. I have enjoyed many of your posts, but this one. Wow. I swear I finished it and wanted to give you a hug. I shared this post on my wall (and will put it on my blog’s FB wall as well) because I have a lot of friends who are either going through this for the first time, or have experienced it already. Thank you for posting something so personal. I know that your new traditions, though they may not be easy for you, will be appreciated by your kids because of the love you are crafting them with. Merry Christmas to you.

    1. Thanks for your support Creed. Of course I remember you and I so value you stopping by. Merry Christmas to you too. I wish you an entire Caliou-free year. (Small favors.)

  14. Well this year is my first year I am a single father spending Christmas alone. X-mas without my Ex. My daughter is now 18 and will be with her mother and her mother’s mother from England, 2 hours away on that day. My family is mostly in Michigan and one in Oregon and me in New Hampshire. The family tree grows many unique branches when divorces are involved. Opening presents by yourself in a treeless home seems strange. After all it wasn’t that long ago when I remember presents at the foot of my bed first thing in the morning. For many reasons I had to stick around this year. Yes I will see friends, but it’s not the same really. During the 12 or so years her mother and I were apart, it didn’t seem so bad for our daughter. And we focused on our daughter to make it as normal for her as possible. Now that she is 18, I guess the hardest thing for me is me being the single father and missing all of those special christmas mornings without Me her and we. But things will be fine really–maybe–i think–Just another day right? At least I know I am not alone in this situation — so a tip of the eggnog to you all, single mothers and fathers. Together we are all family. Merry everything.–

    1. It’s nice to see you here and hear your story Michael. Is your daughter really 18? How did that happen!

      I wish you peace through the change. May you find new paths that become the old traditions eventually.

      Eggnog right back at you. Merry merry to you too.

  15. So, with the Wolfe family, Christmas has always been not a big – an enormous occasion. As many as 50 relatives and then add in the friends. My sisters-in-law and I always got the family together (cocktails the weekend before and “desert and champagne” day of). After that, everyone got Christmas bags from Grandmother (and then great trading began since everyone’s was different). Then – the cluster of an all-family photo. It was all family all the time and I loved it – as did my/our son. What a great celebration of life and love and extended family. When my husband and I separated, one of the things I insisted upon was that our son would always spend Christmas with that great big, messy, loving, fabulous family. It was how he had grown up and as much as I knew I would miss it – and him – I could not deny him that giant group hug. Christmas is still hard. I have been asked to join in with that great (still my) family several times, but it’s too hard. But my son – now in grad school – also had a couple of tough times. All I wanted was to make it easier for him. So I had to let him go. And I am so glad I did. Liz, you have done better than I ever did! I went to Mexico! xo

    1. That is such a major parental sacrifice. You are a remarkable mom, Ginny. And how lucky you are to have been asked to join, even if it’s not the right choice for you. I am so honored you shared this and am really moved reading all these personal stories. The perfect nuclear family is more and more an anomaly if not a downright myth.

      Meanwhile, we should change the line to “if you love someone set them free then move to Mexico.” xo

  16. You are a fabulous Mom and your very clear understanding that it’s about the chlidren first and you second is dead right……..and hard to remember. That you have broadened the conversation from “single parents” to “all who can’t be here to celebrate together as a family” is important. Time passes, things change. Keeping the focus on the children is a thought that needs a much reinforcement as possible………and your Dad’s “conference call” is a stroke of genius.

    1. Thanks Doug. It started the year I moved to college and couldn’t be there in person. It’s grown to include my brother and the grandkids by conference call. We’ve never missed a year and I love it. Especially the part where we interrupt to change all the rhymes to make them sillier.

      I have evolved very little since childhood in some ways.

  17. I think the holidays can be tough for so many people and for so many different reasons as you said above. But, I always think that first one where it seems different (for ex, you as a single parent) from all the past ones, is the hardest. For me, this is the first holiday season without my mom and boy does it hurt. I love your outlook though and I can tell that you find such comfort in the fact that your girls are okay with this different Christmas, which means you’ll be okay too.

