Holiday Overdrive and the Solo Mom

How to keep the wheels from coming off this season

On Thanksgiving Day, you’re trying to cook three separate dishes to bring to three separate gatherings when you realize your oven is too small and failure is imminent. Your son shadows you, talking nonstop about his dog-eared and tape-doctored Lego catalog, in which he has circled every single item. Your daughter starts to scream because the puppy has latched on to the white trim of her velvet holiday dress, mistaking it for a chew toy. The holidays have just begun, and you’re already tired, frazzled, and overloaded. Your heart is shrinking a few sizes, like the Grinch’s in reverse. You open your mouth to yell but stop yourself and count silently to 10. Breathe.

Between the “stuff” craze, social and familial obligations, and the big feelings the holidays bring up, how can a Solo Mom keep the season from spinning out of control?

Set expectations

Manage expectations around everything. This time of year, relatives far and near might ask to see your kids. If the idea of flying across the country to visit your family makes you cringe, politely decline. If you can’t afford to travel, don’t. If you do travel, read the article “Holiday Travel: Heart of Darkness” to prepare. Stay focused on what’s best for your immediate family. Don’t hesitate to say no to invites. If you need to schedule holiday visits with a coparent, don’t put it off. Make arrangements well in advance to avoid last-minute disputes. Once you’ve settled custody arrangements, travel plans, and social commitments, tell your kids. Mark plans on the calendar. Focus on holiday experiences before stuff.

Oh, the stuff. Because my kids have so many older relatives and a father who live far away, they receive too many gifts unless I intervene. We are lucky to have this “problem,” but the stuff avalanche still creates chaos. Set gifting expectations with relatives. Don’t hesitate to make rules and ask others to follow them. If you don’t want your children to receive toys with batteries or tiny pieces, weapons, candy, pets, or life-sized stuffed gorillas, say so.

Better yet, help your kid make a mom-approved wish list, and share an item with each person who asks. Then set expectations with your kids. My kids know most of their gifts come from others and that I usually give us an experience, such as a post-Christmas trip to some local hot springs. If it will be a lean holiday, tell them in a gentle but clear fashion. Help them focus on one or two realistic gifts. If (like my son) your kids come down with a serious case of toy lust, put the focus on giving.

Make and protect your traditions

Because my kids are susceptible to holiday greed, some of the healthiest family traditions we’ve made involve giving. I help my kids make gifts, however small, for friends and family. And we always find a local giving tree where each of my children can take an ornament that lists the needs and wants of another child. My kids often choose someone who is the same age and gender as they are. I give them a budget and take them shopping, reminding them to pick out toys they really like. One of the most memorable gifts my son picked out was a Minecraft Lego set he wanted for himself. On Christmas morning, happy with another new Lego set he received, he stopped and said, “Mom, I bet that kid with the Minecraft Legos is as happy as me right now.”

Whatever your traditions, honor the ones that are right for your family, and let go of those that aren’t working. Your kids have never been to church because their father is an atheist, but you miss it? Go. You gave up celebrating Hanukkah, and your kids don’t know what it is? Do it, if it calls to you. Tired of dragging your kids two hours away each Christmas Eve for a toxic extended-family gathering? Stay home.

Two years ago on the day after Thanksgiving, I took us out into the 12-degree Montana day to hunt for and cut down a tree in the wilds, the way my father did when I was a child. At home, I struggled to shove the tree through the door, my fingers numb and a curse word on the tip of my tongue. As I paused to catch my breath, I noticed my son standing sad and useless as an ornament, crying. Since then, I wait until a friend can join us and then we drive to the nearby tree lot and bring our favorite blue spruce home peacefully.

Slow down

The holidays move so quickly and stir up so many emotions for both kids and adults, so less is usually more. In our family, we try to focus on doing things together. We attend the tree-lighting ceremony downtown, go ice skating, and make a list of favorite holiday movies to watch. We hunker down like a bear and her cubs in hibernation, making popcorn, stringing it for the tree if the kids are game, and singing along to John Denver and the Muppets.

If that idea of holiday cheer makes you want to fast-forward to spring, brainstorm your own plans for slow, simple fun — you know, the old-fashioned kind of family time where you put down your phone and sit on the floor. Play a board game, tell stories, look through old pictures, or read favorite books aloud.

The experiences are what your kids are most likely to remember: how you watched Home Alone and ordered cheese pizza every December or the felt stockings you glitter-glued names on together or the gifts handmade and hidden until the moment comes to share them. So buckle up, slow down, and keep your hands on the wheel. You’re in charge. Make time for love and connection this holiday season.

Good luck this holiday season! Remember, you can always reach out to our confidential community of Sisters for support.


Melissa Stephenson is a writer, runner, and solo parent to two amazing children. All three are happy to live in Missoula, Montana.

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