Issue 100 is out now

By Melanie Jarman

12th December 2016

Special occasions and celebrations can be a difficult part of family life when you are parenting on your own

By Melanie Jarman

12th December 2016

By Melanie Jarman

12th December 2016

One Christmas eve in recent years I’ve stayed up late waiting. You know, for Santa to arrive. Me, the cat and a nice whisky. Six hours later I witness the anticipation and excitement as his gifts are discovered. Me, the cat and a nice coffee. It’s always been a special time but I can’t help thinking that both ends of this Christmas tradition would have been more enjoyable and a richer experience with another adult there. Not just to clear up the wrapping paper and detritus of the present-opening frenzy. Really just to simply share it, and to also appreciate and value the happiness of the child involved. Special occasions and celebrations can be a particularly difficult part of family life when you’re parenting on your own. However gorgeous cats may be, let’s face it, they don’t quite cut it. I’ve found Mother’s Day particularly poignant in this respect. The first few years of being the subject of this day saw me with emotions still reeling as, unexpectedly, I set out on a path of raising a child on my own. There was no other adult there to shore up the corners of the family within which it was “my” day. Over the next couple of years I began to adjust to the shape of our family being just my child and I. Nonetheless, the void where I had expected another adult to be still loomed large on this “special” day.

This year however, I’m approaching special occasions with a different mindset. I’ve finally accepted and embraced the fact that the situation is as follows: as a single parent - in my case to an only child - when it comes to family celebrations, it’s you and me and what we make of it. Don’t get me wrong - I know that I’m lucky to get to share celebrations and traditionally familyoriented events with the person I love most in the world. That counts for a lot. It’s just that, when that person is too young to play much of a role in the planning, or even the realisation, of an event or a day that’s meant to be a notable occasion, then the sense of “loneness” at the heart of single parenting can be highlighted in a way that’s particularly challenging. For me, this is more so than the “loneness” of single-handedly carrying a household practically, financially and emotionally. I expect that to be tough so I get my head down and soldier through accordingly. It’s the bits of life that are meant to be joyful that I’ve really struggled with. For the joy – the richness and the meaning – of family-oriented events is built upon connections and human relationships. And, as an adult in a single parent household, there isn’t an obvious peer to connect with or relate to. All the same, as I’ve finally opened up to learning, this needn’t call for a pitiful approach to celebrations. Quite the opposite. I learn to make the most of my relationship with my child. I fully appreciate her company. I get a sense of freedom from the chance to form our own stories and our own ways of doing things. For without being able to fall back on traditional responses – while the kids are small it’s Dad that makes Mother’s Day special for Mum and vice versa on Father’s Day – non-traditional families have to rise to the occasion by creating their own shared response. And it’s possible that celebrations may end up enriched and with real value for your own set-up (whatever it may be) as a result. Here are some things I’m learning:

Accept the sadness - and move on

Although some people may be happy on their own, some will feel that, as a parent who is single, they are missing out. Missing out on the companionship hoped for through family celebrations and life’s ups and downs; the relationship that would enrich the passing years; the other grown-up to complete the family photos. With this sense of “missing out” lurking in the background, every golden moment will have a tarnished edge. Single parenting is hard and it can make people feel sad. It’s alright to admit this, and to find a way to grieve – talking about it, having a good cry – whatever’s your thing. Accepting the sadness rather than leaving it lurking will make it easier to move on and to be ready to make the most of the situation as it is.

(Re-)make your own family

Friends are the family we choose and they can become even more central to life when there isn’t an “other half ” there to fall back on. My best friend has certainly stepped up to become honorary family at times when an adult partner would be handy – making herself available for the planning of birthday parties, and the exhausting attempts to pull them off. This has been no mean feat for a busy and slightly child-averse friend whose comfort zone doesn’t include over-excited, sugared-up small children. I’ve re-made relationships with my wider family too. My mum has become the main person I now turn to to talk about anything to do with my child - issues at school, health concerns, ideas for presents. From being the person that I grew away from as I became an adult, she’s become the person to whom the adult me turns back to for support.

Separate your expectations of an event from your child’s

Just because a parent grew up with a houseful of siblings and noise that shaped their memories of, for example, Christmas morning, it doesn’t mean that this scenario defines Christmas morning for the child. What a parent thinks might be lacking from a celebration isn’t necessarily so for someone who never knew it in the first place! Many people have already created different traditions from those they knew as children anyway. Religious practice has declined over time and, for individual families, some whose Christmas mornings used to include a visit to a church service no longer continue with this as they build their own families. For families where the parents have separated later in a child’s life it is more likely that a child will have similar expectations to a parent’s. In these cases, family celebrations are then just one aspect of the changing nature of all of family life as it’s been to date. As such, they’ll need re-inventing alongside everything else.

Take the opportunity to be the change you want to see!

On the 5th of November it’s me who builds the bonfire. If we have fireworks, it’s me who sparks them. My daughter is growing up seeing that a woman can do many things. I hope that as she grows older this will help her to recognise that, while men and women do of course have differences, this doesn’t mean that either gender should be stereotyped into certain behaviours, either in the home or out in the world.

Celebrate yourself

As a lone parent, as well as not having anyone else at home to support the children, you won’t have anyone else there to support you. In the midst of caring for others, keep your own wellbeing in mind. Ultimately it’s even harder to be the linchpin of the family and – at least until the children are older – the facilitator of celebrations without satisfaction and joy for yourself. This Christmas Eve I won’t dwell on being alone: I’ll be valuing the stillness and silence of that special evening, which has never lost its magic for me, even though the cat is yet to break into chat as a result of the mystical powers said to be at large for that night only. I’ll also be dedicating the nice whisky to all the other single parents out there, also alone, and also doing their best. For you, whatever your favourite activities or situations, I hope you have a New Year’s Resolution that means you get to make time for them. In the midst of it all, celebrate yourself!

Melanie is a writer and editor with an interest in environmental issues. An unexpected turn of events has also led to an interest in issues around single parenting