As a single parent, coping with Christmas can be a logistical nightmare. In my case, with two children by different fathers, you’d expect the problem to be doubled. Factor in my own parents being divorced, and we do often find we are spending a lot of the festive season in the car and juggling diaries.
I consider myself extremely lucky therefore that my relationship with Bee’s Dad is such a smooth and friendly one – it really makes things so much simpler. While Belle went off to her Dad’s for the day, I was able to spend Boxing Day with Bee at her father’s house, exchanging gifts with his family and sharing a bottle of Cava with his wife.
For some people, the idea of spending any length of time with your ex and his wife might seem an odd one, but for me it makes perfect sense. I have known them both a very long time, I know their families and besides all that, I LIKE them. How lovely it must be for Bee to have separated parents who can be genuinely nice to each other, rather than having to go through the strained and frosty handovers on doorsteps and in car parks that so many estranged parents are prone to.
It takes so much of the stress out of being a single mother when you can get on with your children’s fathers. For the moment I’m grateful to have such a good relationship with just one of them – to expect it from two would be just plain greedy. Besides, if I had lovely harmonious friendships with them both, where would I get all my hilarious and shocking single parent horror stories??
So yesterday was Christmas Day, our first ever spent alone as a family of three, and, much as anticipated, it was fairly dull. It started out well, apart from Bee’s obvious lack of excitement over having to get up at the hardly ungodly hour of eight o’clock to open her stocking with her sister, and soon everyone was in their Christmas pants and socks and ready for some fun.
Things seem to peak late morning with the opening of both a very loud bottle of bucks fizz and the presents under the tree. A particular highlight was watching Belle open her microwave oven. Hours in front of the Disney channel have really brought out her overacting abilities and she did us all proud with her exaggerated surprise and bewilderment.
Then we got to that tricky stage of the day, just before lunch, when other people normally turn up or you leave to go somewhere more interesting. At this point we all seemed to realise that our insistence on ‘staying home to be with the tree’ rather than travelling to Ireland with my mum and sister had left us with a rather long day ahead. I had worried about how Christmas was going to be different from any normal quiet Sunday at home and now I know – there isn’t the obligatory trip to Sainsbury’s in the afternoon to break up the day.
We did get an outing though to the 24 hour garage at the end of the road. I may have been super pleased with myself for getting the microwave, but I let myself down spectacularly by not noticing B’s cake decorating kit also required batteries…
Tonight I am spending Christmas Eve in the style I do every year – I am panic wrapping piles of stocking presents while drinking wine and eating chocolates I don’t really have room for.
I have managed this year to wrap up my under-the-tree presents in plenty of time for B and A to give them a good poke and try to guess what treats I have bestowed upon them this year. B is very impressed with the large heavy box under the tree for her, imagining it to hold something fantastic and exciting.
Little does she know it is actually a microwave. Yes, a microwave may not be the kind of present you would normally buy for a seven year old, but there is, for a change, method in my madness.
B’s main present is a particularly tacky looking cup cake maker, which she has been drooling over ever weekend in Sainsbury’s for the last four months and which was, luckily for me, in their half price toy sale. Unfortunately, it was only when I was wrapping it that A pointed out the instructions – ‘delicious cakes ready in the microwave in only 30 seconds!”
Now there is always a toy at Christmas that you don’t realise needs batteries, but this is a whole other league, not just a question of popping out to the newsagents for a pack of AAs. I don’t own a microwave – I don’t quite trust them – but can’t bear the thought of B opening her cup cake maker and not being able to immediately whip up a batch of wholesome baked goodies.
So in the morning B will be rushing to open her biggest present, full of excitement, never imagining it to be kitchen white goods…
This morning I wake at 8.30am to a silent house. Everyone but me is sleeping peacefully and I lie in bed for a while, wondering what to do next. I tiptoe to the toilet, not wanting to wake B and shatter my rare early morning solitude. I come back from the bathroom, cursing every creaky floorboard, open the curtains and get back into bed.
