The holidays are fraught with emotions – good and bad – for everyone. The season triggers joy, hope, gratitude, painful memories, past traumas, and current humiliations. Everyone’s emotional peaks and valleys can be extreme during the last two months of the calendar year. Spiked amidst a flurry of activity, events, and expectations, our feelings are always hovering just below the surface.
For single-parent households, most things tend to happen in extremes and the holiday season is certainly no exception. I have been a single parent for almost 3 years now and I can tell you the holidays are an annual shock treatment. Even if you’ve done it for years, grief and disappointment still find their way in. Every year, Satan attacks anew.
While there is a strong temptation to focus on one’s own family and expectations during this season, here are a few specific and meaningful ways to relate to single parents in your life, who likely find the holidays to be a particularly painful or trying time.
- Set boundaries when offering help. “Call me if you need anything” is always well intentioned and so rarely acted upon. It’s easy to offer platitudes and unspecified help. However, it is much easier to give and accept help when that offer comes with clear boundaries. “Please choose a night next weekend to go Christmas shopping by yourself and let us watch your kids.” “Would you & your kids like to go to the Live Nativity with us next Wednesday night?” People will readily say yes when they know a gift is given cheerfully and joyfully. Doing this with regularity will also bend your heart and your mind toward ministry in general. What a simple way to seek after the heart of our Heavenly Father.
- Small gestures are hugely encouraging. For my first single-parent Christmas, a dear friend gave me a gingerbread house kit from Trader Joe’s with a note saying she prayed that my daughter and I would begin to build our own holiday traditions that year. The whole gift cost less than $10 and three years later, I still have the note. Inexpensive and thoughtful gifts are the easiest to receive and can often be the most meaningful.
- Verbal encouragement. This may sound too simplistic, but friends, it is needed. I wept recently when a friend observed a challenging moment of parenting. She then spontaneously and sincerely said, “Hey, you’re a really good mom.” Single parents are navigating rearing children on their own, often second-guessing themselves. Having an objective voice spill unexpected kindness into their lives, especially when they are filled with doubt, is desperately needed.
- Live in community. Yes, I know, what an overused, cliched phrase. However, consider the Scriptural framework of community, particularly in Acts. In the early days of the church, Christians were a vast minority in a pagan Roman society. Everything about the culture they lived in was in direct opposition to the one they sought to build together as God’s people. Believers spent tremendous amount of time ministering to fellow believers and sharing one another’s burdens. Living in obedience to God in this way will bless not only the recipient but the giver as well. You and your family will experience God’s grace in a more profound way simply for having the vulnerability to live in community with families that are different from your own.
- Include us. Invite our family to join your family for something. Having our kids see other families is good and healthy. You could even invite a single parent, sans kids, to a Christmas party. The assumption always seems to be that a single parent might feel a bit awkward or out of place if several couples are getting together. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Adult time is good and healthy. We want to be there, so just invite us along, kids or no kids. Even if our answer is no, you have been thoughtful and intentional, which means a great deal. You’ve also let someone know that they are not forgotten.
- Specific acts of service. Not to be sexist here, but a single mom might need help physically getting a Christmas tree to her house and putting it up. She might need help hanging lights outside of her house. A single dad might not know about the latest stocking stuffers or how to bake Christmas goodies. Any single parent would greatly appreciate someone else taking a picture of them with their children. A single mom or dad might need help with assembly of Christmas gifts (a dollhouse, a bike, a basketball goal, Legos, etc.).
- Know that Christmas events can be tricky. Single parents often attend school pageants and performances alone. Sometimes the child’s other parent is also there. Such situations have all the comfort of an emotional minefield. Offering to save seats or planning to sit with a single parent so they aren’t navigating these situations alone is both simple and significant. Walking into a school gymnasium and knowing you have a friendly face to look for that has a seat saved for you is far better than any tangible gift I can think of. A family does this for my daughter and I every single Sunday at church and I look forward to it so much each week.
- Expand your circle when you can. Single parents might attend church alone on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I can tell you these are the times when the reality of being a single parent hits hard – I am relieved to be alone and I also feel the absence of my child. Invite them to sit with you or have a meal in your home with your family. The most understanding friends will say something like, “If you want alone time, please take it. If you don’t want to be alone, we would love to have you at our home.” What tremendous honesty and empathy.
Instead of assuming your holiday traditions are just like everyone else’s, step into other families’ lives where you can. Take initiative where you can be impactful and don’t assume your offer is a small thing. In my single parent life, I have often begged God to remind me I’m not alone, only to have a small act of kindness remind me of His presence. You can be the hands and feet of our Heavenly Father with so little effort. Reaching out will likely be a gift far more valuable than you could imagine.
For those truly eager to serve single parents well, check out our Ask Alice podcast: “Divorce and Coparenting During the Holidays: Practical Ways to Help Kids Transition Between Homes and Traditions.” A conversation between licensed professional counselor and divorced mom Sara Hadgraft and Rooted host Alice Churnock sheds further insight into the challenges of single parents and the generous grace of God who cares for all families.