It was 19h on a Friday night, early December. My kids were away at their dad’s for the weekend, giving me time to breathe and gather my thoughts. Or my wits. But all I could do was try to keep my eyes open. And if I could get one coherent sentence out that would be great. I was eyeing my bed, fully well knowing that I would end up tossing and turning instead of getting the deep sleep I so desperately needed.
After months of doing this alone, I was now smack in the middle of the festive season. My first one as a single mama. With two small kids, who wanted all the magic and lights and cheer that Christmas promised. But I was so tired. Tired of working full days while being the sole provider of every meal, outfit change, cleaning spree, maintenance issue, or lift. I was being pulled into hundreds of different directions, flinging on hats so fast that most of them ended up on the floor. Peacemaker, storyteller, driver, cook, cleaner, philosopher, teacher, cheerleader, nurse, judge, jury, referee, most of them before it was even noon. Now, add to that list keeper of all things festive, including puppeteer with 4 elves in her charge, orchestrater of fun festive activities, baker, gift-buyer and wrapper, Santa-impersonator, tree-erector and decorator, and finder of Christmas movies.
A single mama Christmas comes with layers of expectations and emotions. Sure, most of these expectations you put on yourself, but so many others are placed on you by (most of the time) well-meaning friends and family. So often single mamas feel guilty because their kids have to spend the Christmas holidays floating between 2 houses, or maybe they feel guilty because there is no other parent. Or maybe they are cloaked in sadness. Frustration because there are only so many hours in the day. Anxiety because a single income becomes even more strained when you want to budget for merriment and celebration. Maybe you are in an industry that becomes even harder as you near the end of the year, or it might be your busiest time.
Either way, no matter what type of single parent you are or the reason why you are a single parent, the festive season brings with it a list of extra worries, fears and challenges. And when placed on shoulders that are already sagging under the weight of just the normal responsibilities, burnout becomes a very real possibility. And one that must be avoided at all costs.
Much more than just a feeling (or a lack of feeling, since one of the symptoms of mommy burnout, is detachment from your emotions), burnout can best be described as a culmination of all those irritating moments found in mom-life, amplified by environmental stressors, with a good dose of tired thrown in just for good measure. Once at that point, it affects your emotional and physical well-being, causing feelings of inadequacy, resentment and detachment from family and work life, and life, in general, becomes overwhelming and mostly impossible.
According to psychologist Sheryl Ziegler, signs of mommy burnout may include forgetfulness, tearfulness, irritability, repeated escape fantasies, and resentment towards your ex, your kids and even other moms (especially if they’re perceived as enjoying more freedom). Add to that brain fog and a loss of words (word salad anyone?) and you have one very merry party…
But how to avoid this? How do you avoid what seems inevitable – the stress of the season, the added pressure of wanting to give your kids everything they deserve and desire, and the loneliness? Here are my top tips for avoiding going down this path, especially important if you were unable to get away on a break:
- Get enough sleep – I know, I am laughing as well. But all jokes aside, do try to get as much sleep in as possible. Hack your sleep so that whatever shuteye you do get in, is quality sleep. That means changing your routine to avoid screens at least an hour before bed, drinking a good magnesium supplement, ensuring your room is dark and cool, that you have a comfortable pillow, and that there are no distractions. This way, you are making any sleep you do get count.
- Lower your expectations – although you feel as if you have to be superwoman, you are not, and nobody can really expect you to be. Let some of the things you wanted to do, go. You do not have to fill every day with festive activities, your kids are not going to be left wanting if they do not do all the things. Allow for downtime, quiet time and independent play. This will give you time to breathe.
- Get into nature – even if this looks like 5 min of barefoot standing in the grass. Just get out, and see something green. Take the kids with. Nature gives them a yes space – space where they can be kids, screaming and running and being chaotic. Again, breathing space for you.
- Be consistent – although the festive season is known for overindulgence, try to limit this as much as possible. Not only will you feel better, more energised and in more control by sticking to your usual diet and lifestyle schedule, you will also make it easier to go back to normal after the silly season is over. This applies to your exercise routine, your sleep routine, and even your beauty routine.
- Declutter and minimise – this one might be impossible, or feel like it at least. But try to keep your surroundings manageable. If the kids are with you EVERY SINGLE MOMENT OF EVERY DAY then categorise their toys and decide on one or two categories that are out at any given time. Pack the rest away. When they are done playing with those, rotate them. Pack away the art supplies that make more mess than what you can handle – yes, looking at you glitter – and only bring them out on the days that you have the bandwidth to handle the cleaning up afterwards. Encourage the people in your life who give gifts, to keep the gifts simple and thoughtful. And with as few toys as possible. For my tips on minimal gift-giving, read my post on the 4 gift rule here.
- Get a bubble buddy – someone you know and trust in whom you can confide when things feel as if they are getting out of hand. Someone who can help pull you back in when you veer of course, and someone who can help lighten the load on those days when you just feel it is all too much and too heavy to bear alone.
- Be present – not be the present, but rather be in the moment. So often we live far in the future, allowing those anxieties and fears to determine how we react now. When you feel your angst levels creeping up, whether about finances or workload or other responsibilities, train your mind to come back to the now. Focus on something that is in front of you, taking in all the detail. Whether that is your child’s face, where you notice and make a mental picture of every freckle, the way her mouth’s corners curl up when she is smiling, or the way she twirls her hair when she is concentrating, or the rug under your feet (even if it is full of crumbs and mud and whatever they had for breakfast) – give your full attention to whatever is in front of you. You will feel your mind relax, and that will allow anxiety’s grip on you to soften until you feel calm and free. Although your worries are sometimes important, unless you can do something about them at that exact moment you are not serving anyone by focussing on them.
Being a single mama is hard, one of the hardest things I have ever attempted on my own. The festive season makes it even harder. I understand the feelings of loneliness, of failure, of regret, that inevitable creeps up as you watch other seemingly perfect families celebrate together. You feel guilty that you could not give that to your kids. You resolve to work harder the next year so that you will be in a better position the next Christmas.
Mama, if that is you, then please hear me. Read this as many times as you need in order for it to sink in and lie in your heart –
You are enough. Your kids are lucky to have you. All that you are, is exactly what they need. The joy and beauty of Christmas is not found in presents or expensive dinners, but in togetherness, in community and in life. Stop striving to be all, to all, all the time.
Follow the tips I have given above, and have a merry and bright Christmas time.