Present Tense

How a random Target run helped a divorce mother of four learn to love Christmas season again.

After she and her husband divorced, mother of four Jennifer Ball dreaded Christmas with every fiber of her being—until a random Target run sparked a revelation. 


This Christmas will be the tenth since my husband and I split. And I’m actually looking forward to it—which, believe me, feels like a gift. 

For years after my divorce, the annual countdown to December 25th sent me into a neurotic eating-and-drinking-way-too-much downward spiral. Nonstop holiday tunes blasting on the radio and TV commercials starring perfect families opening perfect presents in their perfect living rooms made me want to curl up in the fetal position and just wait for December to end.

A few years ago, I told myself, No more. Not ever again. I’m a slow learner when it comes to certain things, so it took me a while to finally realize that it wasn’t Christmas I loathed. I just hated how I reacted to it. And whether I wanted to admit it or not, my piss-poor attitude toward the day and all it encompassed had likely done some damage to my kids, and definitely messed with my brain. I’d let my bad feelings leach the goodness out of the season and infect it with gloom. I was haunted, not only by the ghosts of Christmases past, but also by evil ghouls called WhatCouldHaveBeen and WhatShouldHaveBeen. I lived in the past and dreaded the present. 

To my surprise, the turnaround started with me rounding a corner at Target and stumbling straight into the Christmas section, all red, green and festive. A familiar and very unwelcome knot started forming, just below my heart. I think I may have actually even uttered “I hate Christmas” under my breath. Then something happened. I can’t pinpoint exactly why or how the truth hit me, but it did. And hard.

Here’s what I realized: My four kids were getting older by the second. In a few years, they’d be mostly grown. And gone. Off on their own adventures, living their own lives. Did I want their memories of Christmas to mostly be of a sad-faced mom, crying into her coffee as they opened their gifts? Or did I want them to remember their mom embracing the spirit of the season, grabbing it up in a big bear hug and telling melancholy and remorse to step off?

I knew they’d want the latter. And so did I.

Pretty much then and there, I decided to take back Christmas. And what’s more, I was going All In. Instead of just surviving, I would love it. Love it hard, like I did back in the days before the divorce, like I did when the kids were little and life was seemingly perfect. Because you know what? It was still perfect. Things had changed, that’s for damn sure. But it was still perfect in its own way.

Of course, money was tight. There wouldn’t be a ton of gifts, certainly not fancy laptops or iPhones or promises of a nice vacation anytime soon. I would have to wait until the 15th to start shopping, because my paycheck on the 1st went primarily to my landlord, and what was left had to cover groceries, gas and school lunches. Even so, I vowed to haul out the decorations, blast Christmas music and bake cookies in the shape of snowmen and trees and candy canes. I’d get a tree and decorate it to the hilt with my vintage Shiny Brite ornaments. Like I said—all in. 

Then and there I knew the biggest and best present I could give my kids was the gift of a happy mom. A mom who no longer cringed when someone innocently wished her a merry Christmas. A mom who might not be able to get them the hippest devices or the coolest clothes, but can absolutely give them something priceless: love. Love, and a lesson, which is this: Life can be hard. It can be awful and mean and hurt like a bitch. But you can’t let it scar you so badly that things which are beautiful and simple and meant to be enjoyed become dark and painful. I wanted to show my kids that life is good. Even when it feels like it’s not. 

Given where I was mentally a decade ago, this realization in itself feels like my own personal Christmas miracle.

By day, 40-something mom of four Jennifer Ball is a school secretary. The rest of the time, she writes about divorce, parenting teens, her slowing metabolism and other top-of-mind matters at