    1. I am so sorry, Emily; I am also thinking of all those who lost parents and other loved ones this year. I know those holidays can be especially challenging and I hope you are surrounded with lots of people you love.

  18. As a parent to three teens who are mostly disinterested in the holidays I cherish the day to day opportunities to have special moments. Forget the scripted events where expectations are easily unmet. This year it is pretty clear to me that my spouse and I are heading in separate directions so the tension I feel trying to make it feel normal when it is anything but is pretty draining for me- but so far so good. So Liz, I’m glad you have the outlook to muster your circumstances and focus on your girls. I relate.

  19. Here’s to new memories and new traditions. Your girls will be lucky to have all this wisdom collected for them. Will you print it out? Will a publisher finally put these essays into print (my vote)? We are lucky to see your words–thanks for sharing and for reminding me to give all my single mom friends an extra call, email and hug this holiday.

  20. Liz–
    You’re teaching your girls one of the most important lessons we learn through life, one that so often is learned too late in the game: change is the only constant. I still need to remind myself of this more often than not.

    Will be thinking of you this holiday, my friend. Thank you for opening my eyes to something that I had not put much thought into, though I certainly should have before today.


  21. I have been a single mom for around 16 yrs. I am a product of multi-divorce family. Holidays have never been normal. I tried to make them normal for a while, but it was always a disappointment.

    The good to come out of all of this is that my side picks a date when we can all get together. We don’t have to worry about exs or in-laws on this day. It is ours. This year it will be 1/4.

    The first couple of holidays by yourself are really hard. But its because of what our perception of normal is, and we’re hurting because it isn’t what is supposed to be.

    Now you need to look for the good in the situation. Are you tired? You have a blessed day to yourself. You can volunteer. You can bake goodies to have when the girls come home. You can watch that movie or read that book you haven’t been able to get to.

    I’ll probably be online. I’ll be working on getting my latest Kindle book finished. Maybe I’ll see you around.

  22. As a child of divorced parents, I can tell you that it will be a lot worse for you than it will be for them. All they know is that they get 2 Christmas celebrations and that’s pretty cool. Have a nice glass of Mimosa on Christmas morning and pamper yourself. Hang in there!

  23. I just want to come over and hug you.

    Even those of us who think “The divorce was hard, but it had to happen. We’re all better off now. Thank God we can be amicable …” still have to do the holidays with a wallop of sad. The good news is that eventually it feels more like a dollop than a wallop, but I keep wondering if it ever goes away. I doubt it.

    As always, you have a great attitude. That will get you through.

    Happy holidays!

  24. It gets easier eventually, I promise.

    I’m glad they are happy, and I’m glad you’re wonderful enough to rejoice in that for them. xoxo

  25. The first one is the worst. We celebrated Christmas on Saturday. It gets a little easier each year, although Christmas seems to be the hardest one for me. This year, I’ll be going to the movies I think. Probably a double feature.

    Kids don’t seem to care as much. I think it makes it more magical and special to do it twice or something three times. I felt that way as a kid. It’s hard being the parent left behind, no matter which holiday it happens to be. I always have to remind myself…Christmas was the day I celebrated it with my babies, no matter what day it actually falls on.

    Do something special for yourself on Christmas. Chocolates, wine, take yourself out for Chinese and a movie. Something. Huge hugs to you Liz.

  26. I always read but I never comment. I really feel for you, you have me crying. I grew up with divorced parents and now have young children of my own. I remember feeling sad for my parent who wasn’t with us and wondering what they were doing. I would imagine needing to lean on a friend through the first time. I wish you and your family a great Christmas .

  27. Found your site when looking for articles about people deciding not to have kids (which we have) and enjoyed it.
    Sorry for the rough spot you’re in, but you seem to be a person who focuses more on the good in life and you’ll get through it 🙂

  28. So difficult, but you are right that Christmas is when you make it. Although I love holidays my gripe with them is that creating days where you significantly do something (give gifts, say I love you, say thank you) it can make it seem like we don’t need to do those things on other days. The magic is not in the day on the calendar but in being with family and friends.

    But yes. It’s still hard. Hugs to you.

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