Christmas – traditionally the time of good cheer – is also, for many, a time of great sadness. Somehow, the fact that everyone is out to enjoy themselves seems to concentrate the mind on the tragedies of life. A train derailment or plane crash in the weeks leading up to the festive season appear all the more terrible precisely because it’s Christmas time. People talk about it for years to come. Likewise, the tragedy of a child’s parents’ divorce or separation can feel heightened during the holiday season.
What Happens to Children When Parents Separate?
For many years, that’s how it was for my family. Because Christmas day was remembered as the day my husband walked out on us all. In reality, the marriage had been failing for years, its embers repeatedly breathed back into life with determination on both sides, only to smoulder and die once more on the altar of adultery – until the final conflagration consumed what was left of us. I knew it was over when the cuckolded husband rang me on Christmas Eve. He was devastated! I, oddly, felt a sense of relief. And because my husband was out – with her? – I had time to compose myself before his inebriated arrival on the doorstep.
This excerpt from my novel, A Painful Post Mortem, picks up on a fictional account of the event: The pain for separating parents and the consequences for children learning that their parents are separating.
Here, Claire is speaking to a friend, recalling that Christmas Eve:
‘He came home from the pub under his own steam. Eventually! Spent the next half-hour ranting at me, claiming that I should have gone with him, that I never supported him in anything he wanted to do, that I had always put the girls before him. Instead of feeling guilty – as I once would – I told him, very calmly, that I knew about this other affair. And that I wanted a divorce.’
‘And how did he react?’
‘With utter disbelief! Although I’m convinced that he’d been trying for years to force me into a position of asking for a divorce I think, when it actually came to the moment, it was a huge shock to him. Especially as I was so calm.
‘I didn’t feel numb. But neither was I rationalising the situation. I just knew, deep inside me, that this was the way forward. The only way forward. Anything else was going to suck us back down into this quagmire. We’d been going round and round in circles, for years, getting nowhere. I felt – as if someone had taken my hand and was leading me out of a dark labyrinth with a Promised Land ahead.’
‘And what did Mark do?’
‘When he realised it was over, he wanted to leave there and then. To drive down to Compass Quay where he said Maureen was waiting to celebrate Christmas with him. I told him that in his condition he’d kill himself. And besides, he owed it to the children to stay and have Christmas Day with them.’
‘And did he?’
‘He recognised that he couldn’t drive safely; that he’d either have an accident or be picked up by the police. So he agreed to sleep off the worst of the drink, on the sofa in the lounge. But he said he couldn’t go through with the pretence of Christmas Day. I suppose it would have been a pretty tall order.’
‘He’d managed to keep up the pretence for months,’ Valerie says, dryly. ‘Why not another day?’
‘Anyway – the moment the girls woke up – very early because even though they were in their teens, they still had a Christmas stocking – he told them about Maureen. Not about the abortion, of course. Nor about the other affairs. Just that he couldn’t help himself; had fallen in love with her; wanted to be with her; it was what grown-ups did sometimes; he’d never stopped loving them – and so on and so forth. Said he was sorry. Then he left.’
I fall silent. Valerie reaches across and takes my hands in hers.
‘That must have been terrible.’
I flash her a wry smile. ‘It wasn’t one of our better Christmases,’ I agree.
The Effect of Divorce on Children
Historically, Christmas is the time when relationships are most vulnerable. It’s as if all the hype and expectation, the souped-up emotions, the simulated bonhomie – far from instilling joy and peace on earth – actually load us with more stress than we can cope with. The individual niggles we’ve shrugged off throughout the year are funnelled into one overpowering tide of discontent. But the truth is that in whatever season it occurs, when parents separate, the experience can affect children for years to come.
“Never presume children get over divorce,” says Lesley Garner in a Daily Telegraph feature. And I can vouch for the terrible affect my divorce had on one of my daughters. Her descent into drugs was a direct result of her attempts to escape the misery; to punish us, her parents; and to force a rapprochement as we tried to pick up the pieces when she became involved in criminal activity.
What came out of the online survey following the Daily Telegraph report was that, overwhelmingly, the children of divorced parents felt excluded. The majority, in later life, said that they had not been encouraged to talk about the experience. And it is this sense of isolation which, I believe, most contributes to a child’s feelings of insecurity. If Mum or Dad won’t talk about what’s going to happen, then the child’s worst fears take over in their imaginations.
Separation from Parent
The first question for my daughter, on that Christmas morning, was: “What’s going to happen to us to kids?” The prospect of being separated from a parent is daunting to a child. They need answers to their unspoken questions. As I wrote, recently, in two articles on step-parenting: Do You Know What it Takes and Don’t do it Unless You’re Prepared to Work at it, communication is key. Which, when you’re the parent and you’re hurting and angry yourself, is not easy! I made up my mind, there and then, that:
- I would never allow my children to become a punch-ball between their father and me.
- I would never speak of him in terms that were anything other than a Dad who loved them.
- And I would encourage my children to talk about anything and everything that worried or concerned them.
Now parents themselves, the eldest and youngest happily recount to friends that I achieved my aims. But communication was not without its difficulties. I had literally to force my youngest child (then nine) to talk out her fears – goading her into breaking down in tears to admit her feelings. Afraid of upsetting me, she tried valiantly to bottle it all up, and there were times when I had to elicit the help of her eldest sister to get her to let go.
With devastating consequences, I failed, miserably, with the middle one. Sometimes, it’s easier for a child to talk to a third party. There was no one available for my daughter. My parents did their best to help but lacked the skill that a professional might employ. The professionals who were available lacked the training and insight needed to help her. Always a “doer” and never a talker, my daughter may well have benefited from the sort of expert support for which Lesley Garner and others are petitioning the government. As it was, her death, in a drug-related incident years after my divorce, was something her father never recovered from.
Happy Christmas memories all round!
How the rest of us came to terms with those memories will be the subject of another article. Make sure you don’t become one of the statistics. Merry Christmas.