‘The whole thing felt like an obstacle course to be survived rather than a celebration’: Christmas as a newly single parent
Been through a divorce or separation this year? Christmas after a break-up can be very hard, especially when there are little ones involved. Lia Hynes shares her experience of the festive season after the end of her marriage and advice on how to help you and your little ones get through it.
By the time my marriage ended in my late thirties, I had spent every Christmas bar one in exactly the same manner; at my parent’s house, with pretty much the same people. This is both very lucky and unusual, and absolutely dreadful preparation for a separation, when literally everything gets thrown up in the air, and any notions of “well this is just how Christmas (or anything previous traditions for that matter) is done”, need to be divested of quickly.
My first Christmas as a single parent
I can’t remember much about that first Christmas a few months after we separated, beyond a general tacit group adoption of rictus smiles all round, and a sense of let’s get through this, and all focus on the child. There was definitely some hasty exiting of rooms when tears threatened to spill over and a sense that the whole thing felt more like an obstacle course to be survived, rather than a celebration. I kept things small, socially, because I knew I wasn’t able for much.
If you are facing your first Christmas after a separation, here are a few ways you can expect to feel, and some ways which might, just slightly, help you through the holiday.
Coping with Christmas after separation
If you were not already feeling as if your new family situation made you lesser, other, or as if you have failed your child, Christmas will most likely bring that on. Never-ending ads of blissfully happy nuclear families lounging at home, all those events to be attended where other couples stand together gazing adoringly at their little one. You were raw already; Christmas will be sure to rub salt in that.
It will feel like everyone around you is having the time of their lives (they’re not), and the sadness you were already carrying will inevitably feel that bit heavier. It might also feel like things will always feel like this. They won’t. This is what I always fall back on when anyone going through a separation asks me for advice. In those early days, there were things I believed would always make me sad. That I thought I’d never come to terms with.
This is not true.
You’d be surprised by the extent to which you can become largely fine with a situation that right now just feels desperately sad.
Some things you will gradually simply absorb, until, mostly, they don’t bother you anymore. This isn’t to say that you should expect them to never bother you ever again. I spoke to a psychologist recently about how children cope with separation. She said that in difficult times, times of high anxiety, change, or challenge elsewhere in their lives, children might find themselves sad again about their parents’ separation, seemingly out of the blue. Adults are the same; that is how grief works, she explained; it comes back to us when we are vulnerable. But mostly, you’d be surprised by the extent to which you can become largely fine with a situation that right now just feels desperately sad.
Further, some things might even start to become more than tolerable.
Several years in, we switched from spending the entire day together to dividing the day up between us. In the beginning, the thought of not spending every minute with my child on Christmas Day would have seemed unbearable. Now, I welcome the few hours to myself, where I can get back into bed, quietly read my book or have a nap, before picking her and heading to a big family meal. You come to realise that as a single parent, you operate at a different pace than parents who are both living together, and you will welcome those breaks between the intensity of it, even on big days like this.
Save yourself a lot of emotional hassle and get on board with the fact that everything is changing. It’s hard and no one really likes it, but if you cling rigidly to the way things were, you’ll only cause yourself more angst. Let go of expectations about how things should be and instead focus on new traditions. Although these can be tiny things this first year, don’t put pressure on yourself.
If you’re not clear about what you want from the day or if you have expectations about how you would like it to go but you don’t actually tell your co-parent, resentment can build up
Comparison is your enemy. Go to ground if you need to (admittedly not a hard thing to do this year). Avoid events, or friends who might make you feel like something of an outsider. Not every Christmas has to be the stuff of wonderful memories. Sometimes it’s just about getting through. Focus on your kids and then welcome January when you can get back to the new life you’re building.
Importance of boundaries
Focusing on your kids does not need to mean abandoning your own mental wellbeing entirely. Find a line between doing your best for them, but knowing your own limits around, for example, how much time you can spend with your ex, your budget, or even just your energy levels for days out.
Dawn Nolan is a life coach and the proprietor of the online bookstore My Higher Shelf. She separated when her daughter, now almost a teenager, was three.
You probably will feel guilty about feeling angry, because you want it to be a good Christmas for your child. But if things happen that mean you get triggered, just accept your emotions.
“One of the big things that I would say would be clear communication,” she says. “If you’re not clear about what you want from the day or if you have expectations about how you would like it to go but you don’t actually tell your co-parent, resentment can build up. There can be anger because things don’t go the way you thought they would. Be clear.”
Boundaries are crucial but are always a difficult thing to set in a situation that is typically charged.
“If your ex is coming over, or you’re going to theirs, allow for a certain amount of time out, away from the situation. Because you’re going to get triggered, and unfortunately triggers just take over. Especially when it’s so raw, as it is that first Christmas. I know it’s easy to say but try to not react when you’re in a situation because your instinct will quite likely be anger or defensiveness.”
Instead, if things get heightened, take a deep breath and try to momentarily take yourself out of the situation.
“Accepting your emotions is really important,” Dawn adds. “You probably will feel guilty about feeling angry, because you want it to be a good Christmas for your child. But if things happen that mean you get triggered, just accept your emotions. And accept that you’re doing the best that you can. Be kind to yourself, that’s huge.”