For many childless women, the best day of Christmas is the 26 December… when it’s all over again for another year!
Having worked with hundreds of childless women face-to-face, and thousands of women online over the last few years, the topic of ‘coping with Christmas’ is never far below the surface, and once summer is over it looms on the horizon like a troubling iceberg. Although each woman’s situation is different, similar feelings consistently arise about the upcoming holidays: fear, shame, loneliness, isolation, stress, secrets, pressure, exposure, dread, sadness, anger…
I’ve come to think that Christmas is, in many ways, the perfect storm for childless women – four winds that together to combine the perfect storm.
1. A dark internal world of difficult thoughts and feelings
Some of the really difficult feelings that come up around Christmas-time are some of the hardest human emotions to deal with – feelings of worthlessness, inferiority, anger, loneliness, futility, isolation and depression. At a time when everyone else seems to be getting into the holiday spirit, feelings like this can make us feel like freaks. However, what these feelings may point to is not that you are a miserable old humbug but that you are grieving. Because we live in a culture that neither recognises nor acknowledges the right of childless women to grieve, we often don’t realise ourselves that that’s what’s going on. Imagine this: if you had lost your children through a tragic accident, nobody (including yourself) would expect you to be able to join in the Christmas celebrations until you had fully grieved your shocking loss. And, frankly, nobody (including yourself) would ever expect Christmas to be slam-dunk easy for you. Our children are, or were, real to us. And we grieve their absence.
What could you do differently this year to manage your grief?
- Show yourself the compassion you deserve, rather than beating yourself up for being the ‘difficult one’, or giving yourself a hard time for not ‘getting over it yet.’ Whether you’re still hopeful of having a family, or are reluctantly coming to terms with the fact that it’s not to be, you need to allow space for the incredibly complex feelings that arise at this time of year. Honour your depth, don’t deny it; it’s OK that it’s tough. You’re human. Try to let your feelings wash through you and over you, like a cleansing shower. If you’ve ever watched a small child processing emotion you’ll see that they can go from happy to sad to bored to joyful to angry and back to happy in a couple of minutes! It’s the way us grown-ups ‘hang on’ to our feelings, that causes the trouble – not the emotions themselves. Acknowledge them to yourself, feel them, and let them go on their way without needing to make them ‘mean’ too much, and you may find that your internal weather gets a lot smoother.
- Some helpful resources for being kinder to yourself whilst you’re grieving:
Blog: ‘Hello Grief, My Dear Old Friend’ by Jody Day
Blog: ‘You’re Not Crazy – You’re Grieving’ by Jody Day
Blog: ‘Grief – The Dark River of the Soul’ by Karla MacLaren
Book: Chapter 9 “The Mother Within” from Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaning and Fulfilling Life Without Children by Jody Day
Book & Audio Course by Kristin Neff on Self Compassion
2. Dealing with other people’s opinions and comments
Although mothers and others don’t mean to hurt our feelings or insult our intelligence, they often manage to do so anyway! At Christmas, when everyone’s walking on eggshells around the subject of our childlessness, the opportunities for awkwardness and upset are magnified. We’re all fairly used to the ‘have you thought of adoption / IVF / doing it on your own / just relaxing / internet dating’ or any of the other stock suggestions that get floated past us with relentless regularity. This year we also have ‘egg freezing’ (experimental, expensive and usually fails) and ‘womb transplants’ (experimental and not a ‘fertility option’) to add to the list of impossible things that may be suggested, so have your answers ready! However, additionally at Christmas we may also have to deal with the lecherous uncle who nudges you and your partner as he says ‘your turn soon’, as well as our parents perhaps taking us to one side to tell us that it’s ‘best we don’t talk about it in front of [insert name here] in case it upsets them’, or perhaps coming up with the sterling idea that we sleep in the outhouse so that our sibling’s children can sleep in ‘our’ bed! Add to these the assumptions made by harried peers who are parents that our childless life is a breeze – What do you do with all that time! – and that perhaps it’d be ‘better not’ to leave us with the children because we’re ‘not used to them’ and you’re all set for a disastrous conversation or two! And that’s even before you add alcohol…
What could you do differently this year to handle those awkward conversations about your childlessness?
- Don’t expect anyone to read your mind! If you keep your childlessness off-limits for conversation, it’s bound to lead to misunderstandings. Although it sounds scary, being more open about your situation could dispel a lot of myths and defuse some tension.
- However, a word of warning: if you’re not used to talking about your situation (ie: if you haven’t had a chance to do your grief work yet), your family this Christmas is probably not the perfect place to choose to open up. It might work, but there again, it might blow the roof off. Uncorking your pent-up emotions in the supportive company of other childless women first might be less stressful.
- Think about forwarding this article, or another GW article to your mother or whoever it is you need to understand better how hard this is for you. Sometimes hearing it from a ‘third party’ can be what others need before they can really begin to understand that it’s not just ‘you being difficult’ or ‘oversensitive’. You might like to set up a ‘new’ tradition which is that one year people come to you, one year you go to them. Unless we tell our family how hard it is never to be the ‘hostess’ because we don’t have children, many of them have no idea!
