A Single Parent's Guide to Surviving the Holidays: Order Take-Out Chinese and Call it a Day

I'm starting a new trend as of today, and I won't back down. I'm ordering Chinese for myself and my son on Christmas, and you're all invited; but bring your own chair, because I only have four.
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I love the holidays and I hate the holidays. The holidays fill me with hope, and they also fill me with despair. The holidays remind me that I am surrounded by loved ones, and they also remind me that I am far more alone in this world than I'd like to be. The holidays are filled with family, friends, lots of pretty decorations, and baking -- lots and lots of baking. The holidays are also filled what what I like to call bullsh*t -- lots and lots of bullsh*t, at least for those of us who feel compelled to live up to some culturally (and religiously)-inspired standard of what American holidays are supposed to be about -- tables filled with happy people, feasts befitting the royal family, an abundance of presents under a $150 tree, and so on, and so on.

Don't get me wrong, I can think of many wonderful holidays I've spent with good food, good people and good cheer, but I can also recall quite a few spent with a mirror held up to my face showing me just how much my life hadn't turned out the way I'd hoped. Lonely holidays where I anxiously wondered if someone would invite me to join their family for a holiday meal, and broke holidays where I knew I didn't have the funds to live up to my gift-giving responsibilities (and no one embraced my "let's knit something for each other" present-theme idea).

I come from a family of intergenerational divorce, which often creates a long-casting shadow of fragmentation across each new generation, particularly those that also involve divorce. My early childhood was sound and secure, filled with family gatherings that would put anyone else's holiday festivities to shame (not that we're in competition with each other, or are we?). And then my parents divorced and my family was cut in half. Unfortunately, the half I lost was the bigger and funner half, so from about 14 on my holidays were smaller and more somber, serving as a consistent reminder of what my family used to be, but wasn't any longer. So much fragmentation can act as a bit of a buzz kill during the holiday season.

When I got married I was filled with hope. Not just for my future in general, but also for my future holidays. I remember my first Christmas with such clarity, even though it was more than two decades ago. I cooked(ish) a turkey, I even baked(ish) a half-dozen pies. When I divorced, my family shrunk again (in-laws are funny that way), and as a single adult I once again found myself piggy-backing on others' holiday celebrations.

My on-again-off-again love affair with the holiday season became even more intense; more polarized when I had a child and became a single parent. As a new parent I wanted my son to experience all of the traditions, meaning and festivities surrounding each important holiday. But this became an increasingly daunting task as the years passed since somehow in the last few decades holidays went from tepid little friendly affairs to steroid-infused stratospheric olympic-style gala events. Try as I might to resist the temptation to keep up, I always ended up feeling that I was somehow letting my son down if we weren't one of 20 sitting around a table celebrating joyously, just like "everyone" else, with a house chock-full-o-over-the-top holiday decorations and cheer (and baking, lots and lots of baking).

Now I know that there are some independent souls out there who have successfully resisted social pressure and created their own, more moderate holiday traditions, some infused with religion, and some more secular in nature. I am not one of these people. For some reason the holidays bring out the envious side in me - the side that far too often looks over the fence at the very vibrant green grass on the other side, the side that makes me wonder -- am I the only one who seems to be lacking the holiday spirit? Am I the only one who doesn't have a giant extended family who all gets along, can cook and has perfectly coordinating schedules? Am I the only one who views cooking as a very boring (and life-threatening) endeavor? Well, according to Facebook it would appear as though I am. As evidence I cite the hundreds of photos posted during the holiday season of lovely family gatherings, tables filled with ample amounts of people and home-made food, and children scrambling about, with smiling elders looking on. Even the singles out there seem to have all found each other, evidenced by the multitude of photos featuring alternate holiday gatherings, where people who don't have large intact families have been successfully herded together for frolic-filled holiday fun. Yay for them! I hate you all.

Despite my holiday spirit impairment, I've somehow managed to rise to the occasion each and every holiday season (which apparently now lasts from October through April). I've put my super-holiday-mom hat on, and have done the holiday gods proud. Over the last 20 years, since my son was a baby, I have written upwards of two billion(ish) letters to a motley crew of holiday characters, including Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and the more recent (and inane) invention of some masochistic parents, a bunch of untamed leprechauns. I've embraced the true meaning of Halloween (now apparently a national holiday overtaking Thanksgiving and Christmas in its importance and cultural significance), and transformed my front yard into an eery graveyard with protruding bloody hands beckoning the neighborhood children toward the bowl filled with upscale candy. I quickly learned the very important difference between Thanksgiving and "Harvest day." I've sullied my living room floor with ash-filled Santa footprints as proof that he'd arrived. I've eaten so many reindeer carrots that my vision is now spot on. I've wrapped thousands of dollars of presents in "Mom wrapping" and "Santa wrapping" in order to keep the ruse going. I've created elaborate Easter "buckets" every year, filled with merchandise far out-pacing my childhood hard-boiled egg-filled paper straw baskets. And I've purchased an annual cache of candy-laden Valentine's Day cards for every student in my son's classes (because mere paper cards are apparently no longer sufficient).

Yet, no matter how much I try to muster the holiday spirit at a level that matches society's expectations, I'm always left with the feeling that it's never quite enough. I still worry about where my son and I will eat our holiday meals. I still worry that my funds will not hold out. And for those holidays when I've chosen to abandon my social loafing ways and cook a holiday meal myself (with fire extinguisher in hand), I worry about whether my table is big enough and whether I have enough chairs (and plates), and I worry about whether people will actually come.

My son is now in college, and while I know this doesn't reduce my parental holiday responsibilities, I'm tired. I'm so, so tired. I'm tired of feeling anxious and depressed around the holidays. I'm tired of wishing my family was anything other than what it is. I'm tired of wondering whether the holiday spirit will finally, once and for all, infuse me. I'm tired of trying to learn how to cook.

I'm in my 50s now, and I find myself challenging every "truth" I've previously accepted as inevitable, and with four pumpkin pies (one vegan) and a half uneaten turkey carcass taking up most of my refrigerator, I've decided once and for all that I. Am. Done. No more I say, to this elusive holiday spirit thing, and to these holiday expectations that require a professional event planner to pull off. I'm starting a new trend as of today, and I won't back down. I'm ordering Chinese for myself and my son on Christmas, and you're all invited; but bring your own chair, because I only have four.

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