December 21, 2017

4 Tips for Surviving the Holidays after we’ve Broken Up with our Mothers.

A friend recently asked me a question about the holidays.

It wasn’t your ordinary “What are you doing for Christmas?” kind of inquiry. You see, this is her first holiday season spent estranged from her mother. And she reached out to me because I have barely exchanged words with my own mother in almost three years.

I believe there’s a sort of unspoken bond between women who have “broken up” with their mothers.

They are the ones who understand you while the rest of the world looks at you in disbelief, and maybe even with a little scorn. Definitely with judgment. If someone hasn’t experienced a toxic relationship with a parent, their first thought is generally, “But she’s your mother!

As though giving birth renders a woman infallible…
As though “a mother’s love” is guaranteed selfless and pristine…
As though we should sacrifice our mental and emotional (and perhaps physical) health on the altar of the doting daughter…

Mothers are people, too, and while I love mine dearly, there simply came a time when I needed to set myself apart from her in order to grow.

It was not an easy decision to make.

It was over a year — closer to two years, really — before I was able to stop fighting with myself over my choice. By then, I could see how much more I was able to evolve without the ever-present cloud of her criticism hanging over me. I was able to move away from the nagging need to please her (an impossible task), and to begin exploring my own desires and ambitions. I was able to breathe.

What my friend wanted to know was if my first holiday without my mother was hard.

This question deserves a layered answer.

The season is so family-oriented that it’s almost impossible to separate “the holidays” from “family time,” and my family had been especially into traditions. We had a list of them to check off every year, running the gamut from our annual engraved ornaments to Toys for Tots donations to the special “pie cookies” my brother and I always made with my dad. I have so many happy holiday memories from my youth, and there were so many traditions I’d wanted to carry on.

But when my dad died, my mother stopped celebrating Christmas.

I was 22 that year, and my boyfriend at the time was not very “into” Christmas, either. I spent the next (I don’t want to think about how many) years struggling to “create” the holidays on my own. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I decided to stop talking to my mother, so I’m really not sure which Christmas counts as my first without her. I suppose it doesn’t matter. They have all been hard. I miss my dad, I miss my mom, and I miss the family that we used to be.

I offered my friend some insight.

This season is difficult enough on both of us as it is — with my having lost my dad and her having her own losses to consider — and the mother wound compounds that difficulty. But having been through the holidays without my parents for some time now—and having struggled so dearly with (and consistently failing at) creating Christmas—I have a unique perspective on this situation.

If you’re struggling to get through the holidays this year without a parent or loved one, allow me to offer the best advice that I can.

The biggest lesson I learned over the years was that I hadn’t simply been trying to “create” Christmas. I was trying to re-create Christmas. I was trying to bring all my old traditions into a new environment, and they just didn’t fit. It was like trying to put on clothes from when I was twelve — the attempt caused nothing but struggle. It wasn’t going to work no matter how much I sucked it in. So…

1. Create new traditions.

Trying to revive the things you did with your loved one in the past may bring you comfort…or it may bring you heartache. Probably some of both. It’s up to you to decide if those traditions still work for you, but I highly recommend integrating at least a few new ones into your holiday to-do list. It’s a sign of growth, and of moving forward. Don’t let yourself remain trapped in a cycle of mourning and memories.

2. Do it differently.

Last year, my boyfriend and I spent Christmas at home with an old friend I hadn’t seen since high school, and a friend of hers I hadn’t met before. We ate plenty of delicious food and stayed up until 3 a.m. watching the entire first season of “Stranger Things.” We had no tree, and presents were at a minimum. We strung lights from the ceiling and hung a score of dollar-store ornaments from them. And you know what? Winging it made that the best adult Christmas I think I’ve ever had. So don’t be afraid to go against the norm and do things your way.

3. Keep it simple.

If you’re already having a hard time emotionally, you don’t need the extra burden of the holiday excess. Shave down the shopping. Ask (or pay) a neighbor to put up your lights. Get pre-made sides and dessert if you don’t feel like spending much time in the kitchen. Many places offer cooked turkey or ham, as well. Pare your to-do list down to the essentials and stick with what brings you the most joy.

4. Be with those who love you.

For some people, this might mean a large extended family gathering. If that’s not feasible, or if you’re like me and don’t care for crowds, it’s also nice to just be with your significant other, your immediate family, and/or a couple of friends. You’d be surprised, too, how many people have nowhere to go over the holidays, so don’t be afraid to reach out — whether that’s to invite friends or family over to your place, or to ask a friend if you might join them and their family.

