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“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”  Albert Einstein

For many people, 2016 has been a wearing and emotional year. War, migration, financial hardship, uncertain political outcomes that were too close to call, have created division. The ending of the year is an opportunity for everyone to pause, reflect and avoid conflict in the interests of peace.

As mothers apart from children, we have our own challenges as we grapple with hurt, anger, provocation and strive for goodwill and peace of mind. As Albert Einstein suggests, we can’t force others to keep peace. But we can choose the path of peace ourselves. You might ask, why bother when others seem committed to conflict? Bother because you are worth it – your physical health, emotional wellbeing and your right to happiness are more than enough reasons. Stories on The Forgiveness Project website describe the power of choosing to forgive in order let go of resentment and find inner peace. In choosing this path, you also model dignified and compassionate behaviour for your children, whether or not you have contact with at the moment. How can we achieve peace? Einstein says it can only be achieved by understanding and I do believe that it’s true. Peace is easier to achieve through understanding, than through gritted teeth.

What does understanding and the pursuit of peace mean for us when we live apart from our children at Christmastime?

Avoid magical thinking. If you are estranged and without contact, don’t get taken in by warm, glowing images of family gatherings in adverts and nostalgic Christmas songs. These sensory stimulations can fuel magical thinking that estrangement can just melt away and all can be made better just because it is Christmas. The cause and impact of rifts need to be understood and reconciliation requires both parties to be willing and able. If your children are young, perhaps they are not emotionally or mentally developed enough and maybe your ex partner is not supportive of this. If your children are young or fully grown adults, perhaps their life stage or circumstances mean they are just not ready yet. Whatever your circumstances, both parties being ready means that you don’t plead, beg, insist or demand, that it is not just you doing all the work.

Keep it simple. If you have contact with your children remember that no amount of hype, spending or activities will make up for the past. Expensive gifts won’t buy you the love of your child. Providing nonstop entertainment won’t make you (or your new partner) more easily ‘forgiven’ or accepted. Rebuilding and maintaining relationships after family breakup takes time and understanding. One special day of the year won’t cut it when what you’re dealing with is the incremental work of a lifetime. There is no magic to be made or found on Christmas day, so relax. Breath. Be fully present in the moment with your child. You are enough.

Shake it off. Whatever your circumstances, allow yourself the right to happiness. Build in time for peace and reflection. Turn off the TV and device and be still awhile. Get outdoors, there’s nothing like a walk to lift your mood. Chat to others in the supermarket queue. And when it all gets too much for you, let it go. As Taylor Swift sings in Shake it off – ‘the players gonna play, the haters gonna hate, heartbreakers gonna break, the fakers gonna fake. I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake.

I shake it off, I shake it off’

That’s my mantra this Christmas!

A peaceful 2016 to you.

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Despite the knowledge that from a religious perspective Christmas is the time of good cheer and celebration, this time of year can highlight the flaws in our lives. A lack of money when people are buying presents, illness or depression when others are partying or being alone in what feels like a world full of happy families. How can we best support ourselves over the festive weeks?

I hope the following scenarios help to shine a guiding light on finding peace of mind.

All that glitters

A mother apart had made good progress after feeling that her world had ended when her teenage son decided to live with his father. She was beginning to shine once again, discovering fulfilment as an independent woman as well as making time to be with her son, although he did not always want this. A few weeks before Christmas he asked her to go late night shopping with him. Swept up in a seasonal fantasy – an image of the two of them enjoying gingerbread cappuccinos and watching carol singers in the square – she cancelled what she had planned for the evening. Instead of her daydream, the reality was one hour with moody lad who demanded to be taken home once she had bought him the latest computer game. She drove home feeling cheated and manipulated.

It is wise to reality check the gold shimmering before us. Is it ‘realism solid’ or ‘fantasy plate’? The teenage years are a time of self focus, when thinking about a parent’s needs is unlikely. Remembering that this disappointing shopping trip is just as likely to happen when parents aren’t separated, can normalise and remove the sting. By ignoring the glitter – the longing for what we don’t have at this moment – and offering quality time that does not compromise us moving forward with our lives, we are best placed to enjoy a mutually rewarding relationship with our children if and when they are ready.

