Long before I had children, I planned their Christmases. My own mum raised the bar with bulging pillowcase of presents, books by our bed and Santa’s footprints in the “snow” on the front lawn. When I became a mother, I paid heed. I couldn’t wait to carry on the traditions I’d grown up with, being the purveyor of mystery and wonder as she had been. Hand written letters from Santa, carrots munched by reindeer, the exact toys my kids ask for shoved in their sacks while they’re sleeping.
To spend Christmas apart from my children was never part of the plan. But every second year, that’s how it is.
As with countless separated and divorced ex-couples, their children spend part or all of their Christmas Day with the other parent – the one who’s ‘turn’ it is – as, in most cases, they should. It’s only fair. On the kids. But it means one parent is left behind to spend Christmas alone. This year, that’s me.
I’m happy that my two boys will be happy spending Christmas with their dad and extended family interstate. I’m all for it. Still, it’s not what I had in mind when I had them and means Christmas will be nothing like it’s cracked up to be. Like those grating supermarket ads with beaming intact families which pop up on high rotation every time I check the online news, taunting me with their unified front. I’m delighted for that fake family – and any real life ones like it. Really. But it just makes me panic.
Billed as the happiest day of the year, for many single parents Christmas is far from it.
“There’s a huge hole in your heart where your kids usually sit”, says my friend, Justine, who spends at least part of every Christmas Day alone, sharing custody of her two kids with their two dads. The one year she didn’t have her children with her at all, she went to Sydney to be with her mother. “I was so out of sorts I spent the day in tears. My mum didn’t feel like going out so I was stuck at home with a kilo of prawns and a bottle of Moet”.
Alex Laguna, founder of the Better Dads website, still recalls the pain of his first Christmas without his two young children nine years ago. “I was heartbroken”, he says. “I remember thinking this is pretty terrible. It triggered a memory of my childhood, after my parents divorced, crying in the car with my brother and sisters as my big brother drove us from one house to the other”.
The commonsense ‘rule’ about separation is that parents act in the best interests of their children in all decision making – financial, logistical and emotional. It’s sound advice meted out by psychologists, family mediators and even lawyers and is a vital touch point when trying to determine how to act. But when it comes to Christmas and all its heightened expectations, that child perspective yardstick often goes out the window.
“Just the thought of Christmas can hit separated couples very hard”, says family mediator Gloria Hawke, who reports a noticeable spike in business at this time of year. Mediators and family lawyers do a roaring trade over the festive season as ex couples scramble to meter out time with their kids.
“Christmas is supposed to be special. It represents family and togetherness”, she says. “So not celebrating Christmas the same way is like ‘final proof’ that the separation is real. For most people, it’s very sad to imagine not waking up with their children on Christmas morning. Discussion of what to do at Christmas can be a highly emotional trigger.
“Christmas is all about family but all of a sudden you’re on your own”, says Alex. “It’s hard to take. You have to put your own sadness aside and try to make things calm and happy for the kids”.
He recommends planning ahead so it doesn’t creep up on you. “I bring Christmas Day forward. It’s just a date. Enjoy your kids while you’ve got them”.
While it’s imperative to prioritise the kids, it’s important for parents to be happy too. Or at least appear to be. According to Gloria, as children get older they’re often empathetic to the feelings of their parents adding pressure on the ‘non Christmas parent’ to put on a happy face. “You don’t want them to feel responsible for your happiness”, she says. “Reassure them you’re OK so they don’t feel guilty about being with the other parent. Be the adult”.
That part I can do.
But days out and I’m still not sure what to do with myself on Christmas Day. Friends have rallied and there are numerous invitations, including from my brother and his family. Only I worry it might highlight my sense of displacement to be spending the day with other people’s children and not my own. I was tempted to duck off to a retreat in Bali but the one I had in mind is booked out that week. Presumably with others fleeing the feel good pressure. I could help out with a charity. Although, tellingly, there’s a wait list for that too. Or I could just take a deep breath and treat it like any other day. Even though it’s anything but.