Regular writer Linda Franklin talks about her experience of Christmas as a divorced parent...
Christmas can be a real problem for the divorced, particularly in the first few years until you work out a way of doing it that suits you. You might, of course, be lucky enough to be such good friends with your ex and his or her new partner plus any in-laws and new children now on the scene that you all muck in in friendly fashion for the required time so the festive period is pretty much as it always was - just bigger and jollier. Or you might have a close family of your own and find being with your siblings and their children just as gratifying as being with your own. Then again, you might not. As in my case.
My ex lives thousands of miles away abroad and we decided at the start - two sons then three and seven - that we'd see the Christmas and New Year as one long holiday and each of would have it with the boys on alternate years. So, on my year off, I'd go on holiday, with the guy I was seeing then, and - in my year on - I'd do whatever the boys and I wanted in terms of food, parties and so on.
This was fine for a few years until I found having a bloke and young children just too hard to keep up - so lost my ready-to-hand holiday mate - and, around that time, my ex started to change the agreement. He'd suddenly announce, on the years meant to be mine, that he was coming to see his mum and dad and did the boys want to see him? After all, they saw so little of him - and wouldn't it be great if they spent it with their grandparents, aunt and uncle and so on as well and had a real family Christmas? Also - because it entailed a four hour drive and was an 'opportunity' - it meant he'd better have them from Boxing Day to New Year's Day - but I'd still have Christmas Day. So that was all right then.
I fell for it twice before I realised it effectively wiped out my Christmas with the kids completely. One year I'd be sending my children off thousands of miles as 'unaccompanied minors' on a plane (grim) and the next Christmas Day would be spent cooking a 'trad' Christmas dinner and packing for the boys to go off to see dad and his new partner - while he intruded giving me endless, imperious instructions as to which service station to bring them to and when.
And Boxing Day would be - not relaxing with coffee and croissants with music videos on the telly as we liked to do with cold cuts in the fridge to have at our leisure - but a wretched early start on the motorway with the ex nagging me via a mobile via the boys about our E.T.A. Then there'd be a tense exchange of sons watched by his new partner, who'd naturally taken this opportunity to discover what an English motorway was like... The image of her glee welcoming my sons and outlining the exciting plans she had for them all would niggle all the way back as I returned to the cold turkey. 'What did you expect?' A friend commented. 'He saw you as a commodity in the marriage - why would he see you as a person to respect now?'
So I decided: no more of that. I needed my time with my boys at that important celebration. And anyway the boys were no longer so keen on his new partner, were getting to the age of being bored with granny and granddad and said dad had hardly any time for them with his new woman and parents wanting it too. They liked their Christmas with me - where their beds, belongings and mates were. I told my ex we'd stick to the original arrangements.
Nowadays I love Christmas with the boys and truly appreciate it for what it is: a chance for us to spend some very chilled time doing exactly as we please, going to parties or giving them, choosing celebration food we like - fillet steak from a brilliant butcher this year for Christmas Day, duckling for Boxing Day - and chatting with a drink round the fire. It's usually just the three of us - their girlfriends and friends come and go - and we feel that's quite sufficient for a family. I've never done what a friend of mine did once declaring she and her two boys weren't 'sufficient', went into meltdown and begged to tag along in another friend's family. And neither would I ever again join up with a single parent friend - as I was once persuaded to do - for a restaurant meal that was badly cooked and over-priced and it turned out her son and my two could find nothing in common whatsoever - and wanted to go asap.
The important thing is you have to find what is truly your way without taking any notice of how it used to be, that this isn't what you planned when you married, that you suspect others pity you, that you have to give way to an ex-spouse who seems to be able to offer the kids more, or that you feel what you have to offer as a solo parent isn't quite enough. Christmas and New Year are big, public holidays and everyone asks you what you're doing, so my advice now is feel confident enough to decide what you and your children really want to do - and do it with complete conviction.
Which brings me to those other years when the boys went to see their father for ten days and I was no longer nipping off on hols... I knew I didn't want to be looking after someone else's granny and clearing up wrapping paper discarded by their children and being stuffed to the gills with food I didn't want just so I could say I spent Christmas with friends. No, if I couldn't be with my own children at Christmas, I didn't want to spend it in a parody of that with somebody else's.
The first year I spent it by myself, I only told my best friends and said it was just an experiment. I was warned it would be a disaster. People were kind enough to say to pop round if I got fed up. But, you know, no-one really wants you to see their dad snoring with his mouth open or their kids getting fractious either. And what was I looking at? The gift of two days when I wasn't expected to work and could give myself permission to watch TV during the day.
It was brilliant. I got up late, had a leisurely breakfast and bath, went for a walk, the boys called me on the phone and so did another 'Christmas orphan' mate. I opened a bottle of champagne, and ate gravad lax, good bread, fruit and cheese, put my feet up and watched Casablanca. Next day I did some beauty treatments and sorted my underwear drawer before finishing that bottle. I felt rested and restored.
But - more important - I knew I'd always be okay on my own. Christmas is no longer a problem: it's a bonus where I can either do what I like with my sons or do what I like on my own. And I reckon that's pretty grown up and liberating: not a bad start to a brave new year.
(C) Copyright Linda Franklin 2009 - photograph by Toby Amies