Christmas…with my Ex!

Wednesday 30 December 2020

With the afternoon news a distressing chaos of tiers and school disruption, I decide to turn off the radio, enjoy a last Mince pie and relish the closing moments of Christmas 2020. Even with restrictions, even spending much of it with my Ex, it has been a welcome break from covid …

The great day itself, the 25th, is the usual flurry of wrapping paper and presents and the house is soon rocking along to the tune of Small Boy’s new electric guitar! One major change however is that ‘Christmas Dinner’ is, alarmingly, entrusted to my questionable culinary skills, for the first time in many a year. Indeed, I struggle to recall ever before being left in sole charge.

‘Thank the Lord for Corona!’,

I am almost heard to cry as spuds and sprouts need to be peeled, parsnips roasted and oven space juggled for only 6, instead of our usual family gathering of 11 or more! Does it go well? I think so! As Boxing Day dawns, my head still buzzing with guitar strumming, I knock back a couple of Anadin-extra, tip a crate of bottles into the blue bin on Boxing Day, and resolve that we were probably all too sozzled to care in any case.

Ex-Hub is the next to arrive and stay for a few nights; another unusual festive twist. Winding the clock back a decade, to the time of our separation, we did initially continue to spend Christmas together. All my idea and not, alas, for the noblest of reasons. Yuletide; it is my special time, my season of magic and sparkle and cherished family traditions. So, when it came to negotiating Xmas -access, hating the idea of entering the world of ‘alternate years’ that other single parents described, feeling physically sick at the prospect of waking up on a Christmas morning without my children, I took control of the Holiday calendar. I established a tradition of New Year and Easter with Dad, and Christmas with me for our trio. Inviting Ex-hub to celebrate the December 25th festivities with us if he wished, was probably, if I am honest, my idea of a final deal-clincher.

So I confess, not my most selfless act, but I was met with little opposition; it seemed to suit everyone. I’d say that it enabled both new households to establish their traditions and ways of marking, with certainty, great celebrations on the British calendar. Whatever the theories, this division of holidays works for us and as such I recommend it, not as a blue print for any other family as we are all unique, I recommend it as an example of ignoring convention and expectation around how you parent, co-parent or share-parent and in finding your own way!

But back to teaming up for Christmas. which we managed for 3 or 4 years. Whilst some may find it odd and I fully respect that for some it is unthinkable, we are not the only family to try it. Red columnist Olivia Blair’s article highlights the case of a woman who now enjoys Christmas with her ex, despite citing the festive holiday when still together, as a key catalyst in their break-up! More in tune with my experience, Kelly Baker, describes how the great healer of time heals the hurt and pain and allows you and your Ex to operate as people who do actually share common interests and can enjoy each other’s company again … if only for a few days.

Eventually, as Ex -Hub and I both moved onto new relationships, sharing Christmas came to a natural end. Until, of course, this year!

Oh Corona virus – it has destroyed the teens’ face to face contact with their father and ‘down south‘ family. How to visit? Where to stay? What to do? Balancing health risks for vulnerable family members … it has thrown up more problems that we have been able to solve and, in consequence, contact has dwindled to Zoom calls and x-box games. So as Christmas is the season of good will, a few weeks ago, I took a deep breath, stocked up on alcohol and invited Ex-hub to stay for a few days in December.

And the visit goes well. Walks, games, films and family meals – all washed down and smoothed over with plenty of wine. Yes, pickling the liver, is clearly a shared strategy for both parents on this occasion! In occasional awkward moments, I sternly remind myself that, for the teens, it is a wonderful opportunity to check in with their dad in person – an even better present than the electric guitar! For me too, possibly because I am a little out of my comfort zone, Christmas day guests and even Ex-hub are both a great distractions from everyday worries. The stresses and strains of our ever changing covid-life do indeed recede for a few days.

But, as Ex-Hub’s expensive electric car, glides off the drive at the end of his visit, the realities of covid -life close in once more. My stomach knots, my heart says a sad farewell to Christmas and my head turns with apprehension and dread towards a grim New Year…

From humbug to hot tub!

Saturday November 2020

The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheeks, stiffened his gait…”

Oh my word… am I looking in the mirror?

