This guest blog has been written by a member of the Gateway Women Online Community
My nephew is fit to burst. He is ten and he is jam-packed, full to the brim, bubbling over with eager pre-Christmas anticipation. He has been compiling Christmas wish lists since September; and whilst for this particular ten-year old, gifts are pretty much the best thing in the world; it is about much more than that. There are school holidays approaching, Christmas specials on TV, family visits with lots of attention and cuddles, and then there is the yummy food, the Christmas songs, and the tree, the decorations, the advent calendar and so much more. His energy is the epitome of all things sparkly and bright.
I listen to it all as his little boy voice dances like jingling bells on the other end of the phone, and I wonder, ‘Where did it all go?’
I do remember it, all of that bubbling excitement and anticipation as Christmas approaches. But I don’t recall when it left me. Somewhere between the magical cusp of being ten and the self-pitying drama of being seventeen, maybe it just faded away. And for me, without the gift of having my own children to re-ignite the sparkle of anticipation, it has felt impossible to reclaim it.
Until now; and I can recall the exact moment that it started to creep back in. It was a dull Sunday afternoon in mid November; that bit of a November afternoon just before the daylight gives up and lets twilight take over. I was sitting beneath a beautiful medieval vaulted ceiling, gathered before the heart warming flicker and glow of a real log fire, sharing space and time and energy with a group of ten other childless by circumstance women.
We were attending the Gateway Women ‘Unplugged Pre-Christmas Retreat’. Since Friday evening when we had tentatively introduced ourselves, shared our stories and slowly started to open our hearts, we had travelled a million miles in one weekend. From sharing the pain and grief our childlessness brings, to challenging our own unhelpful thoughts and ideas around Christmas, and replacing them with kinder self-supporting messages, we had cracked open the lid to the tightly sealed box marked ‘self compassion’, and together we had let go of that which no longer serves us – literally casting it all free to the rushing torrents of the Thames. There had been tears, and bonding, the sharing of supportive words and gestures, growth, the gentle tinkle of pennies dropping, and laughter – yes, great whoops and guffaws of full-bodied healing laughter, knowing nods, reflection, pain and kindness.
And with all of that tucked safely under my belt, I found myself sitting with my retreat companions, in front of the ancient stone fireplace, the flat slab of the hearth twinkling with the lights of ten small votive candles, surrounded by the makings of all great crafting sessions; paper, pens, glue, pipe cleaners, glitter, and silver doilies. As, to close our weekend, we were making a Christmas decoration each to take away with us. And as my fellow journey women chatted and passed glitter and scissors from one to the other, laughing at their own varying degrees of creativity, I paused, and just for a moment I let it all soak in.
‘This’, I realised, in that moment ‘it is this that I have been missing’.
Yes, I have missed the opportunity to create a Christmas for my own family; I have missed out on raising my own children, gifting my husband with the experience of parenthood. I have missed that journey of being somebody’s Mum, a fundamental rite of passage, the ‘making of a real woman’, the knowing and feeling of that fiercely powerful ‘love like no other’ of which, it seems, only mothers are qualified to speak. Yes, I have missed all of that. And I have grieved each of those losses and so many more, for years now. I have sat with the pain and empty hopelessness of deep grief. And now, I am moving on, learning new ways to live, to experience life in a positive light as a childless woman, seeking new purpose, and re-balancing as I step forward into my own ‘life unexpected’.
But alongside all of that, I realised that I have missed the feeling of being connected, of having something to connect to, of feeling ready to invest in connection. In that moment, I was connected – completely – through story, shared feelings, and hope to these 10 other brave and wonderful women. And as that feeling of connection settled safely within me, I understood that I was able to choose countless more re-connections on my pathway forward.
And I remember vividly the moment that a glimmer of anticipation danced softly into my heart. I can recall the prick of tears it bought to my eyes, the warmth of knowing that settled in my core, and the almost audible click of cognition upon realising that I could, if I really wanted to, allow myself to look forward to Christmas, just as my nephew does.
And there it was – that was the moment.
And now, here I am, one month on, taking active steps, week by week to #ReclaimChristmas.
Over the years I have developed a range of Christmas ‘get-out clauses’:
- dismissing Christmas: it is for the Christians; for the children; for the adults who haven’t quite finished growing up yet …
- hiding from Christmas: renting a remote holiday cottage in Wales proving a particularly effective strategy, although the duvet provides an accessible alternative
- resenting Christmas: going through the paces with a heavy heart, with a begrudging sense of duty, with the feeling of being invisible in amongst it all.
They have served to give me reason for my low mood, my feeling of not being a part of it, my actively disconnecting from Christmas. Either one or maybe all three ‘get out clauses’ have led me each year to step away from Christmas.
