Being a single parent is difficult all year round. In my own season as a single father, I felt isolated and lonely. No one seemed to understand the pressure I felt, all the more amplified during the holiday season. Are you facing spending the holidays apart from your children? Do you have to split time with a former spouse? Or perhaps you have your kids for the holiday, but you’re far away from your extended family. Whatever the case, your feelings of stress are valid. It is hard. Still, in my own experience, I found that God did not leave me alone in any of it. He gave me hope, not just for the moment, but for future of my family.
This is the realization I came to as a single parent during holidays: while I wanted my children to have the best holiday possible, I could not make it about them...or about me for that matter. It could not be about how “perfect” it was for my kids. Our family’s holiday celebrations needed to include relationship with others.
Here are three ways this conviction played out in my experience.
The circumstances in every single-parent family are different. I became a single dad after an unwanted divorce. Nothing prepared me for the challenges that arose in this new situation. My former spouse wanted no involvement as a parent. So, the stress of the holidays for me did not spring from having to share the kids with her; it emanated from facing the holidays with my children pretty much on my own. That first year, my son was just three and my daughter only 10 months old. We lived far from most of our extended family. I felt very isolated and discouraged.
Yet, I wasn’t as alone as I felt. A Christian lady lived right next door. In her 60s and a single mother herself, Sharon checked in with me quite often. It was she who invited me to the church I attend to this day. Her presence was no accident; she was God’s agent at the scene. Sharon offered a listening ear and experienced advice heaped with grace. Her presence is one of the great assurances in my life that God is real and he loves me.
And God put others in my life to combat my isolation around holidays. Easter Sunday came shortly after I started attending the church. That morning I felt especially depressed and thought about not even going. I had planned a special dinner for myself and the little ones, but lacked enthusiasm to actually prepare it. At the last minute, I decided we’d go to church after all. We came in about a half hour late. At the end of the service, a couple I hadn’t met yet approached and asked the kids and me to join them for Easter dinner at their home. Remembering my earlier depression, I accepted right away. When we arrived, this sweet couple had obviously prepared for our visit well ahead of giving their invitation, including giving little gifts for the kids. I felt very welcome. That invitation went a long way to helping me cope through one Easter Sunday, but it also welcomed me more fully into the church. It blew doors open for other relationships that ultimately eliminated my feelings of isolation as a single parent and helped my children have greater stability.
Living in Illinois while my parents and siblings lived two states away in Michigan, I sometimes felt like I might as well have been living on the moon. My parents visited as often as they could, and my mother even stayed with me several weeks at one point, but when it was just the three of us, the holidays could feel pretty lonely. Now with the conviction that the holidays were not about us or how perfect they would be, I felt strongly that we needed to press into our relationships as a family. So, I’d pack up the kids and drive the eight hours to spend holidays with them. Being with my extended family did wonders for my feelings of isolation. Helpful, loving hands reached out for the kids and took some of the load from my shoulders. The children loved the time bonding with their grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. It showed them that their family included more than just the three of us, that they had deeper roots. These holiday visits also gave me a chance to model for my kids what it looks like to give in relationship with others. We would return home feeling more connected and refreshed.
Despite my urging that she participate, my ex-wife recused herself from joint custody and visitations, and virtually disappeared. Her parents and siblings, on the other hand, deeply desired full and regular relationships with my children.
I wrestled with a great deal of anger toward my former spouse. I had wanted my in-laws to advocate for the marriage, if not for my sake, then for that of the children. It took a huge push of empathy for me to recognize that they too were victims of the sudden split of the marriage. They also lived in Michigan, so, it fell to me to initiate opportunities for them to spend time with the kids, particularly around holidays. On our trips, I would make arrangements for the kids to visit, sometimes to stay with them for a few days. This often meant giving them up around holidays sometimes. But, again, those holidays were not about me or my kids. They were about relationships. Today, my children know who they are and where they come from, and have learned to extend themselves in their family relationships.
Single parenting stretches us all the time, but can be especially taut in holiday seasons. Your feelings of stress and isolation are real, yet, let me encourage you; God has not left you alone. Every person’s circumstances are entirely different one to another, so ask God to show himself in your situation, and then expect that he’ll actually do it. For me, that involved a stunning realization about the purpose of holidays and the importance of relationships in them, including those I thought would be behind me. This revelation set the stage for my family to see God’s amazing love in our lives all year round.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra