As A Single Mom At 50, I Finally Figured Out How To Enjoy Christmas By Myself

If your kids see their other parent this week, at a time when it feels like nobody in the wide world ever is alone at all, I see you. I was you.

Single moms, this is the week when you will feel it most. The singlest, if that’s a word, and I don’t care if it’s not because it’s a feeling. If you are a single mom and your kids see their other parent, you will be alone now. At a time when it feels like nobody in the wide world ever is alone at all. Alone after weeks of just wishing you had five damn minutes alone so you could finish the wrapping, eat a piece of toast, or watch a movie that was for you instead of a movie that was for everyone.

And now here you are alone and you don’t know where to put your arms. Hopefully you have leftovers to eat, three-quarters of a pumpkin cheesecake in the fridge that will be one-quarter of a pumpkin cheesecake in the blink of an eye. Eaten, perhaps, with a big spoon in front of the fridge like a secret you pretend you’re happy to keep. Turkey sandwiches. Leftover green bean casserole that surely not a person will miss if you eat the whole thing.

You also might have a decorated tree in the corner for just you to look at. A tree covered, as mine has always been, in reindeer made out of toilet paper rolls. Paper plate wreaths with a kindergartner’s name written in chicken scratches across the back. A star on the top that was maybe placed there by a kid on your shoulders, crooked. Perfect. Shoeboxes with forgotten clothes you bought them for Christmas might still be under the tree.

You might want to reach out to friends for a get-together, and I hope this works out for you but I think maybe it won’t. Everyone is so smugly filled up this week. Busy, busy, busy with their parties and their children and their families who stayed together. I don’t know anything about anything but I do want to tell you to maybe not call your friends. They don’t mean to be so happy and glittery but it all hurts just the same.

It is a bad week for you, is what I’m saying. I can give you tips on how to be easy on yourself since I’ve been doing it for so many years. Watch lots of movies. Go for walks. Don’t clean your house because this is your time out, too. Drink a bit of wine but watch out because that feeling can turn on you quick as a stubbed toe. Take a long bath then take another if you want.

You are learning something that other moms don’t get to learn and the bad news is we all have to learn it whether we want to or not.

The real gift in all of this being alone comes later, this is my promise to you. Because you are learning something that other moms don’t get to learn and the bad news is we all have to learn it whether we want to or not. You are learning how to be without your kids. And it might feel pretty rotten now but someday for you and today for me, it’s starting to feel pretty OK. Because I did something big for myself this year. Because now my kids are grown, all four boys turned into four men with beards and everything. And this year I noticed it, the breath I was holding for the holidays to start. For them. My house was not decorated, not even a festive tea towel hanging from my oven door. I was waiting to see two of my four sons on Christmas Day and my other two men, they will fit me in when they can. Their Christmas season is full of other people, their rhythm informed by me but not about me. Not anymore.

And what of my Christmas season? I was waiting to find out. Waiting like I did all of those years for them to come back to me. To decide together what we should do. Decorate, bake cookies, watch movies alone? Put together that little Playmobil Christmas market that I used to play with when they went to bed, pretending it was for them but it was really just for me. Maybe it was always just for me.

And so I went to find a real grown-up Christmas market while my sons were gone like they are always gone now. At the end of November, another time of year when everyone I know is busy so busy and I am lonely so lonely. I looked it up and decided this was a thing I could do: I went on a bus tour of the Christmas markets of Austria and Germany and Switzerland for eight whole days.

But I did it. Because I need to find a new way to do Christmas that doesn’t make me feel lost or heartbroken or forgotten.

Vienna, Munich, Innsbruck, even Lucerne in Switzerland. This feels like something I’m not allowed to do, especially not in November when the Christmas season is so fully upon us.

But I did it. Because I need to find a new way to do Christmas that doesn’t make me feel lost or heartbroken or forgotten. I need to stop holding my breath because this year I am 50 years old and I need all of the breaths I’ve got in these lungs. My sons do not owe me every moment of their Christmas. They will have other people in their lives or just might not want to do the Big Thing every year. The dinner, the stockings, the sleigh ride through the snow I force everyone to pretend they love. Driving around neighborhoods to see the Christmas lights with hot chocolates. This is the only kind of Christmas I’ve ever known. It might have been the only Christmas I ever wanted but what about my kids? Do they need to be responsible for every holiday with me? Or can I just slide down into my own quiet Christmas, even for a few days, and find out what works for me?