Dicken’s brilliant description of Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’, this month’s Book Club read, leaps off the page, as I lounge in bed with my Kindle, enjoying the luxury of a lazy Saturday morning. It actually is me. I’ve spent so many weeks grumping and grouching about in the punishing world of corona virus life, that you probably can see misery etched onto my face and could re-christen me Ebeneezer! Well enough is enough. Before I hear clinking chains lumbering up my staircase, I’d better channel my inner ‘Tiny Tim’ and start spreading some festive cheer!

Mum is already in our bubble, so I call to confirm her for Christmas dinner and then I extend my invite to a couple of others who might also be on their own. Everyone is delighted and I do start to feel much more positive.Buoyed with success, I text ex-Hub and by noon, he too is booked in for a stay during the travel window. Next I finally sign up for my very patient brother’s Mid-december trip to Lightopia

Mum…calm down”, cautions Prom-dress Daughter

But I do the very opposite.

Pottering out to put some recycling in the bins, I hear splashing noises and lots of giddy laughter coming from next door. Peering over the fence I see the entire family… in a hot tub! It turns out that they have hired, not bought it, from someone on our estate who has a veritable fleet of the rubber pools, complete with gazebo and prosecco! It sounds like the perfect addition to my yuletide plans. All three teens, on the family WhatsApp, are keen and I boldly contact the company owner.

Armed with prices and dates I do now take a moment to pause. One false move on the booking day and I could find myself sharing the hot tub with either my 80 year old mum, or my Ex-Hub! I look carefully at the calendar over a large coffee, take a deep breath and then … take the plunge!

Well it all certainly lifts the mood. And here’s to plenty more Christmas spirit! In the masterful words of Dickens,

I believe that it (Christmas) has done me good, and will do me good; and I say , God bless it!

Feeling Grinchy…

Friday 6 November 2020

I have no doubt that people will be able to have as normal a Christmas as possible..”

Boris Johnson November 2020

Oh do ‘Shut up!’

Stringent covid -19 restrictions are imposed nationally across England for the second time this year. Tier 1 residents, after 5 minutes of social isolation, flood media channels with their motivational messages, cheery Dunkirk spirit and ‘top tips‘ for ‘surviving lockdown‘. I am sure they are well intentioned, but for this North West mum, after months and months of this misery… I’m just not feeling it.

What am feeling, driving home to a radio coverage of the PM bumbling his way through a Press Conference, is growing fury. The Home Nation plan to ‘Save Christmas‘ finally tips me over the edge! Oh do stop central Government treating us all like 5 years old? Rules. Nursery Rhyme slogans. The Naughty Step of Tier 3. And now, if am am a ‘good girl’ Papa C will still bring me presents? It is simplistic. It is patronising. It is, quite frankly, an insult to suggest that so many weeks of; rudderless leadership, emotional hardship and at times sheer despair can be balanced out by the chance to pull a few crackers with the in-laws on Christmas Day.

At work, this week we send a further 5 cohorts of pupils home. Around 200 young people, completely devastated, faces etched in panic and often close to tears

Please no, Miss. This is the third time I’ve been sent home this term!”

My mocks … what about my mocks?

“I was off for the last 2 weeks I’ve only been back a day”

“Miss, I’ve has Covid already!”

Next week, to reduce pupil bubbles, we shall cancel PE lessons …

What am I supposed to say? (I shriek at the radio)

Hey, your education’s in ruins but don’t worry, we’ll all be able to have a fine Christmas dinner together!’

What is an appropriate response to the frantic parents who call, in ever increasing numbers, weighed down with concerns about their children’s anxieties and well being?

Oh never mind any of that. Ho ho ho! Santa Claus is coming to Town’

What utter crap!

Or am I wrong? Christmas is a great thing after all and usually my favourite time of the year. Perhaps some twinkly lights and a few glasses of egg nog is just what we do need in these grim times. Let’s face it, without a festive fortnight, the months ahead look relentlessly bleak. In the unforgettable lament of C.S Lewis’ Lucy Pevensie,

Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!” “How awful!”

Source: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Perhaps a better response is to ease up on Christmas … and just turn the radio off!

