Hayley is a child of single parents and grew up in Berkshire. She is also a single parent herself to her daughter; they live together in Norfolk where she works as a teacher. She studied English and American Literature at the University of Essex and went on to do an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her first novel, Jar Baby, was published in 2012. Hayley writes fiction for adults and young adults as Hayley Webster, and for younger readers as Hayley Scott. Here, she writes about her experiences of Christmas as both a child and an adult.
I think the best bit about growing up with parents who split and then lived in different houses was that they both did Christmas the way they wanted to. My parents were both headstrong with lots of hobbies, interests and friends, so when they were finally apart, they both embraced these things. I think this made Christmas less stressful for them, and for those around them. Luckily for me, both of them loved music, so Christmas was always about singing, playing instruments and gatherings.
I don’t remember wishing my parents would get back together so we could be ‘a proper family’. I worked out a long time ago that the only ‘proper family’ is one where love is. There isn’t a best type. There isn’t an ideal. Every family has its own problems, its own strengths, its own happy or sad memories. The important thing is it belongs to you.
It’s easy to say that with hindsight, I know.
I don’t want to romanticise single parent families just as much as I never, ever want to demonise them. Now I’m older, I think if the adult stuff involved in splits is kept away from the children as much as possible, it really can be quite an uplifting process if the children see their parents happy, and get to enjoy each parent in their own way. Although not all single parent families come from splits – it’s important to remember that. It’s very important too to remember a dual parent family isn’t ‘better’, it’s just different. That’s it.
Please accept I love you both
I used to hate having my Christmases allocated to each parent: one, one year, the other, the next. I felt I had no choice in how Christmas could be, but now I’m older I realise that unless they’d have been happy to have it together, there was no fair way around it.
That being said, I loved getting to see my sister at Christmas – we each lived with different parents the rest of the year – so Christmas was always a time I felt like other children who lived with their siblings, and that was important to me. We’d split the holiday in half, one week with our dad and one week with our mum: two Christmas dinners, two stockings, two sets of presents. In the beginning, I think they tried to outdo each other, but hopefully every person learns a child can’t be bought in the end. I hope they do. There’s something awful about seeing your parents try to prove they love you best by using what they buy as proof.
I wish I could have told them that no matter what had happened between them, I loved both of them – could they just accept that, please, and could we talk about something else? It’s hard if you feel you’ve been wronged by the other parent in a personal relationship (or if they’ve done awful things to you), but that often doesn’t stop a child loving that person, and if you try and show them what the other has done, it can backfire and the child becomes even more fiercely loyal.
I wish I could have said, ‘Please accept I love you both and don’t mention each other, really.’ That would have made Christmas better for me. I always worried about upsetting them by saying something nice about the other. I don’t think children should have to think about that kind of thing. Often, being a child isn’t as ideal and lovely as people seem to suggest childhood is. We need to make it as easy as possible.
Work with what you have right now
One of the things I’ve found as the adult in a single parent family is that you can make lots of traditions and enjoy the build up to Christmas without it being about gifts and money. If there is just one adult, the child or children can have more of a say about the tree and the decorations, or just be as involved as they like with everything. As the years pass, it’s lovely to remember how well you did, even in years where you had very little.
The pressure on single parent families is huge financially. It’s my view that the sooner we stop saying, ‘Father Christmas buys all the big gifts written on a Christmas list’, the better. Some people cannot afford those gifts. Why should they feel like failures? I know not everyone agrees with me, but if you’re struggling to afford the big things, and there’s the added pressure that Santa brings those things, have a think about whether you can change it to the stocking, or something smaller.
I was asked to think about top tips for single parent families at Christmas, but I don’t think I can come up with any generic ideas. I think it’s important to know yourself, and know your children, and know how they feel about the other adults in their lives. It’s important to build Christmas traditions that mean something to them and you. Having a Christmas radio station that you listen to and biscuits you make each year are the things most children remember over the presents. It sounds like a cliché, but in my experience, children will always value the time you give them over the gifts. I don’t even think about gifts for myself anymore. For me, Christmas is all about the build-up. The lights. The tree. The mince pies and cocoa. I’m quite easily pleased.
I saw a post on Facebook the other day that said, ‘Christmas is the time of year for snuggles’, or something similar. It was suggesting that Christmas is for those in a relationship. I think if we’re suddenly putting pressure onto people not in relationships with the idea that that they can’t access all that’s good about Christmas, it’s a really sad situation.
My best (and only) tip for single parents is work with what you have right now. Things might change in the future – you might build things, you might rearrange the shape of your family, but what about right now? What can be enjoyed as the parent, family and person you are? (Which is why I’m really excited that this year, the family present I’ve bought is Harry Potter Cluedo).
It’s all about the games and the cosiness for me, whatever shape my family is at the time. It’s also about embracing and nurturing the importance of friendships. Friends will be there for you no matter what shape your family is. My advice? Make the most of them, and allow them to do the same for you this Christmas.
Hayley recently released her festive new novel, One Christmas Night, with Trapeze Books.
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