If I’d struggled during Christmas 2016, because I knew about E’s affairs and I knew that we would have to split up, I was equally challenged, although for completely different reasons, by Christmas 2017.
We’d faced down a whole year of ‘firsts’ as a family of five, not six, but Christmas was the big one. Whilst I was fairly confident it would be less stressful (for me at least) than the previous year, and I was very happy that for the first time in over a decade I wouldn’t be sharing Christmas with someone who couldn’t even wait for his kids to open their presents before texting his girlfriend, I was worried about how the kids would feel about spending Christmas without their Dad.
I tried to keep things as normal as possible. I’d arranged to host a family day for my extended family and I’d arranged to see E’s family for a day too. I bought and hid all the kids presents as usual and I tried to keep up all of our usual traditions – things like watching the Christmas lights switch on in town and going to our local pantomime. There were a couple of things I just couldn’t bring myself to do though. I couldn’t face the annual carols round the town Christmas tree – that had too many memories of the six of us going and I knew I’d see loads of local friends there (and probably cry all over them), so I decided to sit that one out. I also decided that I couldn’t face sending Christmas cards with five names on them not six, so for the first time in my life, I didn’t send any (I don’t think anyone noticed – my handwriting is so appalling that, every year over 50 people have received a card from em and probably and have had no idea who it’s from – this year there was probably a collective sigh of relief that the nutter with scary handwriting hadn’t contacted them).
In some ways, I was surprised by how little was different. Even though I’d always thought of Christmas as something that E and I did jointly for the kids, I began to realise that E had really done very little and that Christmas had actually always been prepared, organised and completed by me. I’d always bought, wrapped and hidden the presents. The kids and I had always decorated the house together (E rarely joined in). I’d always lit the scented candles, hung the stockings and planned the little extras – like minced pies, and chocolates – that we have every Christmas. I’d always bought and wrapped the family presents and put them under the tree. I’d always co-ordinated the family get-togethers, planned the menus, put together the food shopping lists and then done all the cooking. Obviously I now had no E and no car, so I had to be a bit more organised about getting the shopping done – I couldn’t do my usual ‘send E out on Christmas Eve for the things I’d forgotten’ – but that was honestly the only thing I found different about the run up to Christmas.
Oldest Daughter played more of a role this time. In previous years, having bought all the kids’ presents, I’d put them in little piles in the bedroom, show E what ‘we’d bought’, and then agonise over whether the piles looked the same size and if we needed to get any extras. This year, Oldest Daughter was shown the piles of presents instead. It turned out that she was much better at this than E ever was. Not only was she really appreciative of what I’d bought, but she was really excited about how her brothers and sister would react when they opened their gifts. She was also great in terms of offering advice about which YouTube merchandise was the right stuff to get (I had no clue) and advising me of exactly what the other kids vague descriptions on their Christmas lists meant.
The boys also helped by heading up into the attic and finding the Christmas decorations. Their enthusiasm for this made me slightly nervous (I’m claustrophobic and not good with ladders, so there was no way I was going up there, which meant they were unsupervised from the second their feet disappeared through the ceiling), but they were remarkably sensible and all of the decorations – and both boys – made it down in one piece. Oldest Son also helped out with little jobs like hammering tacks into the wall for lights and cardholders. Youngest Son was very disappointed when I wouldn’t let him “have a go with the hammer” though (maybe next year….).
Unpacking the decorations was harder than I thought it would be. Every single bauble had a memory, an association, and, like little ghosts, reminded me of Christmases past. Together the tree decorations formed a kind of family history – I’d kept baubles the kids made in school, things we’d bought in Singapore, and things we’d made together at home. I’d also kept some beautiful wooden gift tags with our names printed on them, that E’s sister had attached to our gifts one year. It was particularly hard finding E’s name, together with another wooden tag which marked Christmas 2015 (the Christmas when he was seeing O and P and was at home with me). I know it sounds petty, but I posted these two to E. I couldn’t bear to throw them away – they had memories of the kids – but I couldn’t bear to keep them either. I have no idea what E did with them, or if he even understood their emotional significance, but I felt that at least I’d passed them on.
To mark our first Christmas as a five, Youngest Son and I went out and bought some new tree decorations. We chose a couple of new baubles and five glittery letters of all of our first initials to hang on the tree. It felt like the right thing to do – a positive way of celebrating our new family life as well a way of setting up some new memories to look back over in years to come.
E bought the Christmas tree, and Oldest Son was delighted to help me drag it into the house and help to set it up. The youngest three then decorated it, whilst I went outside and hung icicle lights around the house (another E job that I’d always been given the impression was terribly complicated but which turned out to be amazingly easy). I then festooned the house with the usual greenery and fairy lights and all of a sudden it was Christmas.
To our great relief, my parents were coming up for Christmas Eve/Christmas Day. I think we’d have been fine to celebrate just as a five, but we would have all been so aware that E was not only not with us, but preferred to spend Christmas with someone else, so having Mum and Dad there was brilliant.
It was an emotional time and there were moments and memories that I found very difficult, but in the end we had ourselves a very merry little Christmas. We had each other and we were surrounded by wonderful family – both mine and E’s. For me, compared to 2016, when I’d been aware the whole time of E texting P, it was a million times better than I could have ever expected. The kids seemed to have a lovely time too. I think they were a little upset by the fact that E didn’t call them on Christmas Day (I think he texted them), but they had me and my parents and lots of presents, so I think they were happy. Yes, in some ways things were a little different, but generally they were different in a good way.
I can also honestly say that New Year 2017/18 was the loveliest I’ve experienced for some time. Unlike the previous year, where I could barely face staying up to see the year in (and where E coldly ignored my distress), this year I sat in my PJs, watching TV, relaxing and listening to the laughter coming from the kids’ rooms. When Big Ben chimed 2018 in, and as I hugged my children and wished them a Happy New Year, I can honestly say that for the first time in a long time I felt hopeful. I was still nervous about what was next in the saga of E and P, but I realised that, together, the kids and I were a strong enough unit to cope with whatever was thrown at us. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, I didn’t doubt there would be challenges, but I realised I was looking forward to the next year without E.