Its the most wonderful night of the year …

Sunday 22 December 2019

The best moment of any school holiday is the first Sunday night. In place of the usual grim evening of ironing, of planning lessons, of finishing reports, of last minute homework, of sorting out dinner money, bus passes and gym kits … in place of all of this is just an excited glow of freedom. Pressure and deadlines melt away and two weeks of seemingly endless time and opportunity spread out in front of me.

Christmas is a busy time of course and I still have much present purchasing and wrapping to do. I still have to brave the food shop for my contributions to this year’s big family Christmas dinner.(Thankfully, for all, I am put on desserts and instructed to ‘buy them’. Surely even I cannot go wrong with this one?) And my teens are a popular trio at the moment, which means lots of ferrying around to meals, movies, skate-dates and parties But compared to my usual day job …

So will I be doing any school work at all in the next 2 weeks? Of course I shall. But it certainly wont be in the next 10 days and it will only be finite and manageable tasks. I intend to start back in January, replenished and refreshed. And the experts agree with me. In her 2015 article, “It’s official, teachers must relax over Christmas to avoid burnout” , Sarah Marsh examines the evidence from a City University, London study of 90 teachers which concludes that time off allows teachers to “restore their emotional energy” . Those who fail to switch off and continue to worry about work were found to have made far less good a recovery from the demands of the term than others. Relaxation should be our quest and amidst all the tips from the teaching and health care professional come many of my familiar lifelines: reading, exercise, family time, trash TV ….and laughter.

A glance at the time tells me I have an hour to kill before I collect Prom-dress daughter from her a friend’s house. I think feet up, a mince pie and a bit of Daniel Craig sounds just perfect ….

Christmas carols, Christmas chaos….

Monday 16 December 2019

The last few days have been a hectic mix of the familiar; traditional Christmas carols concerts, parties and drinks, with the unfamiliar and definitely less festive challenge of University interviews for my eldest.

Friday takes us to Yorkshire. The University grilling takes almost 3 hours. The drive home, along a flood hit M62 even longer. The alpha-mothers in the parent room, whose knowledge of UKCAT scores and entry criteria for every Medical school in the land is encyclopedic, have left me feeling like a total failure as a mum. I am agitated by the motorway queues and lane-closure confusion. And my lovely girl is clearly deflated by her interview. Nonetheless upon our return, she summons up the energy to don her party dress and step out for the evening, and I rally enough reserves to drive Prom-dress daughter to another social gathering and feed Small Boy, before heading gratefully to bed.

My eldest gets to sleep somewhat later than this. She is home not long after midnight. And I am sure of the time because she stumbles into my room upon her return, a little the worse for wear, switches on the light and slurrily gushes ,

I really, really love you mum!”

I reciprocate the sentiments, persuade her that now not the best time to go and visit her brother, and steer her off to bed.

To her credit, by 10am on Saturday morning, both she and Small-boy are at Victoria Station in Manchester to play 2 hours of Christmas carols and songs with their local band. Quite a few of my family gather to listen, over cheery cups of Costa coffee and a catch -up on the latest news. It’s a lovely event that stirs the heart and replenishes the seasonal community cheer. I stay in town for a number of afternoon/evening drinks with friends and, as Sunday dawns and my eldest and I now pack our bags for a trip to University interview number 3, I have only a mildly banging head to contend with. We hit the motorway again and are checking into our hotel by 5pm.

Our Monday interview starts at an astonishingly early 8am but again it is 3 hours before my eldest emerges. This one is ‘the worst yet’ and feeling pretty sad and despondent we slink back to the car and set the satnav for home. I feel that sickening terror that every parents knows of wondering how we will cope with the disappointment if all the hard work, and I’d make that 3 years of hard work, ends with rejection and the end of my daughter’s dreams. But today it takes me less time than usual to shift this paralyzing dread. Because… she is such an amazing, driven and talented girl. And that means lots of alternatives, lots of choices and lots of ways to have a bright and happy future. Hey, at least when she’s tipsy, my girl ‘really,really loves her mum‘, I’ll make sure of it !

