What’s worse than Holiday shopping? Holiday shopping as a single woman.

Shopping in December, hellish as it can be, why do we do it? What’s really going on when you head to the mall? Shopping is analogous to active enrollment in the biggest ritual of social expectations there is, The Holidays. And if you’re single, holiday shopping can do a real number on you.

Here’s a single girl’s insight on what’s really at play, and how to navigate the Yule Tide with your self-respect intact.

Being single at a time that’s all about family can make you feel like an Outsider, a Gate Crasher, the one who gets to sleep on the couch at family gatherings. At the holiday meal (always at someone else’s house) well-meaning loved ones, raise their glasses to the hope that THIS year, will be the year you find The One. Shopping for family means shopping for your Sister’s kids, not knowing what the heck the difference between size 4 and 4T is.

Nowhere is it more apparent that you are single, than in the Holiday Card category. That’s why for 15 years now; I’ve been photographing scenes of artificial holiday bliss, with a fake family of mannequins. I got very tired of other people sending me holiday cards, complete with adorable photos of growing kids, and puppies wearing Santa hats. As a single, childfree woman, how could I display my developments over the past year? Was a family a badge of honor, and of a life well lived? Was I outside, looking in the Holiday window, at what I lacked? Did I need to go buy a puppy and a Santa Hat? I thought, why don’t I just buy a family? (Albeit a fiberglass one.) Taking charge of the situation, as if a credit card purchase would solve what others perceived as my incompletion as a woman.

Of course, that’s ridiculous. Ha! As if, a purchase could fix… Wait. Fix what? Fix what’s wrong? Who does that?
This brings me to the first of my Holiday Navigation Guidelines for Single Women.

#1. The garland is always greener on the other side of the relationship fence. There is nothing wrong. You are not in a holding pattern for happiness. Realize that you already have what you need. You are not missing half of something. You are, in or out of a relationship, still the same groovy chick. Social circumstances don’t change that.

#2. Relax and let the good times roll. It’s the only time when we all feel justified for putting a stick in the hamster wheel, and focusing our attention on good times. It’s the only time when we feel guiltier for working than we do for sloughing off. Run with this part, it’s got a lot more to do with the Yuletide glow than any other aspect. This brings me to the third rule.

#3. Love the one youre with. The Holidays are good for one thing. It’s a time when we collectively agree to focus on relationships. Try this paradigm shift on for size. You are not Single. You are part of a network of all the humans in your life. Realize that a nuclear family is only one potential reflection of that far-reaching network. Tell that to your Mom, when she asks you when you’re going to get married.

#4. Bow to the power of a fantasy to motivate.
I like Christmas lights. When it gets dark at 4:30, I think turning on some holiday lights is a great, even medicinal idea, to get through the season of darkness. I have Christmas fantasies too, and, they are beautiful; very well art directed. The location is a Vermont log cabin, where everything smells like scotch pine, where we’ve all come together, not because we have to, but, because we want to. We don’t care about presents, just that there is enough maple syrup, and coffee to go around. There we have deep, poignant, yet unscripted, conversations that mark who and where we are in the process of life, and our deep appreciation of it all. It’s a place and time, where we are not only free to be, but actually are, our best selves, for one whole week. Maybe that’s delusional, but that’s what I’m aiming for when I go down to the kitchen and start the pancakes on Christmas morning.

#5. Understand why we need to shop.
We need it to forgive ourselves. I know it sounds crazy, but holiday shopping provides us with another chance to be better human beings. It’s unusual for people to be at their best, on demand, simply because it’s the Holidays. Yet when we shop, that is what a store represents to us, an on demand means to take home a feeling of togetherness. It is what we want, the rare sighting of fully actualized human beings in captivity. A captivity of time, the one time we hold as sacrosanct, the last weeks of the passing year. The year that got away. All those years that got away from us. But THIS year, THIS year, we declare it will be different. It is a chance to be better, we will be more, feel more. We will reach out, we will not shrink back, as we might have in the past. Damn it! THIS year, I will be my best self. Because, I know last year, I fell short. But THIS year…I’m going to get it right. It’s going to be the best ever.
Here’s to an extraordinary holiday for you and yours. I hope you got all your shopping done.