Countdown to Christmas: strategies for a childless celebration

abbey in snow
The Abbey, Sutton Courteney, Oxford

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.
The road less travelled? A winter's Gateway...
The road less travelled? A photo by the author of this blog

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!


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13 Comments on Countdown to Christmas: strategies for a childless celebration

  1. My experiment this year is to learn all of the Christmas carols on the piano and it has given me both a sense of accomplishment, and Christmas spirit and-comfort. Maybe I wil have new opportunities through my new skill, and the self care does wonders.

  2. I read your article about strategies for coping with a childless Christmas. This person has at least a brother or sister (she quotes her nephew), a partner (she quotes her in-laws) and obviously a real family gathering at Christmas. Has she any idea how unbelievably blessed she is? I am an only child, my parents are dead after 20 years or so of extremely stressful and depressing ill health, have no partner, no partner’s family, no brothers and sisters, no nephews and nieces. All family Christmas tradtions are gone and gatecrashing a friend’s is incredibly lonely. I have gone through the ‘bereavement’ of not only having no children but no partner either. I have, however, come out the other side and manage to cope, even be content. I’d give anything just to find someone else like this, it’s all a bit freaky otherwise!

    • Hi Meg – thanks for your comment and yes – the writer of this blog does does know she is blessed – but she still has her own pain to deal with. We try not to compete in the pain olympics here at GW. I’m so sorry to hear of your struggles – many of us can relate to parts, or most, and some even all of it. Come and join us in our private online community – you can connect with other like-minded souls getting through christmas without relatives and weary of feeling like a spare part at Christmas. Did you see the article I wrote in the Guardian about this? Big hugs, Jody x

    • I completely resonate with your comment here. I do have a husband, but worry about what would happen if he wasn’t around. My mother has dementia so doesn’t know it’s Christmas. Being a childless only child has a particular grief all of its own.

  3. Some days I am a whirlwind of activity, the grinch in reverse. Dragging in the Christmas tree, decorating the house, baking three kinds of cookies and sending out rafts of resumes. Other days it is all I can do to get out of my pajamas, cook dinner and take my happy face out of my back pocket before my husband gets home. I am fighting the unexpected dual battles of unemployment and infertility.

    Today is a weepy day. I am overly sensitive to criticism from my commuter-weary spouse who seems to dwell on the chores I did not finish, instead of noticing the things I have accomplished. Our finances are stretched to the extreme. Several unsuccessful cycles of treatments drained our saving dry. I would have continued if I could, like many, hoping for a miracle.

    I do not recognize myself in this dreary woman. Where is the perpetual adventurer and optimist? I am drifting away from old friends as they focus on their children. They do not empathize because they do not understand. It hurts that they do not try. As in the death of a loved one they expect me to mourn and move on. Order up an orphan like a pizza and shut-up. My husband copes with childlessness by saying, “it is what it is.” What does that mean?

    Christmas revolves around family. We spend it with my in-laws who often bemoan their lack of grandchildren as if reiteration of the obvious is going to produce offspring. I love the decorations, carols and festivities of the Christmas holidays but think of all the lonely years ahead and unfilled stockings by the fire with vast regret.

    It is comforting to find others struggling with the same journey. Your post is a roadmap for those of us who falter at the crossroads. Thanks for providing a lift from across the pond.

  4. This post caught me off guard. I love Christmas – homemade wreath on the door, minimalist decorations dotted about the place (no gaudy tree for me), drinks for neighbours with 15+ kids in tow (and a 12 month old on my hip from time to time), time with my family of 17 aged from 18 months to 85, homemade mince pies and Christmas cake. Bring it on!
    So why did I feel distinctly wobbly on reading this? Kindred recognition of the pain of others or tapping into some pain I have not resolved for myself, which is still buried very deep? I fired an email off to a fellow childless friend in Australia to share my pondering with her. At a rational level, I get so much joy from the children in my life – whether my 3 brothers’ 7 kids or those of friends. My life is so rich and charmed in so many ways – and I do wonder sometimes how on earth people fit children into their lives. Here I am at 7pm not having to do supper, homework, bathtime or negotiate a coming home time with a teenager or monitor screentime – bliss. I do see all these as huge benefits of my life.
    And yet, and yet …… this post had the power to wobble me.

  5. Thank you so much for writing that. This year is a little easier, as I am ‘allowing’ myself to enjoy it, but thank you, I don’t feel like I am the only one anymore! May all my Gateway friends (who I have never met) have a fabulous Christmas, in whatever way suits you best x

  6. What a beautiful and poignant article, I love the insight into the reality of being childless at Christmas time yet finding your own ways to recapture the Christmas Spirit. The words and inspiration brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing this with us! Xx

  7. Love the authenticity and embracing of what is, without wishing it away, yet the moving forward also. Not having family in a family-oriented world at the biggest family-fest time of the year is a very challenging experience. I’ve joined Gateway and since joining and reading my fellow GW sisterhood’s stories, receiving their support and cheering I’ve felt so seen. Thanks for this judgement-free space for childless-by-circumstance women.

  8. That’s such a beautiful peace of writing. I’m so thankful that I got to be part of the moment at the retreat. Thank you for writing this.

    I’m now quite happily reclaiming Christmas with only a slight sense of guilt (coming from my old self-talk “Am I being too selfish?”) as I’m making a Christmas for myself, in my own house.

    “Today I did well to get my Christmas cards in the post” applied to me, last week! I can’t remember the last time I posted Christmas cards. :)

    I’m soooo happy to be part of the Gateway Women Google+ community! I feel a warm sense of belonging that I’ve missed for so many years.

  9. My husband and I hang our stockings and fill them up with fun, silly gifts. Then we open them one present at a time. Over the years, we’ve developed several rituals just for us. It does help.

    • I absolutely loved this blog…such a ‘complete’ piece… it had me smiling, crying, contemplating and feeling inspired… all within a few minutes. I was particularly drawn to your comments about the messages we send ourselves… and have thought a lot about that over the last 24 hours… so thank you. And my goodness, guilty as charged on all counts for Christmas get-out clauses. Sometimes I guess these approaches are very valid but I really believe that it’s time… in my personal journey, at least… .to begin to reclaim Christmas. Such a wonderful thoughtful piece. xx

  10. Wow!! I wish my comment was more articulate or in someway matched the depth of feeling of this but as I sit & read, holding back the tears all I can think is ‘Wow’. You brave, honest, hopeful lady – I salute you & hope one day I can b where you are. I wish u all the very best for the future & in particular with u a very very merry christmas xxx

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