Even if I hadn’t cheered myself up, back home the usual chaos is enough to distract anyone. Prom-dress daughter and Small Boy both have a Christmas concert to play in … at 6:30pm. In a last minute change of plan however, Small Boy has also been selected to make his debut on the school basketball team, in another venue…ending at 5:30pm. Fortunately it’s Monday. My mum arrives for piano lessons. We shelve these and she agrees instead to feed the girls and drop Prom-dress daughter at the concert hall. Without stopping for food, I head out to the basketball tournament to cheer on my tall, gangly bean of a boy. It just so happens that the venue for this sporting spectacle is about 3 minutes from my mum’s house…and I have a key. At the final claxon tolls, at 5:45 pm, I whisk him, off to mum’s. She is not there, because … you’ve got it … she is at my house! Small Boy changes with the speed of Clark Kent himself, I thrust 2 packets of crisps and a bottle of Lucozade at him and we speed off to the concert.

We arrive with moment to spare. Small Boy’s grinning face races off to take his place in the orchestra. Prom-dress daughter, already in situ, gives us a smirk and a wave. I sink gratefully into my seat and the carols begin. ‘Silent Night‘ … how lovely … and if only….

Poor Old Christmas Cards!

Sunday 8 December 2019

Henry Cole, founding director of the V & A, may have sent the first Christmas card as long ago as 1843. But tonight, as I sit down to pen my annual festive greetings, the reaction of my teens make me feel like the historic exhibit in the house!

Is my address book on the desk?” I shout up the stairs, as I prepare to settle down with three shiny packs of new cards, stamps and nice pen. Small Boy, who is in the study dashing off a bit of last minute homework, pops his head over the bannister.

What’s an address book?” he puzzles back.

Hilarious!’ I mutter, stomping up the stairs to ‘look for it myself’. But, as I dwell upon his words, it strikes me that I have never bought one for any of my children. Which means that they have never asked for one. Which means that the innocent address book, at least in hard copy, could well be becoming obsolete. And that is where I start feeling pretty outdated.

When it eventually turns up, I view my address book affectionately … as an endangered species in fact. I carry it carefully down to the lounge and open the page at ‘A’. True the corners are a little dog-eared but I smile at addresses crossed out and updated many, many times for some of my oldest friends. It’s a flashback to other times and places. It’s a visual reminder of past chapters of life and memories happy and sad. It’s …. I don’t actually have much time to feel wistful because my eldest now appears. She gives me a kindly smile

Aww, are you actually going to sit there going through your little book and writing cards? You are so cute!”

I now feel like an utter curiosity. Is it really so unusual to see someone spending an evening penning Christmas cards to their friends … and addressing them? Am I really such a quaint relic of a bygone age?

A glance at social media would suggest that I might be. Every year, the number of folk announcing to the world that they are ‘donating to charity‘ instead of sending festive cards grows longer. Many do this in a way that raises valuable awareness of, and funds for, great organisations. But I suspect that some are too-busy people and a part of me wishes that, for variety, a few would boldly say ‘Look I just can’t be bothered to write any cards this year. I think it’s all a bit pointless. Hope you understand!’ No-one would mind.

Poor old cards are not the only wasteful and unnecessary extravagance of the yuletide season? They do at least re-cycle, unlike the plastic tat in in our Christmas crackers. Poor old cards are not single handedly keeping funds from the charity coffers? You could, for example, cry ‘I am buying 3 fewer bottles of Prosecco and cutting out the tubs of Quality Streets this year, to give more money to good causes’ But we don’t often hear that one!

But card writing does eat into the evening hours. Ironically, it is said that Henry Cole designed the card as a way to save time in the hectic festive period. Would he, I ponder, have been keener than me to move with the times and speed things up in the 21st century with a witty e-card? I can only wonder! Do I think that we ought to give up a bit of time for card writing? Do I worry that if we abandon this tradition, we just replace it with … nothing of value and yet more consumerism and shopping? To be honest I really don’t. Call me an old romantic, but I chime with the opening scene ofLove Actually and believe that,

Love actually is all around‘.

I know that most people are busy at this time of year with social activities, making things magical for their kids and spending time with loved ones. So given this, why do I, even when my teens think I am a complete dinosaur, resolve to carry on penning and posting my seasonal cards. Simply this, I quite enjoy it. For me it is just one of our nicer Christmas traditions. A great way to quickly touch base with old friends and keep them in my thoughts. Each year I settle down with a nice drink, a cheesy movie, my pile of cards and of course my faithful address book. It’s familar, its comforting and … it’s time for me to get back to it! I am still on ‘A’ and that last posting date won’t wait ….