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Where's the Christmas Magic When You're Broke?

An out-of-work single mom struggles to create holiday magic for her son

Published on: November 30, 2017

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I’m a single mom, and while I’ve never been rich, I’ve always been proud that I’ve managed to do well on my own in the years following my divorce. I had a good job for the last three years as a writer in a marketing company, with a great benefits package. I really enjoyed my work, even though it could be challenging.

But that changed in July. Business was struggling and I was laid off from my position. While I'm fortunate enough to qualify for unemployment benefits, the money is only a fraction of what I was previously making. I figured it would be a month, maybe two, before I could secure another job. I assumed we’d barely notice the change in our lifestyle or my ability to pay the bills.

I was wrong. After more than four months of unemployment, a lot of phone interviews and several in-person interviews, I’ve only gotten close a couple of times — and the offers haven’t materialized. In my working lifetime, I've never interviewed for a job that wasn’t immediately followed by an offer. Until now, that is. My inability to land a new job has really rocked me, and I've felt terrified and depressed. I have no insurance. What’s left of savings is slowly dwindling. I don’t know how much longer I can do this.

Household spending has pretty much ground to a halt. There is still TV, but the Cartoon Network is gone, much to my son’s consternation. The weekend fun things had to stop: No more trips to the indoor trampoline place, no more going on a Target run and then grabbing Mexican food for lunch. I haven’t taken my kid to the food pantry yet, but that’s only because I go when he’s at school.

I haven’t taken my kid to the food pantry yet, but that’s only because I go when he’s at school

My son hasn’t questioned why people come over and bring lunch or dinner or groceries. I have very generous friends, and people come over regularly anyway, so I don’t think he thinks it’s that unusual. But now that it’s Christmas shopping season, and I still don’t have a job, I’m not sure how to handle it.

This is most certainly his last year for believing in Santa (he’s 8), a belief that is hanging by an ever-thinning strand. The big selling factor in years past has been his belief that I don’t have a lot of money, so there’s no way I could buy all the gifts Santa buys. Now, I actually don’t have the money; joke’s on me, I guess.

His dad always overdoes it with the gifts, so if things are seriously uneven at his place vs. mine in terms of Santa gifts, it’s going to look weird. I can’t tell my ex, “Hey, don’t buy our kid so many gifts because I’m broke.”  He likes indulging our son, especially at Christmas, and it’s not my place to tell him otherwise. But now, with most of my credit cards shut down and all my money going towards rent, gas and utilities, I don’t know what to do.

I know I'm lucky. So many people have it worse. We have food on our table every night, a roof over our head, clothes to wear, heat and running water. But how do you make Christmas look big and exciting for a little boy, possibly the last “Santa” Christmas he will ever have, when it by necessity has to be small?

How do you make Christmas look big and exciting for a little boy when it by necessity has to be small?

The answer turns out to be that I am literally a charity case. My friends, who refuse to let me scrape along the bottom alone, have insisted on helping. Instead of sponsoring a family through work, they’ve selected my son and asked what he wants. A girl I haven’t talked to in years came out of the woodwork and contacted me, asking for a list for his gifts. Another has asked his sizes and what clothes he will wear (kids can be so picky, even poor kids). Another friend mailed me a check to use to make the holiday season bright however I see fit.

Do you know how hard it is to accept? Do you know how much this has made me cry? I have been so proud of taking care of everything myself. To accept and receive help from others, who insist it is in with the spirit of the giving season, is harder than you can imagine.

As my son and I decorate our tree this year, each ornament I hang, I will think of my friends, and how this is really what friendship is about. There may not be a Santa, but my friends are as close as it gets.

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