When author Charlene Allcott split from the father of her son, she arranged a co-parenting set-up to be proud of. But when it came to the festive season, she found the loss and loneliness far harder to hide...
My mother is obsessed with interiors. She practically salivates over any show that involves snooping around other people’s houses. She likes clean lines punctuated by exotic ornaments and as children, we knew better than to leave Lego on the stairs. But then there was Christmas. My childhood home would become a riot of cheap tinsel and plastic snow and the annual centrepiece was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of a sinister-looking Santa. It was a poignant lesson – parenthood meant a willingness to sacrifice your own needs (for a tranquil, stylish space) for their wants (utter chaos). She would hug us fiercely and say it looked wonderful. I heard the lie and I loved her for it. When my son was born I knew I would do the same: give up what I wanted, hold him tight and whisper white lies. I would do anything; anything except stay in my marriage.
In our defence, we tried. We made it until he was two. He had long been sleeping through the night, yet I still found myself awake in the early hours. The partnership dissolved quietly and unceremoniously; the passion had long left and any anger must have slipped out behind it. The end was marked only by an acute sense of grief which I masked by making everything about the boy, Roscoe, now four. I was the one who moved out. I told myself I was being brave but I think I believed I could leave the hurt behind.
Each of our homes now had a bedroom with a family photo and a trainset; we spent weeks organising a shared schedule. We were proud of our modern family. Our friends praised our ability to ‘make it work’ but if I’m being honest not much had changed. As the primary caretaker I was used to flying solo and when my son was with his dad I was working at my job in residential care. For the tough parts, I could pretend – smile when my son told me about the fun he had without me.
Parenthood is a lot about the lies you tell: ‘the decorations look wonderful’; ‘you'll understand when you're older’. Becoming a single parent just meant adding a few more: ‘Mummy and Daddy still love each other’; ‘you're so lucky to have two houses!’ I’d had some practice living a lie. Successful co-parenting is a bit of a pantomime, one in which you laugh and clap through the bitterness. But no matter how hard you try, despite the magic and the lights, you can't fake Christmas.
By December 2016 we’d had six months of separation under our belts; half a year of dishing out our son like slices of cake but with the season of giving approaching, neither of us wanted to share. For a child Christmas isn't a day, it's a journey – a sackful of memories in a week. We both wanted to ride along. I kept ignoring my ex’s emails, childishly hoping that the day would get lost amongst the spam. Christmas is synonymous with family and it felt more apparent than ever that I had ripped mine apart. When I could no longer avoid it and the season had declared its arrival in every shop window, I reminded myself that parenthood is about sacrifice and agreed to let him go to his dad's. My ex had presented a winning case – a week filled with cousins and presents. His close-knit family lived further away than mine and they were owed their time too. I gave in without much of a fight, telling myself it was the loving thing to do. I wonder now if I was trying to punish myself, for not being able to give my son the family I thought he deserved.
My plan was to keep my head down, stay busy, be breezy, pretend everything was absolutely fine, thanks for asking. In the run-up to C-Day, I worked every hour I could. Being occupied kept the doubts at bay. It’s tough for pretence to withstand scrutiny and for the first time I noticed how free others felt to quiz me on my plans. Where are you going? What will you eat? Followed by the sympathetic faces when I said I'd be alone. I chose to be alone because I didn’t want to taint anyone else with my perceived failure. I’m impressed by my efforts at being okay and still surprised by the things that would cause my armour to crack – social media posts of that darn elf on the shelf, the first bars of Mariah Carey in a bustling department store – but it was the John Lewis advert that broke my heart. The one that told me Christmas means family and family means a mum and dad together. That was what we had promised to each other, and to him.
On Christmas Eve the work stopped and I was alone in my unadorned flat. I didn't even decorate because I didn't want to try and feel Christmassy.
I found my way to the dating app Bumble. I told myself I needed distraction but even the baby Jesus in his manger knew that I wanted validation. A handsome doctor (or so he claimed to be) offered to come and keep me company. ‘Shouldn’t you be with your family?’ I typed. ‘You’re not’, he replied. I declined his offer and settled for the Sex and the City boxset because here were women whom I knew well, who taught me I could be lost and lonely and still fabulous.
On Christmas Day I picked up where I left off, adding gin and pizza to the mix. My workmates had gifted me a tin of chocolates and they sufficed as a sickly Christmas dinner. Mum called and I told her I was doing OK. I FacedTimed with my son and pretended to be OK. Friends sent cheerful missives and I didn’t reply because I really wasn’t OK. As soon as I could return to work I did, those end of year days felt rudderless and I craved the structure and routine that motherhood had given me. When my son returned on New Year’s Eve with tales of baking with grandma and the extra special boxing day breakfast, I was so happy for him. Who knew happiness could hurt?
I didn’t believe I could compete and I wanted him to have the experience he was so looking forward to, so the following year I let him go again. And he was thrilled – Christmas meant a road trip with Daddy and Grandma’s Boxing Day breakfast. He didn’t know any different. This time I was ready. Carrie et al were queued, the fridge was full of carbs and I allowed myself to feel the sorrow, to cleanse my soul for the year to come. I’d formed a ritual to contain my pain.
Christmas isn’t just for kids, it isn’t even about family, it’s about finding comfort. Some find comfort in escape, hiding from everyday life and shunning expectations; others find it in community. I’d misinterpreted my mother. The week of disarray wasn’t a sacrifice – she was allowing herself to let go, to stop pretending for a while. Christmas created space for me to surrender to my sadness and for all its artificialness I think it’s the best time to live your truth.
Now I don’t have to pretend. I need to be with my boy and this year I will be. It might not be perfect but it will be honest and that’s where meaningful moments begin. Summer was barely over before we started planning the tree and puddings. We’ll have a chocolate cake and Roscoe had requested green jelly. I’ve told him that will make a fine tradition. I can’t wait to see his face as he unwraps his presents on Christmas morning but more than that, I can’t wait for him to see mine.
We’re going to my parents and Mum’s already been briefed on the scale of the decorations. He won’t be surrounded by cousins but there’ll be three adults to smother him in love and he’ll eat piles and piles of his Grandma’s ‘‘licious’ roast potatoes.
Maybe I’m overcompensating, but I’ve missed a lot of memories.
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