Losing someone you love is always hard, and the holidays tend to be the hardest.

Having experienced both, I’m still not sure which is harder: by death (because it’s final) or by choice (because that’s one heck of a choice, even when it’s a healthy one). But I’ve made it through. I have found my balance and — though it was lost for a very long time — I have regained the ability to enjoy the holidays.

If you are without someone you love as this season surrounds us, my heart goes out to you, and I wish you the healing and growth that I have finally come to know for myself.



An Open Letter to Single Parents who are Alone on Christmas.

The Buddhist View of Loneliness as a Good Thing.



Author: Justin Haley Phillips
Image: Pixabay 
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Social Editor: Nicole Cameron

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Ron Laswell Dec 24, 2017 12:52am

J Haley Phillips Thanks for your kind words. Lately, I've been thinking about writing a book, a novelization kinda, and "changing the names to protect the innocent." Ha ha! There is SO much that I could write about. Like when I left to enter the military, the last thing my mom said as I left was, "don't bring any black girls back here." I was shocked! Up until that moment, she had never said anything to me about bringing any girl home! Years later I confronted her about that day, and she said she did not remember saying that. To top it all off, the last thing my dad said was not to come back and live at home. No I love you, no sense of missing me. Makes you wonder about the 60,000 service-people who died in Nam - did anyone ever tell them they loved them?

J Haley Phillips Dec 23, 2017 4:03pm

The mother wound runs deep... I'm so sorry to hear about your father, and I hope you've managed to come through all of this stronger and still able to find plenty of joy. Merry Christmas <3

J Haley Phillips Dec 23, 2017 4:01pm

Wishing you a merry Christmas, and all the joy your heart can hold. :) Thank you so much for the validation of your comment here... it's a blessing to know my words are reaching those who need them.

J Haley Phillips Dec 23, 2017 3:59pm

Your whole story pulled me in, but your last sentence hit home with quite the punch. That's exactly right - we cannot save them from themselves, and sometimes we simply must love them from a distance. Thank you, and Merry Christmas. <3

Tiffany Parker Dec 22, 2017 4:52pm

I have been NC with my mother for a few years now. My mother is narcissistic and bipolar. Among the terrible things she has done, one of them was choosing between my sister and my Dad in the midst of their nasty divorce. I chose my sister. My Dad passed away before we had the chance to reconcile. I have heard many of the same comments you mention in this piece. "She's your mother" blah blah blah. No one can truly understand until they have witnessed the pain a parent can inflict on their own child.

Ron Laswell Dec 22, 2017 4:36pm

Even tho I'm 69 yrs old, and now single, I can totally relate to what you are saying, Haley. I have NEVER been one for family traditions, even as a kid. Everytime some traditional setting was foisted onto me, it meant I could not be myself for that time. Back in 1966 when I graduated from high school (Viet-Nam conflict was going on) I joined the army, and basically had nothing to do with my family until I was 27. In spite of the time interval, when I did finally attend a family gathering they were like strangers to me. Who are these people? Why do they keep calling me "son" or "brother"? There was nothing I found interesting about them, and I did not want to be friends with them. Mostly because they were not nice to me. Did they ask me how I felt about anything, or show any genuine interest in what I was doing? No. Instead, all I heard from them were negative, sarcastic, and critical comments interspersed with vulgarities. The same emotional abuse I put up with as a child, but now just minus the physical abuse that I had put up with that the first 18 yrs of life. It was incomprehensible to me that I had changed, but they had not! Still the same people. In fact, that was a big criticism that my ex-wife had with me, she claimed I changed so much that she never knew who I was. Based upon conversations I've had with other people in similar situations, our personal solitude may not be as uncommon as you think. What I've discovered over the years is that I am a spiritual being first, and a human being second. So I always choose to honor my spiritual essense over the lower-dimensional habits most people learn as children. Family for me has become those similar souls who recognize their spirituality as being more important than imitating older non-spiritual traditions. The older idea of "family" I now see as a ghost that wants us to go back and recognize an illusion that was the only reality that soul knew. I love them, but it is not up to me to rescue them from themselves.

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Justin Haley Phillips

Haley Phillips is a writer, editor, adventurer, and hippie spirit. She loves tea, books, long skirts, and road trips, and gets a wild thrill out of engaging in random acts of kindness. As much as she loves exploring the world and making friends, however, Haley is quite the introvert and can often be found cozied up with a hot cuppa while reading a good book or watching a favorite musical. If you are so moved, please feel free to connect with her on Facebook.