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“Mama, how many sleeps until Santa comes?”
I look at my seven-year-old daughter; her eyes are alive with excitement and her smile reveals her missing front tooth. It’s only a matter of time before the other one falls out. When it does, I know I will indulge in a good cry. My baby with the gummy grin is long gone.
The young girl before me still believes in St. Nick—for now. By this time next year, she might not, and as her mother, I want to do everything in my power to make this time of year extra-magical and memorable for her.
Because this is my first Christmas as a single mom.
If you had asked me last year if I thought my marriage would crumble amidst the chaos and loss of a global virus, I would have called the idea farfetched. If you had told me my little family of three would be split down the middle, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Yet here we are.
“Fifteen,” I finally answer her, counting down the days in my own head to see how much time I have left to mentally prepare for the holidays.
It’s always been such a special time of year for me, ever since I was a little girl growing up. I remember my sister and I laying out our stockings, waking up at five in the morning, nearly bursting from the thrill of it all. Waiting for my parents to get up so we could head downstairs and see all the gifts Santa had delivered.
Once my daughter came along, I wanted to continue some of the same traditions I had grown up with, like my dad reading “The Night Before Christmas” after we left out some cookies and milk for St. Nick.
My ex’s family always celebrated on Christmas Eve, however, so sometimes we would get home quite late, and my daughter would be half-asleep and worn out, in no mood to put out food or hear an old-fashioned story. The lack of time that night always hurt my heart a bit, and I knew I had the next day to follow our other Christmas traditions as we celebrated with my side of the family.
But this year is going to look totally different—for her, and for me.
The emotional challenges of solo parenting in the run-up to Christmas are overwhelming. Last weekend I lugged our Christmas tree up from the basement and then nearly lost it when I couldn’t put the base together. Then my daughter stepped in and figured it out. She also solved the mystery of how to attach the three strings of lights.
When I hung up the stockings, I felt tears spring to my eyes. Our two cats had one each, so the total this year was four, instead of the usual five.
I paused, dreading the inevitable question.
“Where’s Papa’s stocking?”
A major part of my job as a newly single mom is navigating through my own pain and loss to be strong for my daughter. But I’ve also learned that it’s okay to sometimes be honest and open about my feelings with her.
“Papa doesn’t live here anymore,” I replied. “So it’s just ours and the cats’ this year.”
“Does that make you sad?”
I place the wreath on the door and decorate the rest of the house while she’s at school. I don’t want to answer any more of those heartwrenching questions, but I know they’ll come all the same, along with the more childlike ones, such as, “Can Santa see you in the bathroom?” or “What if he burns his butt on the way down our chimney?”
Not only is this Christmas strange because my husband and I have separated, but it’s also happening in a new COVID world that’s hard to recognize. Instead of going to the mall or shopping locally, I am buying mostly everything online. There are no get-togethers with friends or holiday work parties. Instead, people around the world are sick and dying.
All any of us truly want is a vaccine.
But children need a sense of hope, a light of some kind, and the comfort of routine. And so I get out the paper for my daughter to write her letter to Santa so we can mail it together and make sure it gets to the North Pole on time.
I will still buy her a new pair of holiday pyjamas, an old tradition I will carry on alone. But I’m determined to make new ones, also. I buy an Advent calendar and try to explain the meaning behind Christmas, instead of just focussing on how many toys she has on her list. I also commit to seriously doing Elf on the Shelf, even setting an alarm on my phone every night so I won’t forget to move him to some new and funny place. I have other ideas, like baking holiday cookies, even if they turn out to be a shapeless-yet-delicious mess.
I imagine Christmas morning, both of us eagerly rushing down the stairs to see what’s under the tree. Usually I might film this scene, but I know this year it will be more important than ever to just be present, making sure she knows I am there, and just how much I love her.
If you had asked me four months ago if I’d have the inner strength to do make Christmas special for my daughter, I would have said “no chance.” But I’ve learned an important lesson since then: Moms are incredibly strong and resilient when it comes to their kids, and we’ll do anything to see them happy, especially after a terrible year with so many changes.
It may look and feel different, and take some getting used to, but I’m confident that our first Christmas will be special and memorable. Undoubtedly, I’ll also feel a pang for things past, but that’s to be expected, and I know as time goes on, I’ll feel it less and less. I’m so proud of the way my daughter and I have grown closer over the last few months, strengthening our bond.
I never expected a global pandemic and a major life change to present me with such an unexpected gift.