You'll have heard people say that Christmas is all about the kids, but if you don't have children and wanted them, or still want them and are running out of time, the festive season can be tough.
It's hard to escape the image of the perfect family at Christmas - TV adverts of hordes of relatives gathered for dinner, or children in colourful pyjamas opening presents with beaming parents.
Of course, we know that nothing is as it seems. Some of those parents will be unhappy, stressed, or anxious about the money they've spent. But in this social media age and especially when we're feeling vulnerable or acutely aware of what's missing, it's easy to believe that everyone else is having a wonderful time.
For years, I've found Christmas tricky. Every Christmas reminds us of Christmases past and not all the memories are happy ones. I remember Christmases as a child and teenager when I felt lost and lonely, when I longed for the large, united family my friends seemed to have. Our small family got smaller when my parents divorced.
At 46, there are still times when I long to be part of a huge family, but it hasn't worked out that way. I'm engaged to a lovely man but we don't have children. We are a family of two. I have my brother and his family - three boys - and my mum and aunty, but I'll only see them briefly this year.
In my case, I didn't try and fail to have children. And I didn't long for them all my life. In fact, it took me until 43 to be able to have a committed relationship and fall in love, and I chose a man who didn't want kids, as I've written about in my book.
Through therapy, I've come to realise I've always been ambivalent about motherhood, as I discussed in a Woman's Hour interview recently, which then inspired a long blog post. My ambivalence was partly due to the fact parenthood hadn't looked fun for my mum, but also because I sensed my parents were ambivalent towards me, so I have internalised ambivalence. I find most decisions excruciating, from buying shoes to choosing a partner.
Ambivalence means to be pulled strongly in two directions, so sometimes I desperately long for kids and sometimes I feel fine without them.
But at Christmas, the part of me that wants children shows up big time as I imagine what it would be like to have a big family. That explains the meltdown I had the evening before my Woman's Hour interview, after attending a party with two pregnant neighbours. There I was, preparing for a Radio 4 appearance while two beautiful women stroked their baby bumps. Why am I always working while others are growing families? I cried myself to sleep.
Those extreme feelings have passed, as they do if I give them space. I now feel determined to cherish my little family of two, to believe that it's enough, to believe it's meant to be. It would be sad to wreck a beautiful partnership by focusing on what I don't have.
But if you're struggling with grief or loneliness ahead of a Christmas without kids, here are a few ideas to find peace:
- Allow yourself space to grieve the losses, of the present and past. If you're like me, you'll have developed ways to avoid your feelings. I used to binge eat, starve, then run like crazy to numb how I felt, and I drank to excess. My compulsions had a field day at Christmas. But the feelings are there, beneath the surface, and if we don't feel them, they'll come out sideways, sabotaging our relationship with ourselves and with others. So take time to be still, meditate, journal or walk mindfully, and to connect with how you truly feel. If tears come, embrace them. We have to feel it to heal it.
- Cherish the love that you do have. Even if you feel there are things or people missing in your life, I hope you can feel the love around you, be that of friends, a partner, other family members, a community or even a pet. Hold that love close. It's precious.
- Know you're not alone. There are many people this Christmas who are struggling to find a sense of belonging or who are grieving the things they don't have. Connect with people in the same position and with whom it's safe to be real. Maybe avoid Facebook for a while.
- Practise gratitude and acceptance. I know it's sometimes hard to feel grateful for what we have when there are things we long for, but gratitude and acceptance are powerful. For me, they've helped me transform.
- Create a positive vision for your life. If you're feeling dissatisfied, use this dissatisfaction to fuel change. Where do you want to be this time next year? In a relationship, a new career, part of a community, doing stuff you love?
- Commit to action. How can you turn that vision into a reality? What specific steps can you take and by when? Can you buddy up with someone to stay accountable?
Wherever you're at, I hope you're able to let go of 'what if' and accept 'what is' this Christmas. I will try to do the same.
I'm hosting a free webinar on Thursday Jan 4 at 1 pm: Create the Life & Love You Want in 2018. If you'd like to find a loving relationship in 2018, I have a few rooms left on my How to Fall in Love retreat on Jan 12-14. My How to Fall in Love 6-week course kicks off again on Jan 8. And on Feb 12, I'll be leading a workshop in London in partnership with Psychologies and NOW Live events: Fall in love with yourself, with life and with another.