A Single Parent's Holiday Guide

The holidays are supposed to be a time for joy, but for single parents, the happiness can easily turn to stress. The media seem determined to hand us a holiday vision built around an idealized version of the traditional family, and the aggressive commercialism of the holidays throws the financial limitations of single parents into sharp relief. It's easy to fall into the trap of feeling like we aren't measuring up, or aren't delivering a proper festive experience to our children.

As with most mental traps, the best way to avoid that is to see it coming and take active steps to define a positive and realistic holiday vision for our families. There are strategies, hacks, and shortcuts that will stretch your time and money without snapping your sanity. It's OK to make things easier for yourself; just because you don't have a nervous breakdown every winter doesn't mean you don't care.

The Best Gift You can Give is Time
It's easy to think that gifts are the core of the holiday season, and if you ask your children what they'd like for the holiday you celebrate, you're likely to get a list of material things. If you're like many single parents, though, the basic needs of earning a living take you away from your family all too much of the time. It's not something they'd think of asking for, but setting aside time for your children during the holidays is a sure way to build special memories. Small things like making and putting up decorations, baking gift cookies together, drawing and writing Christmas cards for family members, even “camping” beside the tree may be remembered longer than gifts! If it's your first holiday season as a single parent or one of your first, build some new traditions that you can enjoy for years to come!

Older kids can be a little harder to entertain, especially once they are teens, but if you keep track of the things they like, you can usually find something that will excite them. Take them somewhere you've never been together; somewhere that will make them feel like you're treating them as adults, or just curl up on the couch with their favorite snack and watch a movie that shows them that you know they're growing up. Think creatively and look for things they will want to do, even if they might not be your ideal way to spend time.

Plan Gifts for Fun and Usefulness
Set a budget for each child, and stick to it. For small children, the act of opening gifts is often as exciting as the gifts themselves, so numbers matter, even if the things inside are cheap. The most expensive toys aren't always the most played with: we have all seen a toddler ignore expensive toys to cling to a simple ball, or slightly older children ignoring the toys and playing with the box! It's often worth spending a little more on toys you know will last, especially if there are younger children who will inherit them. A set of wooden blocks can entertain children for years. Lego is still almost indestructible, and you can buy it second hand on eBay at a fraction of the new cost!

It's ok to give some needed items that you would be buying in any event as gifts: clothes and school supplies may not be the most exciting, but they are still fun to unwrap. It's worth trying to slip in some things you know they want, and a few that you know will surprise them!

If the gift budget is stressed and there are other family members in the picture, focus on the kids first. Other branches of the family can be satisfied with a simple token of appreciation, even something you made and cooked yourself. Everyone in your family knows, or certainly should know, where your priorities are, and they'll understand!

Don't Be Afraid to Ask For Help
It's a season for giving, and as parents, we tend to assume that all the giving will be coming from us. We can also be on the receiving end. Family, friends, and neighbors often know very well what a single parent faces, and are often happy to help out. If you need a day or part of one to wrap or buy gifts, prepare the house, or get the kitchen together, setting up play dates with friends or letting them visit with a grandparent or other relative can get you the time you need.

Whatever your relationship with your ex, it's worth remembering that children deserve holiday time with both of you, and from a practical perspective that time away can be just what you needed to catch up on work or just to relax. If your custody arrangement places the kids with your ex on some Christmas Eves, you face a whole new problem: a Christmas Eve alone. That's not always the easiest thing to manage, but it's always worth thinking about a visit to family, time with single friends, or just that “me time” that feels so hard to get for so much of the year!

Food: A Little Luxury, a Lot of Practicality
Food is an important part of any holiday, but don't feel that you're not doing your job if the spread on your table doesn't look like something you'd see in a movie. It's supposed to be fun and delicious, not to live up to someone else's idea of a holiday meal. Focus on child favorites, and a bit of surprise, especially in the dessert department! There's nothing wrong with a bit of splurge on one special item, but kids are often happiest tucking into the familiar comfort foods. You know what your kids love to eat. It's a holiday, so let them have it, even if it's not what anyone else might associate with a special occasion!

Don't Compare
It's all too easy to feel like every other family on the planet is having a merry old Hollywood-style celebration, or to compare yourself to someone in the store lane who's checking out enough toys to keep five families entertained for a year. The comparison is not productive: you're you, not someone else, and if some have more, remember that many also have less. It's a time to be grateful for what we have, and most of all for having our loved ones beside us.

It's easy to see holidays as an endurance test, especially if we're trying to live up to an unrealistic standard. If we treat them as a time to be with our children and enjoy what we have, we can make a memorable holiday out of very little. So charge your camera, cuddle the little ones, smile even if it all seems to be going wrong, and share the joy. Happiness doesn't need to be expensive!