Seasonal sadness, loneliness and vulnerability can be amplified by a lack of children, whether by default, design or destiny. Justine Carbery knows how it feels to be childless at Christmas …
As soon as we whip down the Halloween decorations, bin the sagging pumpkins and finish off the last toffee apple, we are ceremoniously catapulted into the next festive season. The clock strikes midnight on October 31 and bam! It’s Christmas carols blaring on tannoys, jingles on the radio and Christmas merchandise in the shops. Questions about Christmas plans often start as early as November with family starting their solicitous enquiries about arrangements. Stress levels rise. You can’t walk into a store without being greeted by giant Christmas trees and good old Saint Nick. And with the onslaught of Christmas advertising come images of families packed around dining tables and scenes of children opening presents around a tree. We are bombarded with pictures that reinforce the idea that Christmas is a special time for children and families, for merriment and make-believe, for gifts and gaiety. But what if your family circumstances do not present as the archetypal nuclear family? What if you never married, have no kids? What if you desperately want a child but as yet this hasn’t happened? What if you’ve lost a child, have suffered a miscarriage, gone through the agony of stillbirth?
Perhaps you are in a non-hetero-relationship and having children just didn’t happen. Perhaps your “children” have grown up and flown the nest, and instead of gathering in messy jolly hordes around the Christmas table, they are barbecuing on the beach in Australia, while you languish in empty-nest solitude in cold, grey Ireland. For some, for many, Christmas is a time of complex emotions, and being childless can amplify those feelings of loneliness and vulnerability, making the celebrations something to endure rather than enjoy. And the nearer we get to the big day, the greater the intensity of those conflicting emotions.
Children and Christmas are inextricably linked. We all relish our cherished memories of childhood Christmases and we associate those memories with a time of innocence and wonder when things were simpler. Decorating the Christmas tree with my Dad was special for me, as was stirring the pudding with my Mum and making a wish, or stealing cherries and raisins when she wasn’t looking. The heart-stopping excitement of coming down the stairs to find the fire already blazing and presents under a twinkling tree will never leave me. But for those who desperately want children and are unable to have them, this association suddenly becomes immensely painful. Despite all of the other things to enjoy about the festive season, catching up with old friends, enjoying good food, giving and receiving gifts, for those who are childless, and don’t wish to be, none of those things bring the joy they might once have.
I spoke to my friend Claire who recalls with great honesty the pain of not being able to recreate the innocent joy of her own childhood Christmases.
“My memories of my own childhood Christmas Eve were so special. My siblings became sleuths around the house, putting paper down to catch Santa’s footprints and counting all the clementines in the fruit bowl as we had our suspicions that some mischief was afoot. We would wake up at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day and charge in and out of each other’s bedrooms; in annual awe at the booty at the end of the bed.” She always hoped she could pass on this feeling of wonder and awe but it was not to be. “My college friends used to tease me and say that I would probably be the first to get married, settle down and have children. At the time I kind of thought so too. In the following three decades, however, I ticked none of those boxes. In fact, I barely got to a second date with most of my Romeos. The blessings of siblings saved the day, and the nephews and nieces that came along as the years went by. I was right in there, doing the bottles, changing nappies, babysitting. As they got a little older I would go off on adventures with them for the day. But come Christmas, I would feel that my “aunty” time spent with them was merely salve to a wound oozing gently and unseen under my skin. Christmas without children was like the night sky without the stars. Something was missing … the “magic”. And although I am now married and have close step-children and even a much loved step-granddaughter, it still feels like a childless Christmas, and that hurts.”
American writer Erma Bombeck said: “There is nothing sadder in this world than to awake on Christmas morning and not be a child.” For a couple battling infertility, the statement could read: “There is nothing sadder in this world than to awake on Christmas morning to a house empty of children.” When you are a couple with empty aching arms, Christmas time can be brutal. A friend of mine was in this situation for many years, putting on a brave face while meeting friends with buggies and children, recounting with wide eyes their letters to Santa and visits to his grotto, excitement and wonder radiating off them. But on the inside it was eating away at her, making her ambivalent about the Christmas celebrations.
Luckily for her, she has two beautiful children now, and gets to be part of the magic. She has the chance to recreate that sense of wonder and awe. But for the not-so-fortunate, being childless at Christmas, by default or design, is an exhausting challenge, with no escape from the emotional rollercoaster. For anyone struggling to get pregnant it can be heartbreaking to see signs on every house directing Santa to stop. Tastefully colour-coordinated decorations and Christmas trees dressed with attention to detail can’t compare with the home-made decorations and gaudy, mismatched trees to be spied through the windows of those houses where children live. One woman recounts how on Christmas morning she “would rather draw the curtains than have to look out the window and see excited children learning to ride their new bikes or scooters, or building snowmen if it happened to be a white one. Their joy exacerbated my pain.”
Accepting that it’s natural and ok to feel sad at this time of the year goes a long way to surviving it. Remember, it is only one day out of many.
