With the divorce rate in the UK at around 42%, which doesn’t account for relationship breakups where the couple haven’t made a legal commitment, more and more parents are having to face the tricky subject of Christmas and how to share their children’s time.
Where there is animosity between you and your ex, it can be a really difficult time, and even if you are on amicable terms it can still be an emotionally charged time; add into the mix your children and it’s likely to be an even more difficult time.
As Christmas draws closer
It’s likely to bring up memories of previous years of happier times spent as a family, as well as mixed and understandably, varied emotions connected to your partner and the breakdown of your relationship.
As their mum, you want your children to be with you, and the prospect of them being with their dad instead can be really upsetting.
Whether the arrangement for your kids to share time with each parent is for part or all of the Christmas period, it’s likely that each alternate year you are not going to spend that magical time with them, waking on Christmas morning and sharing their excitement.
Once we have children, Christmas changes.
No more going to pubs on Christmas Eve and having a few too many, waking with one heck of a hangover on Christmas morning. Instead, you are likely to be wrapping last-minute presents, putting out treats for Father Christmas and his reindeer and making those special finishing touches that bring smiles to their faces.
The months (yes months – I swear I saw the first hints of Christmas in the stores in August this year!) leading up to Christmas can feel miserable as you face the prospect of celebrating Christmas without your children. You are reminded daily as your children talk about it, you see adverts on TV, and the endless school events leading up to it.
You feel that knot in your stomach
Emotions rear up: hurt, sadness, anger, and grief. And that’s ok, so don’t beat yourself up for feeling that way. Remember you are not alone, there are many others who feel just as miserable at the thought of Christmas. Those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, lost their job or have money worries, and let’s not forget those who hate sprouts!
It’s just not fair
It really can feel unjust, especially if you have taken the lion’s share of their care during the rest of the year. I remember feeling angry that as a single parent myself, how it was me that was up night after night when they had sickness bugs, or made the dash to hospital and then waited nervously as my daughter underwent surgery for appendicitis with no support from my ex. Why should he be entitled to have the fun times with them when it was me that had to deal with the everyday responsibility and care of them?
It seems to put a dampener on the whole festive season
Talking to one mum she told me that Christmas just isn’t the same without her children. In fact, she just can’t summon up any enthusiasm around the festive season. She feels disengaged from the whole event, that without her children around her, she just doesn’t feel whole. I’m sure there are many mums who feel that way too.
Let yourself off the hook!
I want to reassure you that these feelings are perfectly normal. You wouldn’t be a mum if you didn’t feel some — if not all — of these feelings. Added to this, you may be worried about the kind of Christmas they might have. Even secretly scared they might have a better time than with you. Concerned that you can’t compete with the lavish gifts they’ll receive from their dad and his family and friends.
You are allowed to have these feelings and have a good cry too. Acknowledge these thoughts and feelings, but just don’t wallow in them for too long, or allow them to engulf you completely. You can’t change the situation and allowing those feelings to completely take over you will only make you more miserable and probably affect your children. And as a loving mum, that’s the last thing you want for them.
Whether we like it or not our children have the right of access to both parents (except of course in extreme situations). Of course, your ex won’t do things the right way in your eyes because he doesn’t have the same daily contact as you. And the chances are he won’t have the same parenting approach. But in reality, your precious offspring are unlikely to come to any real harm in just a few days. Although, be prepared for them to act out when they come home. They are likely to be struggling with their feelings around the two people they love most in the world not being together as a family.
Resist the temptation to let your children know how you feel
If they feel you are unhappy, they won’t enjoy themselves, they will feel guilty and it will spoil their Christmas. If you tell them you are going to miss them, and that you are going to spend your time curled up in a corner, crying all the time, they will worry and it will have a huge negative impact on them, not only this year but maybe for many years to come.
This is a time you need all your acting skills…
…at least in front of your kids. Let rip and share your true feelings with a good friend who will listen, but won’t add to your negative feelings – it really is good to talk and let your emotions out. Don’t bottle them up!
Having acknowledged your feelings, and worries — let’s spend some time thinking about you, and some practical things to help you through.
1. If your children are old enough, include them in the planning beforehand, so they feel part of it. Secure in knowing who is doing what and when. Include in the plan when you are going to have your present exchange time. Plan the special toys or belongings they need to make them feel comfortable — within reason of course. There won’t be room in their luggage for all 15 teddies! And don’t forget to allow some degree of flexibility in case things don’t go exactly to plan. Make it as stress-free as possible.
2. Decide together when you are going to celebrate your own ‘special’ Christmas time together. It can be any day you decide together in December. You can do anything; it doesn’t have to be expensive or lavish – but it does need to be fun and enjoyable. Spending time together is the most important thing, and your children will love the idea of having two special events to look forward to. You could even tell them that Santa is making an extra delivery. Be inventive and have some fun with the plans.
3. Arrange a specific time in advance to call/Facetime them on Christmas Day, even if it’s only to wish them a Happy Christmas. That way you are more likely to be able to speak to each other and it avoids disappointment on both sides. Avoid telling them you are missing them too much, and reassure them you are ok and having a good time. (they really don’t need that guilt trip)
4. Despite any reservations, you may have as to whether they are having a good time, (even if they say so) be fair to your ex-partner and remember he deserves time with his children too, as much as the children deserve time with their dad. Ok, he may not be the best dad in the world, but allow your children to make up their own minds. It felt like I was dying inside doing this. But I knew the risk would be my girls would turn against me later on. (I haven’t said this is going to be easy).
How are you going to spend this time?
Exactly how you want to!
You don’t have to worry about anyone else, you can spend the time exactly as you want to.
If you don’t want to spend it with family and friends, don’t feel obliged to. You can get up at whatever time you want and spend time doing things you can’t when your children are around.
•Go for a leisurely walk.
•Have a long soak in the bath
•Spend the day watching the films you never get ‘round to.
•Make yourself a special indulgent Christmas hamper, filled with all your favourite foods and snacks that you don’t have to share with anyone else!
•Go on a mini-break. It doesn’t have to be expensive, there are some really inexpensive B & B’s or AirBnB’s. Or even visit friends in the same boat as you.
•Arrange to spend time with friends and/or family you enjoy being with.
•Have a Christmas meal out with friends. Enjoy someone else preparing the food instead of you!
•As Christmas Day is the only time the high street stores are closed, indulge in some retail therapy on other days. Or even online shopping for bargains.
•Volunteer at a soup kitchen
•I spent one fabulous Christmas at a Buddhist Centre.
Just don’t feel that because you don’t have your children with you, that you can’t have a good time. Your children will soon be back and together you can enjoy the plans you made before they went away.
Accept and acknowledge that all kinds of emotions may come up when they tell you they had a fabulous time and show you the presents they have received, which you may not be able to afford. Instead, feel happy for them, you can vent your true feelings to a trusted friend!
Don’t be afraid to share your worries and hurt with others, and for those who feel they don’t have that support and are really struggling to cope you can call Samaritans on 116123. There is a listening ear 24/7.
Wendy Capewell is a Relationship Specialist, working with both individuals and couples to create better relationships with themselves and others. We each need to love and accept ourselves for who we are.