A short guide on how not to ruin Christmas, by a guy who did. You're welcome.
It’s been a couple of years since I had my first Christmas as a single dad – so writing about this now is only going to be about ‘six Band-Aids out of ten’ on the emotional pain scale. It’ll be a solid 9.5 on the ‘how could I possibly have made things any worse’ cringe scale.
I messed it up pretty badly.
My wife – we’re still technically married, so I can still call her that – and I split up a bit over two years ago. Luckily for me, despite the laundry list of incredibly stupid things I did to bring about the demise of our blessed union, we’re now good mates… But that first Christmas Day that we weren’t together was really, really rough.
To be honest, I was dreading it. My folks had retired down the coast during the year, so it was Christmas morning at my wife’s place with the kids, followed by Christmas Day at her parents’ place.
I’d only moved out of the family home a couple of weeks before Christmas, so I knew this was probably going to be something of an ordeal.
So I did what a lot of guys in my situation do – and promptly cocked the whole thing up in a truly spectacular fashion. But I’m happy to admit my mistakes, if it’ll help someone else avoid them.
Here were my three big fouls – I gave in to self pity. I thought by buying the biggest, bestest presents I would be the hero of Christmas. And I hit the bottle in a big, big way.
Not a good combo.
That first Christmas morning hurts like hell
There’s something inherently wrong with waking up in an otherwise empty house on Christmas morning when you’re a dad.
Eyes open… peer around groggily to make sure I’m where I should be or think I am… and then realise it’s Christmas morning and I’m not being shaken awake at 5 am by two very, very excited little guys who can’t wait to tell me Santa had been to visit during the night.
Instead, it was my alarm clock waking me up. Quick check of the phone confirms that it’s Christmas morning… and I’m all on my lonesome.
Pro-tip at this point: Get yourself into the shower as quickly as possible – ‘I’m not sad – I’ve just got shampoo in my eyes’ will increase your ability to lie to yourself that you’re not crying by about 30-40 per cent.
My first big mistake was wallowing around in self pity. By the time I was ready to leave the house, I was about as happy as Hillary Clinton on election night.
The best way to get around this is to prepare yourself the night before. Stay off the turps, know that the morning is going to feel pretty wrong in a lot of ways, but remember that Christmas Day is about Good Times, and making sure your kids are happy.
Having said that…
It’s a holiday, not an arms race
This is another big pitfall that I, and a lot of other dads, have fallen into in the past, and it’s almost inevitable, unless you know that it’s coming.
The idea that if you buy the biggest and best presents, you’ll somehow ‘win Christmas’ in the eyes of your kids is, to be blunt, utter horseshit.
That Christmas, the boys unwrapped present after present… this one’s from daddy – and this one’s from mummy. That alone took the gloss off what should have been a fun time.
Whose present was bigger, or better? We hadn’t talked any of it through. It was just massive gifts as we – or, more likely, I – tried to out-do each other and be the hero of Christmas. It didn’t work.
So – tips to avoid this are pretty simple: No one ‘wins Christmas’, so don’t even try. If you’re on speaking terms with your ex, give her a call and talk about what presents you’ll both be getting the kids – that’ll ensure you don’t double up on the latest box of Lego, and that you don’t end up spending a small fortune trying to look like a better dad.
If you’re not really on speaking terms, then don’t buy your kids a pony and expect a “World’s Best Dad” medal in return.
Yes, ten tons of Lego and a minibike will excite them to the point of lunacy – but a hug and a smile from dad is worth ten times as much in the long term.
The truth is, your kids are going to love you, as long as you acknowledge them, and make them feel happy and loved.
‘Christmas spirit’ does not mean whisky
We all know that Christmas is a time to have the family together and indulge in tradition – and what’s more traditional than a good, old-fashioned family fight once Christmas lunch is done?
If you’ve been invited along to family Christmas with your ex – for the sake of the kids, of course – that day, of all days, is when you’re going to want to be on your best behaviour.
It goes without saying that if things are tense between you and your extended family, it’s only going to be amplified by several orders of magnitude once everyone’s had a few drinks.
I got pretty-much totalled at Christmas lunch. I’ll spare you the gritty details, but I got red-carded about 3pm and sent home. Wow… just thinking back on this is making me cringe.
You really, really don’t want to be that guy on Christmas Day – and be the butt of every family anecdote for the rest of your life, when your kids start reminiscing about that time Daddy got in a blue with Grandpa and totally ruined Christmas.
This one’s a fairly easy fix – and it’s simply everything in moderation. You’re smart enough to know when there’s trouble brewing, which means you’re smart enough to know when to take your leave. If you’re the sober one, the best call is to walk away before something gets said that can’t be un-said – or worse.
You don’t need to spend it alone
Most of this has been about dealing with the ex and the in-laws at Christmas time, but there’s another scenario that needs to be talked about – and that’s when you don’t get the invite to Christmas lunch, or you can’t see your kids.
I’ll be straight up and say I’m lucky – I’ve never had to go through that, as my wife’s family are extremely patient people. So, I can’t even imagine how brutal it would be if I wasn’t able to see my kids at Christmas time.
But I do have a good mate (let’s call him Brian) who’s been through precisely that, and he spelled out what that’s like for me very clearly.
There’s no easy way to say this, but… the first time it happens, it’s going to hurt like an absolute bastard. The bad news is that it doesn’t get much easier, year after year.
Preparing yourself for it is the key to getting through it – and talking to the people around you that you know and trust can really help. Let them know that you’re going to be alone at Christmas, and drop a few subtle hints that you’d rather not be – and you’ll soon find you have someone to spend the day with.
For the past few years, Brian has been volunteering at a local homeless shelter on Christmas Day. He puts on an apron and doles out Christmas lunch to people who are in far worse situations than he is.
He’s not seeing his kids – but he’s doing something good, putting a smile on someone’s face… and not sitting at home on his own.
The final word
Being alone on Christmas, missing your kids and feeling like you’ve failed is a huge burden to carry.
If you’re reading this, and that’s how you feel, there are people to talk to.
Mensline Australia specialise in support, information and counselling for men who are dealing with separation or family breakdown. You can call them 24/7 on 1300 78 99 78 or if you prefer you can also speak to a counsellor via web chat or even Skype.
You can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14 – just be prepared to keep trying to get through, as Christmas is a busy day for the people on the other end of the phone.
If it’s a genuine emergency, call 000 and they’ll get you somewhere safe.
Christmas can be a tough time of year for single dads. But you’re surrounded by people who can, and will, help if you need it. Reaching out isn’t the soft option – it’s what a good dad will do, so that you’re there for your kids when the hardest of days are behind you.