Lose the E-X-P-E-C-T This Holiday Season

With Thanksgiving behind us already, the holiday season’s in full swing. It’s not an easy time for any parent, but for single parents it often involves extra shopping carts of planning, paying and praying in an attempt to make a child’s holiday The. Best. Day. Ever. In my five plus years as a single parent I’ve made quite a few holiday memories this way:

  • …Like that first Thanksgiving when I was determined we were going to have a happy – no, HAPPY – day, in spite of my newly single status and no family in town. So I signed us up, one adult plus two children under the age of five, for a bountiful feast at a nearby hotel. Unfortunately, I discovered that “bountiful feast” really meant overcrowded ballroom and mediocre food. To top it off, my children used their $15.95 meals to consume rolls and Jell-O.
  • …Like the first family holiday party we attended, hosted by my employer at the city’s children’s museum. I was determined we were going to have a JOLLY time and we did…until my daughter puked on the floor of the snack area 20 minutes after arriving. (Note that she said she felt much better afterwards and wanted to resume eating and playing.) Jolly, I tell you.
  • …Like the year I was determined to capture a holiday moment of WONDER on film with Santa and our toddler son…except that the Ex and I ended up on Santa’s lap with our son so he would stop screaming. I’m not sure which one of us wore the most pained expression in that photo. Probably Santa.
  • …Like how our rotating custody schedule magically leaves the kids with me every New Year’s Eve. At first, the “single” part of me desperately wanted to be out with friends, but the “mom” part of me was determined to suck it up and find the JOY in being with my kids by driving us through a holiday lights display 30 minutes away. The first year we went I drove through a snowstorm, and both that year and the next the kids slept through the whole tour – thousands of bright, flashing lights and my croaking the Twelve Days of Christmas in time to the music playing on loudspeakers. Needless to say, that experience kind of put the “Oy” in my joy.

Beside my tears, all of these experiences had one thing in common: my EXPECTATIONS. I wanted our holidays to be as they once were, or what I imagined they had once been. I wanted to fulfill my dreams of being the perfect Santa and mother, ideals I assumed were my kids’ as well. I wanted Norman Rockwell, but got Norm Peterson instead.

Thankfully, I learned a few things from these experiences, so if you’re on your own, know you’re NOT alone. Keep these ideas in mind to make the holidays a bit easier for you and your family, too:

  • Kids don’t mind new traditions. (You shouldn’t either.) I know, I know. You’ve read this advice in RedBook and heard it on Oprah, but have you actually tried it?

    Remember the holiday light display I wrote about? Yep, we go see it every year, usually on Christmas, New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. We look forward to this outing now, and we all stay awake. You can also rework your old traditions to go along with the new. Think back to what you liked best about growing up during this season and pass those activities or ideas down to your kids.

  • Make the holiday your own, but don’t make it a competition. This is your chance to try something different with your kids, your way (heck ya!). And if they’re old enough, ask your children what they might like to do. Want to try a disco decorating theme? Do it! Itching to ditch the artificial tree and buy a fresh one like I did? Do it! (Buy L.L.Bean’s Swivel Tree Stand first. Trust me.) This isn’t about competing with your ex, but creating a unique holiday experience all of your own.

    (BTW, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t blow all your cookie dough trying to out-Santa each other. Your Ghost of January’s Bank Statement will thank you later.)

  • It’s okay to celebrate on another day. I’m fortunate that my ex-husband doesn’t mind celebrating holidays with the kids before or after the day itself; I’m the sentimental fool, he’s not. This is an option, though, whether it comes about by choice or chance (or poorly crafted custody schedules). Just remember to celebrate the day yourself, if it’s important to you. That might mean volunteering your time at a senior center or homeless shelter, visiting with friends and family members, traveling, keeping busy doing projects around the house or planning for your upcoming celebration, or just giving yourself the gift of time alone to do whatever you please.
  • Change it up. The beauty about holidays is that they eventually end and life goes back to normal. Even the most disastrous day is only 24 hours long, so keep perspective and keep the faith that you’ll make it through, regardless of the situation. And if something didn’t work this year, well, don’t do it again.

Most importantly: forget expectations this month and focus instead on the perception that your "real" holiday — the unique, creative, faults and all-you holiday -– might turn out even better than the one you dreamed of.