But this year I am stepping back in. This year I am planning and looking forward to Christmas.
So, how does a childless woman navigate her way past the chattering queues of excited children at Santa’s grotto, the hand-crafted stockings hanging from every family mantle, the excited ‘mum-talk’ in the office about little Bobby’s first nativity play? How do we find a pathway back to ourselves at a time of year that places the ‘perfect family’ high on the aspiration pedestal as TV adverts, lifestyle magazines, chat shows, shop windows and – it sometimes seems – every ‘water-cooler’ conversation implores us to create something that for many people is out of reach; but that for us, childless by circumstance women, is painfully impossible to achieve.
Here is the route I am taking, if you feel inclined to join me, the pathway is wide enough for us to travel side by side.
I made a deal with myself, to set an intention each week, a realistic and achievable step that I could take in terms of planning or preparing for a Christmas that feels like mine. I am planning a Christmas for grown-ups.
I have shared my ‘Countdown to Christmas’ on the Gateway Women Online Community. I am holding myself to account if you like, and also inviting other women to join me. And it seems to have grown into something a little bit special – to the extent that last week, when the busyness of ‘life’ meant I didn’t get my post written until Wednesday evening, I was prompted by one of my Gateway friends, who couldn’t wait any longer to share her weekly step.
I am keeping it small and simple, I want to succeed. I have set intentions such as researching some Christmas recipes; buying some new decorations; planning a ‘grown up’ Christmas eve night out. Equally your intentions might be about creating a safe space in which to ‘survive’ Christmas, because for some women, ‘celebrating’ it just isn’t on the agenda this year.
And in completing each of these intentions, in taking the steps, no matter how small, my feeling of being able to engage with a Christmas that feels like ‘my Christmas’ has grown, my anticipation has grown, because I have given thought to what I like to do, what I enjoy, who I want to be with, how I like to spend my time. I am ‘re-claiming Christmas’ because being a grown up without children needn’t exclude me from feeling able to join in with our cultures biggest shared annual ritual. And because I am keeping an eye on my own needs, I think it is going to be ok.
Alongside my weekly intentions, I am also mindful of how I care for myself, especially at a time of year that can be a minefield of triggers. Here are some of the things that I find helpful, you are welcome to share them:
- Create a safety net: if you don’t have a Christmas stocking, or even if you do, think about creating a Christmas safety net … fill it with the things that help you – a place to take time out if you need it – someone who ‘gets it’ who will welcome a phone call if you need to feel heard – a reminder to yourself of all the things you are doing well, right here and right now – a treat such as a ‘pick me up’ favourite film, or some luxury chocolate, or music to float away to.
- Join us: our wonderful Gateway Women Online Community – it’s a great place to share your own steps to Christmas and to feel supported and seen on the journey
- Claim your space: yes, ‘duty visits’ may be a part of the season – but do you need to stay for four nights … would two nights do it … or even a few hours? And if you are staying away from home for the duration, build in some ‘me time’, a visit to a nearby old friend, a walk in open space, an hour on your ‘guest bed’ plugged into your iPod.
- Mind your language: be mindful of the messages you are giving to yourself about how Christmas is going to be. Our ‘self talk’, is a powerful tool and can influence our own thoughts and feelings about ‘how things are’. If I tell myself that ‘Christmas isn’t for me, it is a time for children and I don’t count’ … I will feel isolated and invisible! If I change that message to myself, ‘I can find my own way to feel included/safe/seen this Christmas’, it all starts to feel a little more ‘possible’.
- Celebrate the small stuff: the meet-up with old friends that went better than expected – getting the gifts wrapped in time – putting a ‘looking after me’ strategy in place – notice the moments that you enjoy and pat yourself on the back for that – and the ‘getting through’ … just that is enough.
- Practice self-compassion: it is a skill! Start small, notice one thing that you have done well each day and maybe write it down, or say it out loud. It can be tiny; it is the acknowledging of it that counts. ‘Today I did well to get my Christmas cards in the post/to remember to feed the cat/to get through Christmas lunch with the in-laws.’
I am lighting a candle every evening in the approach to Christmas, it reminds me of that moment, under the medieval ceiling, in front of the stone fireplace, the moment that I re-connected. And if I am struggling, as we all sometimes do, it also brings warmth and light to my journey. But most of all, it reminds me I am not alone, I am sharing this pathway back to Christmas, back to myself, with many other women.
I may not be buzzing like a ten-year old, but I am re-connected, and maybe that is the most precious gift of all.
Jody would like to say a big thank you to the member of the Gateway Women Online Community who wrote this blog. She prefers to remain anonymous but those of us who know her appreciate her generosity, wisdom & gentleness.
Happy Christmas lovely you!