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Post-Separation Christmas : “Outside Looking In.”

29 Nov

Christmas is for families. That’s often said. It’s one of those seasonal cliches — the cosy image of the perfect family gathered round a glowing fire ( or at least near a radiator), cracking nuts, pulling crackers, munching chocolates, exchanging presents and generally feeling happy, loved and secure. Some families travel from all corners of the country, if not the Globe, simply to be together at Christmas. They bask in the warm glow of togetherness. Some even indulge in a bit of seasonal showing off.  “They’re all coming to ours this year and I’ll be cooking for 17” How many times have you heard that one? They pretend to be exasperated with all the extra work but are secretly pleased that so many relatives want to join them on the “special day.” It’s all part of the annual, not so subtle, game of family  one-up-manship. “That’s nothing, we’ve got 25 coming . I don’t know where we’re going to put everybody!”

All this sounds very nice. It’s a lovely tradition. There’s nothing wrong with people getting together at a special time of year. But what happens if you’ve not got a family? What happens if you’ve become estranged from your relatives? What if you are actually alone at Christmas? The so-called festive season then turns into negative. It becomes a whole different emotional ball-game.

Back in Christmas 1988 this happened to me in a small way. I had been excluded from day to day family life by a no-blame separation, which eventually led to a no-blame divorce. I had done the decent thing by agreeing to my wife staying in the house and thus to be with our 3 children on a daily basis. I got plenty of access and was kindly invited along for Christmas dinner, but for the first time I woke up alone on the morning of December 25th. ( I forgot to warn you that this post was going to be a bit of a “weepy”!) I was living as a lodger in the spare room of some friends. They had gone away to visit their extended family in Greater Manchester. My “girlfriend” turned out to be commitment-shy. She presumably thought that it would send out the wrong signal if she was to spend a special occasion like Christmas with me. Thus, after visiting me for a token hour over Christmas Eve lunchtime and giving me my present, she disappeared for the rest of the holiday to join her family. I wasn’t invited.

Work and its distractions had finished for a fortnight. I couldn’t bear to go back to my parents’ place 22 years after leaving home for good, even though they had kindly invited me. I knew I would spent some of Christmas Day with my close family but basically, for much of the holiday I was to be on my own. Unfortunately this led me to have too much time to think!

Marriage and relationship break-ups invariably lead to indulgent bouts of self-pity. I was no exception. My first post- separation Christmas led to a really big wallow. I now realized that our society’s family-friendly Christmas could also be a cold exclusion zone.

As it fell dark on that Christmas Eve, I went out for a walk and couldn’t help noticing all those closed doors and drawn curtains. ( except for a small gap so you could see the twinkling tree.) In my hyper-sensitive state I felt that the doors had actually been deliberately closed on me! Absurd I know but that’s how I felt. To quote one of my favourite Mary Chapin Carpenter songs, it struck me that I was now: “Outside Looking In”.

Back at the house I got into a mini panic when I saw the whole evening stretching out before me, and I had nothing arranged. Friends weren’t available because they were all with their families or so I assumed. Dredging up some desperate courage, I went out again and knocked on the door of some new aquaintances of mine who lived nearby — C and N. They kindly invited me in and I ended up going to a party with them and, talking to lots of people I didn’t know. At midnight I helped N erect an indoor slide for his kids to play on next day. For a couple of hours I felt included, albeit in a proxy family, but eventually I had to return to the empty house. As I mentioned before, I had been invited to spend some of Christmas day with my family but for now I was alone. I had not been invited to the usual Christmas Eve gathering at our friends’ house. I was not frantically wrapping presents and I had not taken part in the dressing of the tree. In other words: I was out of the loop.

In forthcoming years I grew to value being alone for a while. The peace and the calm were precious commodities in a busy world. I would have a lie-in, go for a run while the day was still fresh, greet everyone I met with a special smile and have a quiet, relaxing breakfast before going to spend some quality time with my children. However, on that first post-separation Christmas, I did none of this. I struggled with my feelings and felt my “aloneness” very sharply. I felt excluded from the mainstream.