I gaze vacantly for a while out at the cold blue sky. I’m on my own but not alone. My ears are ringing with the silence but I am acutely aware of B asleep in the next room and A asleep above me. What would I do now if they were not here and I had no children? Since the age of 16, too young to have experienced any kind of freedom, my life, my mornings and my routines have been defined by others – by pregnancies, babies and children.
I try to imagine what I might do today if I really were alone, but I can’t quite get my head round the scale of it. What do childless people do exactly on their days off, during holidays, with their lives? What will I do when my days no longer revolve around packed lunches, school pick ups and parental visitation rights?
All the solitary gazing and pondering starts to make me feel a bit panicky. I don’t want to think about just me, I don’t know how and I’m bound to get it wrong. Instead I go downstairs and make a cup of tea deliberately loudly, banging cupboard doors and clattering the spoon noisily in the sink.
By the time I get back, B has woken up and scampered from her bed to mine. “Hello!” she sings, greeting me and the tin of shortbread under my arm with a grin. “I had a lovely sleep, but I missed you.”
I smile back. “I missed you too.”
Today I finally get round to reading Saturday’s papers and even get as far as some of the chunkier features in the Guardian magazine. An achievement indeed, as my BlackBerry brain is usually unable to even consider reading chunks of text larger than a rich tea biscuit.
I read a beautiful story, by Simon Van Booy, of a Christmas spent with his five year old daughter Madeleine, coming to terms with the absence of his wife, following her death two years before.
I know my kind of single parenting is never going to come close to the grief and loss that Van Booy and his daughter must feel, but there are still parts of his story that resonate. Their spontaneous visit to a Russian Orthodox cathedral for example, following an innocent enquiry by Madeleine, leads Van Booy to wonder whether he should, at some point, introduce his daughter to religion.
It is when faced with issues like these that you feel the absence of another person, another parent to share the responsibility of decision making. How can it be, you wonder, that I am expected to decide grown up things like this all by myself? But then as Van Booy’s says, “single parenting is sometimes just a case of sitting around by yourself in mild despair, not knowing what to do.”
I read in the paper today that the average UK family spends £16.84 per head on Christmas dinner. £16.84? That seems a lot to me for a meal that is mainly vegetables. For our family of three that would equate to nearly fifty pounds – that’s a lot of food even for me to eat, and given B’s sparrow like appetite and my teen’s propensity to only eat Sainsbury’s Basics 9p a packet super noodles, I could quite easily see me having to eat about £47 of that on my own.
This Christmas Day we are going to be breaking with tradition for the first time ever, well the first time in my lifetime at least. Every Christmas until now has been spent with my mother, and until a couple of years ago my sister too, plus various other family members, depending on whether we are talking pre or post parental divorce.
This year however, my mother and her partner are going to Ireland with my sister, who has recently had her first baby, to stay with my sister’s in-laws. Clearly torn between her two daughters, she spent some time trying to convince me to make the trip too, but apart from wanting nothing more than to stay home with my tree and the supplies from Hotel Chocolat, I don’t want to take the girls away from their fathers at Christmas. They may end up not seeing them much, but I want to give them the option. My mother and sister aren’t so sympathetic, particularly when it comes to B’s dad, but regardless of how I feel about him I don’t want to be the woman who stops him seeing his daughter at Christmas. Perhaps when she is older, and we have been separated for longer, but not yet.
And so I turn back to the all important question of dinner. B suggests we get pizza delivered, but this doesn’t feel terribly festive to me. The teen – I’m going to call her A – inevitably puts the case for super noodles. I’m undecided. On the one hand it seems somehow wrong to not even attempt to cook a traditional pigs in blankets style dinner, and I do LOVE sprouts, but on the other hand, what is the point if no one is really interested? B will eat the pigs and push away the rest and everyone knows that by the time you’ve cooked Christmas dinner the last thing you actually want to do is eat any of it.
We discuss the options and decide we can do without turkey and all the trimmings this year. If we are going to be on our own for the first time, we really don’t need to worry about tradition. We are unlikely to be spending Christmas day alone again in the near future, so we should probably make the most of it and indulge ourselves… Super noodles anyone?