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Column ‘I try to embrace our family situation at Christmas’

Being a single mother can be messy and difficult, but it doesn’t mean that Christmas can’t still be magical for the kids, writes Nessa Toale.

GROWING UP, I always remember great Christmases. My Mum saved all year and began buying presents in the summer just so we could wake up on Christmas morning to bagfuls of presents. We lived in a small estate in a little village and everyone knew everyone. When I was nine my parents bought a pub and Christmas day was one of only two days in the entire year my siblings and I would get to spend with them, undisturbed by goings on in the bar.

When I was 19, the pub was sold and my parents split. Christmas after that was uncomfortable and fraught with ill feelings. The day itself never felt special. We would stuff ourselves till we could barely move and watch rubbish TV.

In 2009, Beth came along and was barely three months old when we celebrated her first Christmas. The day was spent with just the two of us and my mother. It’s hard to even think of that day without getting sad. I felt like a failure as a mum, not able to provide a proper traditional family for my daughter. The next day she went with her Dad for a few hours to spend time with his family.

I couldn’t see then how it was ever going to be different, but it is, thankfully. Beth is becoming more aware of the whole holiday. She has ‘written’ her Santa letter and knows he can’t bring her everything in the Smyth’s catalogue. The excitement is palpable in our house.


This year will be Beth’s fourth Christmas and every year has gotten better. For the last two years her dad and I have shared Christmas day. At 8am he arrives at the door and we enter the living room together with Beth to see what Santa has brought. We spend a couple of hours opening presents, eating breakfast and playing. At about 10am, Beth gets all wrapped up and leaves with her dad to go visit his parents’ house until dinner is ready at my house.

Last year was lonely. When they left the turkey was in the oven, the gorgeous smell filled the kitchen and I sat at the table at a total loss. There was nothing to do. My family weren’t due for another couple of hours, the place was spick and span and there I was, eating a selection box, on my own, at the kitchen table.

She was only a few weeks old when I knew she wasn’t mine to hold onto anymore. As soon as she was born she became part of her dad too, a granddaughter, great granddaughter, niece and all the rest. As much as I’d like to think of her as all mine I have to realise letting go is the best thing for her. She is very much a part of her dad’s family, the light of their family as well as mine. If I kept her with me she’d never forgive me.

However, this Christmas Eve will just be about Beth and me. I have the whole evening planned. New jammies, Polar Express, selection boxes and hot chocolate are all on the menu. It’ll be the one time over the holidays that it will just be about the two of us and I’m going to make the most of it. I think the key is good communication and letting go. I don’t tell Beth’s dad that he can’t have her on certain days. We try to make a compromise, it may not always be easy, there have been arguments, but in the end we always know what is best for her and there’s no arguing about that.

The future

The arrangement we have now is not going to work forever. It works now because Beth and I live near his parents and that is where he spends Christmas day. In the future, new jobs, new towns, new relationships will all have a part to play in the shape of our Christmas. I just hope that we can always give Beth the Christmas she is happy with. I had magical Christmases as a child. As I got older they were hit and miss. The difference between Beth and I is having parents who aren’t together is all she has ever known. She doesn’t know what it’s like to have mammy and daddy around the same table, at Christmas time or not. Maybe that’s a good thing.

There are many non-traditional families out there. It may be a bit messier but it doesn’t mean that Christmas can’t still be fantastic for the kids. For the adults it can dredge up feelings of loneliness and inadequate parenting, like you are depriving your kids of a ‘proper’ family Christmas. But the reality is that, whether you are a single mum or dad doing it alone, or your kids are spending the day with an array of step mums and dads, it can still be magical and full of goodwill.

I try to embrace the uniqueness of our situation. I’ll admit, there are times when I just want a normal family Christmas – but then who’s to say what is normal? There are more blended families out there than ever before, half a million people in Ireland are living in single parent families. I’m not alone and Beth will see in the future that our situation is not uncommon.

Being a single parent means you do have to work harder to make Christmas work for your own personal circumstances, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be any less special. Beth brings the spirit of Christmas to life for me, whether her dad and I are together or not.

Nessa Toale is a single mother and a writer. Her book is called The Secret Beneath Bleeker Avenue. She also writes a blog:  Life, love and the pursuit of a crawling baby. More information can be found on her Facebook Page here. To read more articles by Nessa click here.

Read: Lone parent to ‘swap lives’ with senator>

Read: Readers’ Panel: Single parent>

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