I experienced lots of kindness that Christmas  — from colleagues, friends, extended family and not least from my ex-wife and 3  children. However I still felt the pain of being alone for lengthy periods. In fact, perversely, this very kindness served to, at times, to actually emphasise my predicament. My mind worked overtime and I grew to irrationally resent others whose families had not been broken up . I even unfairly branded them as “smug”.

After a restless night I awoke on Christmas morning. All was quiet; eerily quiet in fact. No-one was opening presents; no children were screamimg with excitement. I had a small, peaceful breakfast, took a few deep breaths and tried to remain calm. My allotted visiting time was a couple of hours away so there was no rush. I thought I was OK and had got my turbulant emotions under some degree of control. I just had the 2 gifts with me in my adopted home. The rest were waiting for me at the family house a few miles away. There was my “girlfriend’s” Christmas Eve offering and a big colourful box from my kind hosts, S and C. I opened the latter and found it was a large hamper crammed full with delicious goodies. It was so thoughtful of them. For some reason I burst into tears. That act of kindness touched a raw nerve. It’s difficult to explain. It made me feel included but it simultaniously reminded me that I was excluded. It was a strange feeling.

Christmas Day with my family was really lovely in the end. It was nice having one of those closed doors opening just for me. The children were excited. It was as if I was delivering myself as a present to my own family! The rest of the presents were under the tree and we had a happy time opening them all. I felt loved and wanted. I knew this all along of course, but in my heightened state of sensibility brought on by Christmas, I needed these things verified. They were. My ex-wife and 3 children were all lovely and I had a wonderful day with them. We did all the usual Christmas family stuff. We ate a delicious meal, lit the candles, pulled the crackers, read the corny jokes and put on the funny paper hats. For a while it was almost as if the split had never happened, except of course it had.

As a very pleasant afternoon rolled on and it started getting dark outside, I started to become anxious .Awkward questions popped up into my mind. How long was I expected to stay? When was I expected to go? Had they arranged to do something later on? It was strange and difficult being a guest in what had until recently been my own home. I didn’t want to outstay my welcome and didn’t want my ex-wife to think that I was inviting myself for tea. I wasn’t joking when I said I was feeling sorry for myself. Self-pity seems to be threaded throughout this narrative. I’m sorry about this but I’m trying hard to capture my emotions at that time, and tell it as it was. I wasn’t really a pitiful figure, or at least I had little cause to be. I had lots of good friends and my family still loved and supported me. But it was still difficult getting used to my new circumstances and the raw emotions they generated. Those emotions seemed to coalesce around that first post-separation Christmas.

Since then I have re-built my life and pulled out of the dive. I have enjoyed subsequent Christmases with new friends, new partners and now my lovely new wife Chris. What’s more — at every single Christmas I have spent quality time with my children. In the early years we continued to play “happy families” at the old house which was very nice. Then there came a time when we outgrew this arrangement and they started to come and visit me over the festive period. Recently my 2 lovely grand-daughters have been included in the happy mix. Trips to the panto or a special Christmas production have now become a new family custom.

However, I will never forget the Christmas of 1988 and the swirling emotions that engulfed me. That’s why I still have mixed feelings when someone describes the festive season as “family get together time” and mentions :” There’ll be 26 of us sitting round the table this Christmas.” I still recall being alone for lengthy spells and being paranoically aware of the great conspiracy of the closed doors. I vividly remember the short stab of pain I felt when my own ” home’s” door clicked shut and I stood alone on the dark, garden path.

I’m sitting pretty now. I’m happy and contented and feel loved and wanted, but it’s hard to forget the time when I felt like the “outsider”. Maybe I should read that famous Albert Camus novel now, while I’m in the mood!

Dedicated to my children : Joanna, Catherine and Ian.