March to your own drum

A mother who was estranged from her two daughters, regularly sent them cheques inside of Christmas cards. Each year she waited with baited breath. If the cheques were banked quickly, she wondered whether it was a sign of change, perhaps a growing acceptance…or did the girls simply want the money? Every passing day without seeing a bank withdrawal filled her with anxiety and pain. Had they thrown the cheques away to demonstrate their rejection of her? As the years passed she sent larger sums of money which she couldn’t afford, hoping to see a quick deposit, perhaps even a note of thanks or phone call. She felt controlled even though sending cheques was routine created by herself.

When we become aware of the ways in which we give away our power, we are able to begin new, healthy rhythms to our lives. We take responsibility for our decisions, unswayed by guilt. For example, “I chose to send this amount and no more to show I care. Whether or not they choose to receive my gift is their choice”. We strive to find a good balance between taking care of own needs and offering to meet the needs of our estranged children, if and when they are open to accept this. We march with confidence to our own drum.

A time of giving or giving up?

A mother apart struggled to hold on to her seasonal traditions after her divorce. Quite understandably, she longed for her usual family Christmas, familiar decorations, food, music and games. One year her ex partner insisted the children spend the day with him. Another year her children told her they wanted to be with their dad. As Christmas was so important to her, she suffered weeks of anxiety while it was decided with whom the children will be. On years when they were with their father, she felt a lingering rejection and resentment.

The concept of giving takes on new meaning when routines of the past fall away. When we decide to let go of the past, we allow for new traditions to take shape, new possibilities that could be just as good or better. Giving up our desire to have things be a certain way can be done with a little goodwill on our part. If this feels impossible, then decide to let go for your own health and wellbeing. Emotional giving need not be giving up, if we make it our choice. To choose is to empower ourselves.

Lonely this Christmas

Lonely or alone? A mother who is regularly apart from her children laughed when she told me how her lively, loud, extended family pre-separation Christmases used to be. She thought she’d never adjust but now she loves being on her own, viewing Christmas as a day for being incredibly self-indulgent in an unselfish way. She feels she doesn’t have to make anyone else happy. With only herself to consider, she eats what and when she wants, reads for hours, goes for a walk. One year, she focused on de-cluttering and getting organised for the year ahead. She said Christmas alone is always a day well spent.

There’s not much I can add to this fabulous example of excellent self-care and making yourself happy! The 25th December is not a non-negotiable being together day. If you are going to be alone when you don’t want to be, make sure you choose how to spend your day. Even consciously choosing to do very little is healthier than feeling that very little happens for you.

Where ever you are, whatever you will be doing, I wish you comfort and peace this Christmas.

Warmly,

Sarah Hart

Counsellor, Dip IRC, MA, MBACP (Accred), UKRCP

And so, while others miserably pledge themselves

to the pursuit of ambition and brief power,

I will be stretched out in the shade, singing.

Fray Luis de Leon (c.1527-1591)

You might prefer the sofa to Fray Luis de Leon’s shade at this time of year but wherever you are, I hope these suggestions help you through the end of 2011.

Name the elephant in the room

Christmas can be hard on our partners and loved ones. They watch us gingerly, monitoring our mood, trying to keep things jolly. Ignoring the elephant in the room – by this I mean the reality that we feeling upset at not being with our children or that contact with our children is difficult – often makes life more stressful. Speak to your partner and family before Christmas day. Explain that it is natural that you would find this time of year difficult and that they don’t have to ‘fix’ you. Say that you working on a strategy to look after yourself over the Christmas period. Think about whether he/she/they can help you and ask clearly for what you need. “I need your support”, leaves most partners scratching their heads. Be specific, for example, “Can you please take care of being the host in the afternoon, I know I am going to feel sad for a while when Lilly goes to Paul after lunch.”

