As an only child, writer Megan Murray feels the weight of picking which parent to spend Christmas Day with keenly. Here she explores why that decision feels particularly complicated this year.
In 2020, there is no ‘normal’ when it comes to family structure. As a 29-year-old it’s more common for me to hear my friends talk about their parents in terms of new partners and complicated, ever-evolving family trees; those with parents who are still together seem increasingly rare.
This, of course, leaks into Christmas chat in a big way. One of my closest friends, who has been married for seven years, has been juggling four Christmas days for that whole time, to appease the four parental households she shares with her husband. It’s a circus-like process which she finds exhausting, overwhelming and draining. Doesn’t sound much like festive cheer, does it?
But, while my parents ended their relationship when I was just two years old, this division of Christmas time and who to spend the big day with is all quite new to me as I haven’t always had both households to choose between.
You see, five years ago my dad finally hit what they call ‘rock bottom’ after 18 years of alcoholism. In his early 30s he was a rising star in his profession as a mental health nurse in the NHS, flying around the world to speak at conferences. Having recently broken up with my mum, he had thrown himself into a busy social life, playing as hard as he was working and out in Birmingham’s buzzing pub scene every weekend. The lines soon got blurred, though, and within a few years, weekend benders turned into weeknight ones, too.
It’s not hard to imagine that as a medical professional going out and drinking every night, it was only a matter of time until this behaviour was called out and questioned. By this point, dad has entered what he now calls ‘the madness’ as his alcoholism took hold and his behaviour and decision making became controlled by it.
Over the next two decades, I wasn’t able to spend much time with him. We kept in touch through random phone calls, letters and the odd impromptu visit but he moved around a lot and experienced periods of homelessness, before settling in a permanent shelter.
It was here that he realised he’d finally had enough – and a life change was around the corner. After being attacked by some other men in the accommodation, he contacted his family and said it was time to come home. With their help, he accessed support via a six-month stay at a rehabilitation centre and since then has rebuilt his life from the ground up.
We’ve always had a special bond. Though time hasn’t been on our side, the memories I do have of my dad growing up are of us bouncing off each other, making jokes and feeling like we could talk about anything. As soon as he asked for support, I’ve been with him every step of the way and now he’s the manager of a rehab centre himself, helping other people struggling to beat addiction.
I’m really proud of him and in these last few years we’ve made up for lost time by travelling to Paris, Amsterdam, Rome and around the British countryside with staycations in the Lake District and Somerset. Last year I spent my first Christmas ever with him, which was even more emotional as his mum (my nan) had passed away just a few months before.
Now that my dad is such a big part of my life, though, what does this mean for Christmas days in the future? The years he spent battling his addiction have held him back from building up the friends and family that we typically associate this time of year with, and obviously, I want to be there for him.
But… what about my mum? My mum is my everything. Growing up she dedicated every aspect of her life to me and we lived in a bubble, just the two of us, with a relationship that swung between mother and daughter and best friends.
Throughout all the ups and downs with dad, she has always been there and remained consistent, even lending him money or letting him stay with us when he needed to. I hate the narrative that sees the ‘fun, weekend dad’ get the best bits of their children’s attention while the mum, who let’s face it, may be there for the harder parts, is seen as a reliable figure and left un-praised.
The last few years have been good for my mum, too. After 15 years of being single, four years ago she met the love of her life. He’s exactly the kind of man you’d hope for your mum; kind, gentle, generous, protective and absolutely besotted with her – seriously, his eyes glow with love hearts whenever she walks into a room.
Even though I really like him, I have to admit I found it a little bit weird the first time she asked if he could spend Christmas Day with us. I’ve spent my entire life in a very female-focused household and had my mum all to myself on Christmas Day, so having a man there and spending it with a couple, was a bit strange.
There have been a lot of factors to consider and, as last year was the first time Christmas with dad was an option, it has felt like a bigger deal as this is the first time I’m actually having to pick between them. At nearly 30 I’ve been experiencing a pang of childlike guilt in which parent to disappoint.
Although it makes me feel sad in a nostalgic sort of way to let go of Christmas days with my mum, I think she has moved into a different phase of her life and I’m happy to let her enjoy that. Selfishly, too, I think that spending time with other couples is absolutely lovely if your partner is with you, but I don’t fancy being the third wheel on Christmas day.
It’s always going to feel uneasy and difficult managing the emotions of your parents, but I guess this is the reality for many people, especially as they get older and family life changes.
Having broached the conversation with my mum she acted exactly as I thought she would, understanding and calm, but with a small sniff of disappointment. Instead, we’ve arranged to spend the whole of Christmas Eve together starting with a sleepover the night before, a big dinner cooked all together and present swapping.
I think this is the compromise that works best for everyone and allows us to make some new Christmas traditions, still get quality time together and makes every day in the run up to Christmas really special.