I left my husband in September of 1983. I was 28 years old, had two small children, and absolutely no idea what heartache I was in for by the time Christmas rolled around. For their sake, I tried to put a good face on things. I put up a little Christmas tree in our apartment, bought gifts for them, cuddled and watched all the holiday cartoon specials.
This photo is at my parents’ house. They did not approve of my pending divorce and now that I’m older than they were then, I know why. It’s those two little ones off to the side–now that I’m a grandparent, I understand how protective you feel about your family, especially its smallest members, the ones who have no say so at all in what happens to them and to the people they love. All security is shaken and even though they have smiles on their faces, their eyes tell a different story. Yes, they were loved, but they were being pulled apart as surely as my marriage. My parents knew this, but I was in denial, because I needed to leave my husband to save myself.
My boys turned out just fine, but it still hurts to remember that time when we were three. Especially at Christmas. I felt things I was not prepared to feel: loneliness so vast there was no me anymore, just hurt. Just pain. Because all my life I had one dream: to be a mom and a wife. And I had failed. Now I was in a new world, one that left me completely alone on Christmas day, while my children were with their father. Yes, it was a relief to stop pretending everything was fine. But then there was that other wilderness, one I had not experienced in many years.
My main coping mechanism was denial. Fake it til you make it. So, instead of staying in bed with the covers over my head, which is what I would do today, I went to a friend’s for brunch. Had too much champagne. Showed up at my grandparents’ house with quite the glow on. Sure, I’ll have a scotch, I said to my grandfather. One scotch led to two and as I sat amidst my family, all of them matching sets with Mommy, Daddy, and children, I felt that spotlight effect psychologists talk about, the one where you feel like everyone is looking at you and judging you or maybe just pitying you. “Alone” was the title under my spotlight. “Loser” was the word that ran like a loop through my head.
A sweet member of my family warned me gently about a guy who wanted to take me out. “What? Just because he’s rich I’m not good enough for him?” The shock on her face was real. So were the tears her baby suddenly began to cry, as if sensing his mother’s distress.
“No. Not at all.” Her eyes wore that same look of bottomless sadness I’d seen so often in my little boys’ eyes for the past few months, ever since we’d left home. “I just…he’s kind of a player. I didn’t want you to be hurt.” I noticed that lots of family were listening. I’d shouted those words. I was drunk. My granny brought me coffee.
Ashamed, upset, bewildered, all alone in a room full of loved ones–I sipped coffee and tried to sober up. Then I went home and was truly alone. My choice. But it didn’t feel like it; it felt as if I’d done a necessary thing for myself and the worst possible thing for my boys–for my family–and that I would pay the price for the rest of my life.
And that was true. I never got over that one Christmas alone. Despite finding new love and blending my family as best I could, I never again woke up with my children on Christmas morning. I talked it over with my ex and we decided that new traditions needed to be established. Christmas Eve would be my day with the boys and Christmas Eve night, after spending our holiday with my family, my husband and I dropped the boys off at their dad’s house. He had more money than we did, two more children, a new brother and sister for my boys, and all I had was a husband who hated Christmas.
I see now that I was punishing myself, depriving myself of my children, because I didn’t think I deserved to be their mom on that most special of days. I had not achieved the one thing I had always wanted: to create a happy home. Eventually, after many years of trial and error, I understood that Christmas was not a magic day, that every day I spent with my family was a precious gift, and I had the power to make it so.
If you’re a young single mom this Christmas and feeling sad, I have a true story of Christmas future for you. This year, my younger son is coming home to Michigan for Christmas. He is arriving on Christmas Eve with his wife, who is expecting our grandchild. They will be coming to my house from the airport and yes, waking up with me and my husband (who eventually admitted to the joys of the season) on Christmas morning. I feel blessed by stars set in motion so long ago, when I was young and sad and determined to do better.
Single, married, coupled, alone, widowed, abandoned, sad, with children or without, I am filled with gratitude for your visit here, and wish you the very best this season, and all the seasons of your life, have to offer. Do your best to make your life the one you always dreamed of and, stars willing, it will come true.