For many childless by circumstance women, the best day of Christmas is the 26th December… when it’s all over again for another year!
Earlier this December, I hosted an online webinar for Gateway Women on the theme of ‘Coping with Christmas’. Women from all over the world joined us on the call and shared their very different experiences, but very similar feelings, about the upcoming holidays. Themes such as loneliness, isolation, stress, secrets, pressure, exposure and dread came up in many of our stories.
I’ve come to think that Christmas is, in many ways, the perfect storm for us childless by circumstance women. I see it as four winds blowing up a storm:
- A dark internal world of difficult thoughts and feelings
- Dealing with other people’s opinions and comments
- Happy Christmas = happy families
- High pressure family celebrations
Add these four together, and you have a day that many of us spend our whole summer in denial about, and the autumn and winter dreading. However, perhaps if we tackle each of these four winds at source, we can chart a smoother course through Christmas this year.
1. A dark internal world of difficult thoughts and feelings
Some of the really hard to manage 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. If you had lost your family 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 we could do differently this year:
- 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.
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. 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.” Add to these the assumptions made by harried parents that our childless life is a breeze What do you do with all that time! and also perhaps that 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!
What we could do differently this year:
- 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. For all of you.
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.
What we could do differently this year:
- 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!
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 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 we could do differently this year:
- 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 alllowances 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 over the next week and have a check-in call booked with each other during the holidays to share war stories! (Join the Gateway Women G+ Group or Facebook Group, or just use the comments box at the bottom of this post to offer and receive support from each other). 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.
Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All (Wo)Men.
That includes childless women, and it definitely includes you.
This may not be your best Christmas, but it doesn’t have to be your worst unless you let yourself play the victim. You may not have a choice in your circumstances, but you do have a choice in how you respond to them. Meaning is what we give to life, and we get to choose our own meanings, no matter what the Christmas propaganda would have us believe.
Before we were Christians, the Winter Solstice (21 December) was celebrated as Yule – the darkest night of the year – and therefore the one that heralded the return of the sun. We too, can make it through our dark night of the soul, and we too will smile again and feel the sun in our hearts.
Jody Day (48) is the Founder of Gateway Women: an organisation she founded to support, inspire and empower childless-by-circumstance women to live fertile, passionate, meaningful lives. She was nominated as a 2012 Women’s Champion by the Jo Cameron Achievers Academy and her work is a recommended resource by UCLH Reproductive Medicine Unit. She’s based in London and works with women from all over the world (in person and via Skype) who are still hopeful of becoming mothers as well as those for whom that time has passed. She holds a certificate in integrative counselling and is training towards becoming an integrative psychotherapist. Jody runs groups & workshops for Gateway Women, as well as offering one-to-ones. A Godmother & Aunt many times over, but never a mother, she speaks regularly at events and in the media, and is always looking to share her empowering message with new audiences. If you would like Jody to speak at one of your events, or to write for your blog or magazine, please contact her at email@example.com
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