Now here I am. A woman sitting under a big tree decorated with the most enormous red hearts in a Christmas market in Vienna. It is Christmas++ here, completely over the top. Speaking to my tacky holiday soul so deeply I am struck dumb with how here I feel right this second. I am drinking Gluewein in a novelty mug, a small bag of ornaments I purchased for the people I love back home on the bench beside me. I am this woman now, using up all of my breaths. I used to be the woman one bench away, crouched over her screaming toddler. Begging him to look at the tree, doesn’t he see the tree? Doesn’t he want to try ice skating with the other children? He is sticky and sweaty and does not, indeed, want to look at the tree. He will not play at Christmas with his poor mother.

And for right now I am OK being this woman instead of that one. Tomorrow we go to Saltzburg, land of The Sound Of Music. There is a small Christmas market in the town square, a fountain where Maria Von Trapp once danced. An artist paints passers-by and shoppers eat warm pretzels in napkins as they browse. There I will find all of these incredible Christmas treasures hidden on side streets. A restaurant in a nook with thick, soft red blankets and pine trees and a small fire to warm us all as we drink our coffees. I will consider another strudel with vanilla sauce and ice cream, testing it against the Sachertorte I ate at Cafe Central where I hope I was sitting in Sigmund Freud’s favorite chair. I wonder what he would make of that.

Photo by Jen McGuire

From Saltzburg we will move on to Munich, then the ski village of Innsbruck in the Alps. Christmas markets all around, each one different. Each one with its own special handmade something on offer. Cuckoo clocks. Cowbells hanging on leather straps. Snow globes. Mittens. Slippers. Food, food, food. Sausage on a bun, which was no surprise, but raclette on a bun, which was such a perfect surprise. Fried melty cheese on potatoes and a little pickle on a bun. A surprise on top of so many other surprises.

Surprised that I did not, in fact, want to do this trip alone. I wanted to be alone-adjacent. Wanted other people on this bus tour as something of a talisman against my lurking loneliness, that purple shadow in the corner of the room that would have leapt out to gobble me whole when I saw all of the happy families kicking off the holiday together. I needed the particular cadence of my day to include a check-in, other moms on the trip showing me their wares on the bus after a long day of wandering. Dinner with this family and that family and the next before heading off to my own room for solitude. The perfect rhythm for me.

Surprised, too, by the side trips, the time spent away from the markets. Visiting the Hapsburgs summer house of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, a perfectly gaudy castle with stunning gardens and secrets everywhere. A night of opera and classical music and ballet that was funny and sweet and nostalgic, where the musicians understood our tacky hearts and played old standbys for us with real passion. Closing out the night with “The Blue Danube” by Strauss. Looking around the room and thinking wow look at me here really being something. I wore lipstick.

And all of those years on the couch in my gravy-stained sweatpants, they were like training for being here. For learning how to be OK with being without them.

I took a cable car to the top of Mount Pilatus and stood outside in the snow and let myself be right there, as me. Impossible, standing up there in the thin air and the cold when Christmas was waiting for me at home. But that Christmas started to feel like it was for someone else. This Christmas was for me. Just me. And all of those years on the couch in my gravy-stained sweatpants, they were like training for being here. For learning how to be OK with being without them.

I made trip friends. Not the kind where you are going to go on holiday together every year but the kind where you know each other’s kids’ names and grandkids’ names and on your very last night of the trip, you all go out for fondue in Switzerland. You eat outside with a view of the lights on Lake Lucerne, blankets on your laps and heated pads on your seats, second-hand furs hanging on racks in case you’re too cold. The kind of friends who are moms like you, who were once the kind of moms who decorated cookies and hung stockings and took videos of carol singing at school Christmas assemblies and have had to become this other kind of mom.

You are becoming this kind of mom this week too. Planning your future without them but always with them kinda/sorta. There are other things waiting for you. This week, plant that little seed of something for yourself. Plan a Christmas trip for someday or next year or 10 years from now. Because you are more than a mom. And now you know. Whether you wanted to or not.