What happens when you are a single parent and you aren’t feeling Christmas? (Asking for a friend)

I have a confession. I hate Christmas so much this year that I involuntarily flipped the birdy and muttered “fuck you” at the fairy lights after I hung them up in the porch last night. Thank god the kids were in the living room watching Youtube. To be honest I could never have won the Christmas Freak of the Year award, but I at least used to enjoy it more.  I am a single parent, and I will tell you all now, Christmas nowadays is just a pain in the ass.

So what do you do when you are a single parent at Christmas and really not that into it? If Christmas is only filling you with thoughts of loneliness, dread and worry, but you can’t escape it? If you are the lynchpin of the festive period who needs to make the magic happen, or be banished to Terrible-Parent-from-Hellville forever?

Before kids, Christmas was all the fun. In return for a bit of light commitment to visiting family and rushed sock buying I got pretty lights, parties, presents, shed loads of food wherever I rocked up, lots and lots of booze and joviality, and Muppet Christmas Carol. No, it was not cool, but it was fun (in a purely ironic way of course). Or, if I really wasn’t feeling Christmas that year, I could dig out the tie-dyed sarong, fuck off on a plane and spend Christmas on a beach drinking cheap beer, listening to Manu Chao and smoking duty free fags.

Then, immediately post-kids, Christmas becomes something different. It comes home to roost and is smug as fuck, even if it is all of a sudden quite hard work. It becomes an emotional joy-fest of Instagramming cute holiday-themed baby photos, choosing beautiful “first Christmas” gifts; making it all about making memories. Your extended family can’t get enough of your family unit; the invites flow, they all want you there. There may be arguments and stress, but you are in it together.

Then I became a single parent. Suddenly, the fabric of the Christmas period shifted, and for me it became an emotional minefield; a time of passive aggressive negotiations, long swathes of days without your children around but nothing cool to do instead, a lonely, guilty month to struggle my sorry ass through; clinging onto the societal acceptance that it’s okay to be moderately pissed for the entire period whilst magicking a memorable Christmas for two miniature despots out of thin air.

According to Gingerbread, the UK charity for lone parents, there are around 1.8 million single parent households in the UK; that’s roughly around ¼ of households with dependent children. And many of them struggle with Christmas for different reasons.

Single parent families come in a myriad of forms, just like any other family. Whether they struggle with the knowledge that the Christmas they provide doesn’t  live up to the expectations drummed into us all of what family Christmases should look like, face spending Christmas day alone without their children, are struggling financially, or are missing having a partner in their life, they will struggle in some way.

Sam is in her 40s and has an 11 year old son; this is her second Christmas as a single parent. She is spending Christmas day with friends this year whilst her son visits his Dad and says; “I haven’t really processed it all to be honest, as the only way I have coped with it is to not set myself up to enjoy it that much… Christmas a single Mum is not having enough time, not having enough cash, feeling inadequate because I haven’t done enough for my son, feeling guilty when he hugs me and tells me it doesn’t matter, being thankful for having wonderful friends, panicking about gravy, realising in the middle of your third round of Catan that none of that shit matters because all the boy wants to do is play board games with his Mum”.

Jessica is Mum to Deri, 7, and has been a single parent for 6 years. They are part of the travelling community and do Christmas a bit differently in their truck, and it works well for both of them. “I’ve never really been a fan of Christmas due to the religious and capitalist aspects and also the massive demands it brings both financially and socially. We do go to my parents Christmas Day and they are not religious either, but do have their traditions and ways of doing things…. I prefer the pagan traditional elements of the winter festivities so we celebrate at home first on Winter Solstice and take the parts of the tradition we like, a few inexpensive gifts around the tree and food together. This reduces stress for us as our celebration is already over by the time Christmas day comes.”

And in terms of words of advice for single parents facing Christmas on their own? I couldn’t put it much better than Jessica does; “Remember that the real reason for the season is because it’s winter. It’s cold outside and you are trying to make your home a cosy, warm, inviting and protective space for your family to shelter in and make the most of spending time together in close proximity. Put simply that is all you need to achieve, so remove all the notions of added layers of consumerist, religious and tradition based nonsense. This time of year is not about overspending, needing to meet demands or unnecessary creation of stress. Just do you and your kids at home in the warm, make your place pretty with twinkly lights to lift your spirits and get through the dark months”.

I learnt a few years back that it’s best not to try and live up to anyone else’s standards of what Christmas should look like once you are cobbling together one on your own. My kids like nothing more than spending Christmas day in their pyjamas (or pants), watching films, gorging on chocolate and playing unlimited xbox all day. So that’s what we do. Want baked beans for Christmas dinner? Totally doable, as long as I don’t have to eat them as well. If family want to visit us, my door is always open, but don’t expect me to drag mine and my kid’s asses around the West Country all Christmas week; I am getting pissed at home, because I deserve it.

Christmas is often lonely for me though. I may be strong and independent most of the time, but there is something about this time of the year that brings out the hopeless romantic in me; it would seem under my tough exterior lurks the person who buys into the hype. The person who feels they have failed their kids by not providing the big, happy family Christmas we are told we should. Also the person who wants someone to collapse on the sofa with once the children are in bed on Christmas Eve, with the stockings hung, and toast another year well executed with a litre of sloe gin and a snog.

So if you know and love a single parent, here are some Christmas tips to make their Christmas so much better:

  • Invite them to everything. Especially if they have gaps over the festive period with no kids around. Especially if they don’t have much in the way of family and don’t want their kids to miss out.  Even if they say no, fuck you, I/we intend to spend Christmas in my/our pants, make sure their calendar is as heaving as possible. They will feel loved.
  • Buy them a fucking present. Anything. Rest assured they are probably going to receive only a box of Milk Tray or a Boots 3 for 2 deal shower gel set from their little darlings, so spoil them with something that will put a smile on their face. They will feel loved.
  • Pop in and say hi. Offer to babysit. Get drunk and eat cheese with said parent. Be present. They will feel loved.

Finally, my advice to all single parents at Christmas is simple. Let go of the preconceptions and expectations, do what is right for you and your child(ren), whatever that looks like, and whatever you can manage and afford. Your children just need you with a smile plastered on. And if anyone witnesses me flipping the birdy at fairy lights or punching some mistletoe over the next two weeks can you please remind me to take my own advice as well and chill the fuck out? January is nearly here…..

An edited version of this article appears in the everyday magazine here.

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