Some helpful resources for getting more comfortable talking about your childlessness:
- Get yourself some wonderful new GW friends and normalise the whole damn thing by meeting other wonderful childless women – single, coupled, married, straight, gay, divorced, whatever! We have free private meetup groups across the world in UK, Ireland, Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa & India.
- Book: Chapter 5 ‘Liberating Yourself From the Opinions of Others’ from Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaning and Fulfilling Life Without Children by Jody Day
3. Happy Christmas = Happy Families
Let’s cut to the chase: Christmas is the ultimate ‘miracle baby story’! It’s a celebration of birth, of motherhood, of a child who didn’t just change his mother’s life, he changed the whole world! It’s a whole holiday guaranteed to push our buttons. Add to this the relentless media focus on mothers, children and happy families in the TV adverts, and the cultural and community focus on togetherness, and it can be really hard to bear. Also, for those of us who want or wanted to be mothers, we may have spent many Christmases thinking, ‘one day I’ll be able to do this with my own children’. However, as the years of hope and disappoint mount up, our delight may sour into bitterness, and we become negative and dismissive of Christmas, and its rituals. We become the Bah, Humbug! killjoy. And that too can feel like yet another loss that we have to cope with: the loss of that part of us who loved and enjoyed Christmas. It’s also worth remembering that the whole media ‘happy family’ frenzy is a cultural mirage, projected large on every screen to make everyone feel that they’ve got something to live up to (and buy their way into). It’s all smoke and mirrors and we can choose to see past it if we want too. It’s not real and January 2nd is the biggest day in the divorce lawyer’s calendar…
What could you do differently this year to enter into the Christmas spirit?
- Whether we have children or not, Christmas is a celebration for all of us. To deny ourselves Christmas is a way of punishing ourselves for being ‘defective’. No one can make us feel like oddballs without our own permission! Whilst you may not be able to join in all the celebrations with the required amount of gusto, choose a few and see if you can throw yourself into it. Life is hard enough without us denying ourselves the chance to spend intimate time with our family and friends.
- Could we perhaps take the risk of giving ourself a break from our ‘story’ as the ‘childless one’ just for a couple of hours, or even a whole day? Could it perhaps be a gift that we give to our family and friends that we open our heart and laugh with them again for one day, rather than skulking around and cutting them out of our lives? I realise that this may be a tough call for some of us – it really depends where you’re at with your grief and I wouldn’t suggest this for everyone. I couldn’t have done it ten years ago, or even five years ago. But now, bring on the silly hats!
Some helpful resources for getting into the Christmas spirit (and recovering from doing so!)
- Join one of the many free pre-and-post Christmas meetups organised in London and across the world by our members.
4. High pressure family celebrations
Perhaps the part of Christmas that seems to bring up the most fear and anxiety for us is the prospect of attending our family celebration as ‘the childless one’. It’s such an incredibly public display of our difference and many of us build ourselves up into a frenzy of anticipation of how this will appear, and how we’ll feel on the day. If we’re single and childless, the only roles open to us seem to be either the cautionary tale of ‘how not to screw up your life’, or the ‘fun’ aunt. It’s a day when we may have to watch our siblings enjoy and tussle with parenthood, and it can feel like we have somehow been personally selected by the universe to be the joker. Some of us dread seeing the sadness in our parent’s eyes, and feeling that we’ve somehow let them down by not giving them grandchildren. Others dread the casual and subtle denigration that childless (and particularly single & childless) women face, like being given the worst seat at the table, or being expected to do all the chores so that 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.
What could you do differently this year to cope better with any ‘family’ celebrations?
- Perhaps the most important thing you can do differently this year is to understand why it’s so hard for you, and to both make allowances for that and plan for it. Don’t set yourself up to fail by expecting it to magically just ‘be easier’ this year. That’s about as sensible as asking Santa to sort it for you. Know your limits, and if possible get your coping strategies in place before Christmas.
- Make contact with another Gateway Woman via the private GW+ Online Community and get a date in the diary to meet up during/after the holidays. If you feel like you’re about to lose it when you’re with your family, instead of being a martyr to your feelings and your situation, get some fresh air and take the dog for a walk. If you don’t have a dog, arrange to borrow one or invent one! The main thing is to have a strategy, get support, and be proactive about taking care of yourself.
Some helpful resources for getting your Christmas strategy in place BEFORE you need it!
Join the GW+ private online community and make some online friendships with women that you can be in touch with over Christmas. You can access the GW+ Community (once you’re a member) from a smartphone, so it’s perfect for a sanity check in the bathroom or car to keep you on track during difficult moments. Don’t leave joining until Christmas Day as we have to ID check all members to keep the Community as safe and confidential as possible and neither myself nor our wonderful Community Manager Helen B. will be working on Christmas Day.
I do hope that these ideas help you to plan a more peaceful Christmas this year, one that you can look forward to and enjoy, rather than dread and endure. It takes courage to speak out and ask for what you want and need, but expecting others to read our minds is guaranteed to fail! Do share your tips in the comments below. Sisters, let’s #ReclaimChristmas!