Guest post by Carrington Smith
As a young professional, newly divorced and scrambling to keep up financially, I faced my first Christmas without my children. It was painful to be separated from them. My married friends didn’t know what to do with me. Some blamed me for the divorce and were punishing me. Others treated me as if I was contagious — afraid of catching the divorce “disease.”
I hadn’t yet found a new group of single friends, and my family was so dysfunctional that spending time with them wasn’t an option. I was embarrassed I didn’t have anyone to spend the holidays with, that I didn’t have the funds to travel and that my family was so dysfunctional. Apparently, I gave off an air of having it all together, always being surrounded by friends, a social goddess of sorts — but that impression — the other story that others made up about me — could not be more wrong. And shame kept me from pulling back the curtain and revealing how many times I’ve spent the holidays alone.
The worst year was 2012 when my kids were with their dad, and I spent the time constructively reorganizing closets. But, as Christmas came to a close, my mother died, and there I was alone in an empty house bath in tears. There are lots of people like — too tired, too ashamed, too afraid of being pitied to speak up, raise my hand, and say, “please remember me.”
So, this year I’m asking on behalf of everyone else. Please don’t assume that your friend, colleague, loved one, or neighbor has a place to go, a hot meal to eat, or someone to show them love. Instead, assume they don’t. Use the holidays as an opportunity to connect, express gratitude and love, and be thoughtful.
With that in mind, here are some strategies for those going solo and some ideas for those who want to connect.
I have too many bad memories associated with Thanksgiving, so even when I was married, we would order Chinese food for the day and eat that for Thanksgiving dinner. Whenever possible, I like to meet friends for the Turkey Trot or similar events where I can get exercise, see my friends in a neutral environment and get some good endorphins. Similarly, the holidays deliver a lot of blockbuster movies, so I try to catch one with a friend if possible. Other years, I’ve been lucky to have a friend available to take a trip and use the time off to relax. If plans with friends don’t work out, I try to use the time constructively by tackling projects (like the closets), doing artwork, writing, giving myself a spa day, jump-starting a New Year’s resolution, or binge-watching that Netflix series that’s been on my list.
Take Care of Yourself
As joyous as the holidays are to some, they are the source of great pain and loneliness for others. Self-care is critical. Bottom line: do what you need to do to take care of yourself, set boundaries, and don’t worry about judgment from others.
Take Care of Others
I found that the best way to avoid feeling sorry for myself is to shift my focus to helping others. There is always someone who has it worse than you. And the quickest way to joy is by helping others. Think about your elderly neighbor. Check-in on friends you haven’t talked to in years. Volunteer. Adopt a family. Offer to let your friends leave their pets with you. The comfort of a pet can go a long way to getting through the holidays.
Avoid Things That Trigger You
For me, I avoid those Hallmark Holiday movies. I also avoid drinking — I know it soothes many, but a glass of wine during the holidays can make me melancholy. Avoid “doom scrolling” on social media. Instead, focus on your vision for the life you are designing. Avoid friends and family that trigger you because they don’t respect boundaries, avoid or diminish your feelings, or engage in “toxic positivity.” Your feelings are real and they matter.
Have a Plan
Understand and accept what the holidays may mean for you. The holidays are a social construct. Redefine what the holiday season means to you. It can mean whatever you want. Have a plan for your alone time. Plan a special meal, stock up on your favorite bubble bath, pick out the show you want to binge-watch. Plans activities before and after the holidays so that you have interactions with friends and events to look forward to — even if it’s as simple as going for a walk.
Create Family Traditions That Don’t Revolve Around the Holidays Itself
Plan a Friendsgiving that happens the day or weekend before Thanksgiving. Have it every year whether or not you have your kids. Plan an annual holiday party, gift exchange, or hot chocolate and gingerbread house decorating contest. These new traditions will create special memories and help to ease the pain of being separated on the day itself.
Acknowledge Cultural Difference
Growing up in a dysfunctional protestant family, I envied cultures that had rich family traditions. I think it would be fun to participate in the Jewish holiday traditions, attend an Italian dinner, or participate in rich Catholic traditions. The holidays are a great time to reach across cultural lines and invite people to experience the richness of your traditions.
Things You Can Do For Those Spending the Holidays Alone!
First, understand the holidays bring up so many emotions, so whatever you do or offer to do, respect others’ feelings, and give them room to opt-out if that is what’s is best for them. Instead of asking people if they have plans for the holidays (which can be a trigger question), say, “If you don’t have other plans, we would love for you to join us.” Always approach with the sentiment that there is no pressure to attend, but we would really love to have you. Send a follow-up message so they know you are being genuine.
If someone chooses to spend the holidays alone, or they are stuck working through the holidays, have a meal, flowers, cookies, some lux pajamas, or a gift basket delivered to them. For the neighbors or elderly who spend the holidays alone, check-in on them. Leave a meal, a candle, a plate of cookies or a thoughtful note on their doorstep. Please don’t forget the single parent. There have been many holidays where I did not receive a single gift and I know this is true for many single parents. As single parents, we are constantly giving, and the holidays just increase the pressure and obligations put on us. The smallest gift, acknowledgment of our effort, words of encouragement, or show of support is greatly appreciated. Use the holidays to acknowledge those you love and appreciate. Let them know they are seen and cared for.
For more advice on finding your way through difficult times, you can find Blooming on Amazon.
Carrington Smith is a single mom, attorney, business owner, and executive search professional. Despite being born with a silver spoon in her mouth, life gave her a hard kick in the tail. She has survived sexual assault, two divorces, piles of debt, abuse, religious mind games, the death of loved ones, and the loss of close friends. In her debut memoir, Blooming, Carrington combines wit and wisdom to share her journey through the shit, with a positive attitude and a shift of mindset, into a life bursting with joy, opportunity, and purpose. A graduate of UT Austin and Tulane Law School, Carrington resides in Austin, Texas, with her two teenage boys.