It is, after all, a celebration of the definitive miracle baby. Add to this the relentless media focus on mothers, children and happy families in television adverts, and the cultural and community focus on togetherness, and it can be really hard to bear. The whole holiday is guaranteed to push buttons. ‘Tis the season to be jolly? For childless women and men, that can be a big ask. However blessed their lives may be in other ways, every event at this time of year is touched by the one thing they don’t have: children. No pressing reason to get out of bed early. No huddles of shivering excitement on the stairs. No checking the plate of carrots and milk to see if Santa and the reindeer have visited, no trembling little fingers delving into stuffed stockings. Even Christmas Day Mass or service can serve as a reminder of what they don’t have, when families fill the pews, children clutching their beloved Barbie or Batmobile, giggling with excitement, and singing their little hearts out. There is little escape from the magic of a Christmas childhood, and for some that is very difficult to bear. For many childless women and men, the best day of Christmas is December 26 … when it’s all over again for another year.
Being single during the festive period, when there seems to be couples everywhere; pushing prams, holding hands, browsing the food aisles, sorting out each other’s presents etc can bring the lack of a partner into sharp focus. Whether it’s meeting up with old friends who are now in relationships, or negotiating nosy family members who ask, “Haven’t found anyone yet then?”, being single during the festive season can feel more like a fight for survival than a joyful holiday. For some people, being single may have been merely a question of timing, a relationship split at the wrong time, and they are left with the feeling of having missed the boat, their biological clock timed out. Christmas can make this feeling of failure and inadequacy more acute than at any other time of the year. The loneliness of singledom and childlessness can weigh more heavily than ever at this time of the year.
For those people, not in a typical relationship, children may never have been part of the equation. A friend of mine is fantastic with children, and would have loved the opportunity to parent, but it just never happened. It passed him by. And while friends and family are very inclusive and mindful of his childless status, he ultimately feels like he is on the outskirts of Christmas. He feels excluded, unable to know or share the joy parents feel at this time. “I feel like I’m missing something – that I am a minority. It’s always there, this feeling, just more poignant at Christmas, as we are around family, siblings and friends with kids.” None of the books, films or songs reflect his situation, and that can be a lonely place at this emotive time. But he is far from alone. An eHarmony study last Christmas found that 47 per cent of singles cited loneliness as the reason they dreaded Christmas, with most people surveyed saying that they found Christmas Day more stressful than Valentine’s Day.
Others, by dint of separation and divorce, may find themselves unexpectedly alone on Christmas Day. Alone and without their beloved children. After divorce, the whole holiday season can bring more sadness and stress than comfort and joy. A few of my friends are facing that challenge this year. Access arrangements dictate that only one of the parents has the children, and the other will find themselves alone on the one day of the year they so desperately crave company. For them, it can be heartbreaking, to know that their children will be enjoying Christmas and they will be not part of it.
I have been fortunate in that my ex and I live in the same neighbourhood, and so can split the day equitably; morning and evening with me, late morning to late afternoon with their Dad. But the first year I stood in my kitchen at 11am, staring out the window, children gone, house empty and silent, I felt strangely unanchored, completely at sea, filled with a feeling of visceral loss. There was no point to my day, nothing to do (or rather nothing I could focus on). I couldn’t bear to watch any of the soppy Christmas movies, or turn on the radio with tales of Christmas past. I did some half-hearted cleaning up. But for the most part I stared out the window, counting down the minutes until they returned. And yes, over the years, although things have improved, and I manage to fill my time with visits to neighbours and prepping the dinner, the magic of Christmas has never quite returned. Christmas can be a very lonely time, especially with all the hype and love songs playing on repeat. “Are you lonely this Christmas?” Elvis asks every year. For many, the answer will be a resounding yes.
For some, visiting family on Christmas Day as the only childless relative can bring up a multitude of emotions. They may assume the role of “fun aunt or uncle”, the joker, the carefree one, when, in fact, all they actually yearn for are parental responsibilities. They may have to face the sadness in their parent’s eyes, feeling that they have somehow let them down by not giving them grandchildren. Or they may be delegated all the household chores, the peeling of potatoes, the clearing of the table, the washing up, so the “parents” can have a rest. Add to this powder-keg situation lashings of alcohol, the usual “family buttons” – rich food, not enough sleep and being away from home – and it’s hardly surprising that Christmas starts to feel more like a swear word than a celebration.
But being alone at Christmas doesn’t have to be a negative experience and it doesn’t mean that you’ve necessarily made a series of bad decisions – this is just how life works out sometimes. Many involuntarily childless people find ways of coming to terms with this aspect of their lives and embrace being the favourite aunt or uncle, finding great joy in spoiling their godchildren.
It also helps to remember that festive solitude can be far better than enduring the misery of failed relationships, that being alone and being lonely are not the same thing. One of my loneliest Christmases ever was the last Christmas I spent with my ex-husband. He was emotionally absent and irritable, all my pleas for engagement and connection falling on deaf ears (I didn’t know it then but he was already gone). Nothing seemed to get through to him, and I found myself lonely and sad, despite being surrounded by family. I cried buckets over having the wrong batteries for the Xbox controls, over lumpy gravy, over The Snowman, and felt a heaviness and loneliness like never before.
So, accepting that it’s natural and ok to feel sad at this time of the year goes a long way to surviving it. Remember, it is only one day out of many. And as Charles Dickens says in A Christmas Carol “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all year.”
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