The holidays are coming. This is the first time in my kids’ history that I won’t be able to buy their happiness.
In my former life, I was a six-figure earner in a career that took much of my time—which would have been acceptable except that I didn’t love it, so when I was available, it was with a drained soul. To make up for my part-time, spiritually absent mothering, I bought my kids’ contentment and entertainment. Every weekend, a trip to Target yielded new trinkets. They learned about organic from the aisles of Whole Foods as $10 finger puppets, hand-woven by natives of somewhere, were thrown into the cart for added credibility. They were unleashed into the city’s discovery museums and uber-playgrounds so I could mentally nap. Christmas was an exhilarating opportunity to make them almost unconscious with glee: I glowed with pride at the stacks of toys, clothes, and boxed intellectual stimuli I was able to give in lieu of my time.
Then, life became the anti-Christmas. For three years running, I gave them the opposite of comfort: a move to a foreign country, a divorce, my cancer and three surgeries (to which most of my savings went). Their dad even contributed to the inside-out stocking-stuffer: a new, pregnant (twins!) live-in girlfriend within mere months of my move-out. I had slowly worked a boyfriend into the picture. My daughter feared he was taking me away; my son latched on and couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to be their step-dad. For those and other reasons, said boyfriend slowly wormed his way back out of the picture.
And the last “And to all a good night!”: My newly budding business failed.
Last Christmas, out of guilt for the chaos I had given them, I pilfered the bottom of my savings for a load of presents. And that was the end of that. I had nothing left to distract them from our new reality. It was just us, starting from scratch.
With holes in our underwear and the hemlines rising above my kids’ ankles, the coming months offered the best opportunity of our lives: to learn what we do with nothing but ourselves.
I panicked when faced with how to “be” with my kids—passing the days without somehow buying an experience or distraction. People said, “Don’t worry. They just want your attention!” I couldn’t comprehend it. I became depressed and resentful. I had lost my tools and didn’t know where to start.
We live in a place where poverty is rampant. Yes, there’s crime and anger. But overwhelmingly, I see families creating moments of ease and joy. Mothers and sisters sit the young girls on their laps on front porches and braid their hair. The boys play catch and make jokes. At the beach, they make drip castles and swim in their clothes if they can’t afford bathing suits. Meals of soup and bread are savored. There’s a confidence in the kids that outshines their tattered clothes and dirty faces.
Even though I was able to see this beauty, it still seemed a world completely separate from mine until one day, sitting on the beach and watching my kids push through a lackluster energy and boredom to play in the water, something hit me. At the end of the day, when everything falls apart, we all still have one thing: our self. As our only true possession, we’d better care for it and make the best use of it possible.
And I was making little use of mine.
I rose. As I walked to the water, their faces exploded in unison with smiles and squeals of “Mommy!” They each grabbed a hand and pulled me in. We filled the plastic boat with as many sand fiddlers as we could find, buried body parts in the sand, and made fabulous necklaces from seaweed. My 6-year-old looked me in the eye and said “This is the best day ever!”
It was true. They really did just want me. All those tools I thought I lost? I had the only one I needed all along.
Since then, we have become artists: We decorate our trees with mobiles made from painted rocks and wire. Our walls are plastered with drawings of imaginary creatures in the wildest colors. Meals and snacks are treated as a treat, given with love and taken with gratitude. We talk a lot more over dinner. While they watch TV, I make a point to sit with them, give them little foot massages or put their heads in my lap.
I have been open and clear about the reasons for our temporary economic circumstances. Yes, they still complain when I won’t buy them a toy. But they seem to shrug it off and just start a conversation about something else. They seem happy.
But what about the magic of Santa? This Christmas, I explained, Santa has extra work to do for kids in other countries who are suffering the effects of wars (he might not even be able to find some of them who are leaving their countries this year), and for the kids around here (whom they can see) hit by tough times. He loves us and knows we are safe and happy, so he will visit with a few small things (things people need is the theme this year) and help mommy out with a coupon for a day of fun, but he’s going to focus more this year on the kids who are having a harder time than we are.
Guess what? They want to make something to send the kids of war, and they said it’s fine if Santa saves some things for next year.
So what will this Christmas be to a broke, checkmark-next-to-almost-every-life-challenge single mom and two kids? A peaceful and cozy time of music, creativity, cooking, talking and laughing with friends.
Fewer presents. More presence.