Whether you’ve been a single parent for years, or this is the first holiday season that you have to cope with how to handle a change in your family situation, you still want to make sure that your children have happy memories of the holidays. This time of year can be hard for single moms, who often have to make hard decisions about what they can afford, or how much time they can take off work to share in the celebrations. It’s especially hard if you have to arrange that time to share the season between two or more families – you might not only have your home to decorate, but also a visit to your parents and relatives, plus your ex and his family. There might be four different places you need to be in one weekend.
How can you cope with the stresses of the season, so that you and your kids have a happy holiday?
We’ve got some ideas for you.
Avoid the “Best Parent” Trap
There are a lot of reasons why you want to give your children all of the games, toys, and presents that they’re asking for. You love them and want them to be happy. They’ve been helpful around the house, done their homework, cleaned up after the dog, or learned to put away the groceries after a shopping trip. They’ve been asking for the latest video game for months, and all of their friends have it already. If you can afford the gifts without breaking your budget, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t buy them what they want. But there is one good reason to not buy too much, and that’s when you’re using those gifts to make up for something else.
Even the best-behaved children can act out some of the stresses caused by separation and divorce and suddenly become demanding. If the phrase “if you really loved me, you’d …” sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many single mothers suddenly discover that they’re in competition with their ex to provide the newest gadgets, the fanciest clothes, or the neatest weekend adventure. Unfortunately, a lot of times your ex has both the extra money and the motivation to spend more on gifts and treats, and you might feel that leaves you looking like Scrooge. Instead, focus on the advantages of the situation.
Think about it this way: the kids get the gifts they want, you don’t have to spend the money, and it leaves you extra money for coming up with your own ideas for family fun, during the holidays and for the rest of the year. For example, you could start saving for a family vacation at the next school break, or create some cute “coupon” style cards for your kids that promise a free ride on a roller coaster, or a day at the beach, or a meal at their favorite restaurant. They’ll enjoy having something to look forward to, especially if it’s something you can do with them.
You can read more about the problems with overspending on gifts in this article.
Give the Gift of Time
If you are dealing with a situation where your children are splitting their time between two houses, do your best to make sure that the time they spend with you is special. Plan all of your errands and chores when they’re not with you so that you can devote almost all of your time to them when they’re home during the holidays. Of course, they’ll have things they’ll want to do, like holiday parties to go to at school or a friend’s house, but you can schedule some family time on the calendar to celebrate together. This doesn’t have to be expensive, though if one of your gifts to the children is a holiday treat, that’s a good way to share time as well as holiday memories with them. Here are some holiday ideas that children of all ages will enjoy:
- Go downtown to see the decorations and check out the window displays at the larger shops is always fun, especially if you live in a city with one of the major department stores with elaborate animated scenes in their windows. You can combine this with a shopping trip to let each child pick out whatever they want from one of the stores, within a budget you’ve set.
- Does your town have an annual Christmas parade or holiday market? That’s another opportunity to get out of the house and see the lights. Seasonal markets often have seasonal treats, like spiced cider or hot chocolate served with candy canes, and an opportunity to visit with Santa. Depending on where you live, there might even be real reindeer! These events are a great way to introduce your children to the fun of living in a community and sharing good times with your neighbors.
- Larger towns and cities often set up temporary outdoor ice rinks, or have light shows at the local zoo or arena. You can look up information on what’s planned in your area by checking with the city council website, or with your local department of tourism. Many newspapers and news stations also advertise these events, so keep an eye out for the announcements.
If you can afford to donate clothing or food to a local charity, this is a good way to teach children about giving, as well as receiving, gifts. Take them with you to the food bank, talk about how you’re helping people, and even ask them to pick out something they’d be willing to donate to another child. If they have a used toy or a once-favorite sweater that’s still in good condition, let them be the ones to hand it over at the collection point. Research has shown that when children are encouraged to focus on giving, they tend to develop into more caring and helpful adults. You can read an interesting article on one of these research studies here.
Plan Your Time Wisely
When you have time off from work, it’s hard to resist trying to cram everything into that short break, especially over the holidays. It’s even more complicated when you’ve got to schedule events with your family, your friends, and your ex (and his family, and their friends …). That’s why one of the best gifts you can give yourself is a calendar, and a clearly written schedule that everyone has agreed to.
When you’re sharing custody or visitation after a divorce or separation, holiday planning can often trigger arguments. Most of the time, you should have created a schedule with your lawyer or legal advisor, a custody plan that the courts have ruled on, which sets out how much time each parent has with the children, and when that time will be. In general, these parenting time agreements try to be as fair as possible when it comes to holiday time. For some people, it works best to alternate years: you’ll have the children in even-numbered years for the whole Christmas holiday break, and he’ll have them at his house in odd-numbered years.
More often, there’s a shared time split where the children will be with one parent through Christmas morning, and with the other parent starting at noon on Christmas Day and going through the rest of the holiday break. That way each parent gets time with the kids, and can schedule family events around that time. It’s important that you have this arrangement in writing, however, because last-minute changes can create trouble and confusion for everyone concerned. Make sure you know what the schedule is, and stick to it. If your ex wants the schedule to be changed, and it doesn’t affect the plans you’ve already made (or you can change your plans easily), then go ahead and show your generosity and flexibility – but get it documented. Make sure you have it in writing, listing the changed times and the reason for the changes. You might need it next year in case there’s any argument about the schedule.
You can do this parenting schedule planning using a simple paper calendar and e-mail or written messages, but if you can afford it, you might want to consider an electronic custody calendar, which helps you record all of the times, dates, changes, and negotiations that occur. Many family law offices recommend Our Family Wizard.
Keep the Kids Involved
It can be tempting to do all of the cooking and decorating and gift-buying and present-wrapping yourself, either because you want everything to look perfect, or because you think that having the children part of the process will slow things down, and you just don’t have the time to spare. Perfect might be pretty, but sometimes it’s not personal. And keeping the kids involved in the preparation for the holidays will teach them more about the traditions of your family and the meaning of the holiday, as well as letting them know just how much money, time, and effort is involved.
Of course, for the youngest children, part of the fun is the magical surprise of presents that suddenly appear, so you won’t want to have them help wrap their own gifts! For older children, however, letting them pick out a small gift for their brother or sister will give them a feeling of pride, and they can certainly wrap that present themselves.
Instead of buying Christmas cards for family and friends, think about postcards. They’re cheaper to mail, and you can buy plain white cardstock for your kids to decorate. Block off space for the address on one side and a blank space for you to write a quick holiday greeting, and then give your children the stack of postcards and some colored markers and have them draw whatever seasonal pictures come to mind.
If you like baking, get your kids into the kitchen and make cookies together. It’s the holidays, so look up those old recipes for treats you always used to eat at your grandmother’s house at Christmas – or look for recipes to make the things you always wished she’d make! One easy cookie to make is a simple sugar cookie that just uses eggs, sugar, flour, and butter, plus a few pantry staples. Cut out the cookies and decorate them with edible paint made out of egg yolks and food coloring, and you’ll have treats that are pretty enough to hang on your Christmas tree. For a mom-tested recipe and all the instructions, click here.