Avoid black and white thinking and behaviour

Don’t fall into the trap of being either miserable or cheerful all day. Denying your feelings can be just as disabling as not taking steps to lift your mood. Keep it real. Allow yourself time to acknowledge how you feel about being without your children for all or part of Christmas, but make sure you do whatever it takes to be at peace and even enjoy the day.

Make time to reflect

A ritual or conscious act to acknowledge how you feel, can be very comforting. Light a candle for each of your children and/or a beautifully scented one to represent you as their mother. You might like to have a symbolic ornament or a natural object clearly visible throughout the day, as your way of holding your child close to you even though they can’t be with you. Be wary of listening repeatedly to music which has memories for you. This can be very emotive and keep you stuck in painful feelings. Going for a walk can help process your thoughts and give you a natural high by increasing serotonin levels. Mediation, yoga even some stretches can have the same effect.

If you don’t have contact with your children

Ask someone you trust to reality check your decision regarding whether or not to make contact over Christmas. Check your motives: is anger, fear or resentment holding you back? Do you need to risk and send love with an open heart but without expecting a reply? Check your instincts: Are you satisfied that your children know you love them, are there for them and that it is right for you to back off at this point and give things a break? The answer will be different for each of us and may change from year to year.

If you do have contact with your children

Make your time together special but avoid competing, trying to buy love through presents or working too hard to create a perfect Christmas. As the myth of the most wonderful time of the year and happy families looms large, difficult ex-partners are likely to become more so. It is hard for children with divorced parents – feeling confused with divided loyalties is likely to be heightened for them at this time of year. Resist the urge to bad mouth your ex even if he has messed you around with holiday arrangements and so on. Be a role model grace and dignity for your children, and focus on your day instead.

Keep it simple

Keep your mood and spirits as high as possible by keeping the stakes low. A good Christmas doesn’t have to be a complicated one with an exhausting planning and cooking schedule expensive decorations. You don’t have to prove yourself. You are a good mother without having to provide three different types of dessert.

Change happens

Change is inevitable (accept from vending machines!). You never know what is around the corner – a cliché I know but in my counselling practice, working with mothers apart from their children, I know how true this is. Change can happen when you least expect it, sometimes quickly or sometimes years after separation. Keep your heart and door open. Above all, live your life and make yourself happy, you deserve it.

Top tips to see you through the Christmas period…

Don’t fall for the hype

It is easy to feel the pressure to buy and consume more than we can afford or need at this time of year. Remember that you have a choice. We can also succumb to the hard sell that convinces us that everyone else is having a wonderful, happy, family orientated time. The reality is that Christmas is stressful for most people, with or without their children.

Someone else’s rejection of you does not make you worthless

If your children cannot or refuse to be with you over Christmas or New Year, try to separate their decision or the circumstances from your sense of self esteem. Rejection does not mean you are wrong, bad or unworthy – it is someone else’s decision or choice at this point in time. Love your child from afar. Love them in spite of their rejection. Love them and take extremely good care of yourself because you are worth it.

Take excellent care of yourself

Take physical exercise to lower adrenaline and cortisol levels which keep us over stimulated and unable to sleep during stressful times. Even a short outing will help but better still, a walk in nature, the park or wood will help lift your spirits. Observe your surroundings. Blue Tits are searching for nest sites already – you too can look forward to the Spring. Indulge your senses. Treat yourself to scented candles, fragrant warm baths, soft towels, warming drinks, tasty food, calming music or when the mood takes you, a bit of a dance in your living room. Sleep is much underrated. We need sleep to heal and grow. Make your bedroom a comfortable, safe haven and take yourself to bed at a regular, reasonable time.

Let go of competitive feelings

You will always be your children’s mother. No one can take this away from you so relax into your status as their mother. Remain as constant as you can. We are in this for the long haul. Love and let go of competition. There is enough love to go around. If your ex or his new partner behaves competitively, remember that this about a drive within them and not about you. Do your best to detach from their behaviour and keep your focus on what is important – loving your children.

Watch out for perfectionism

Perfectionism undermines you and can be hard to spot. It pretends that it’s only trying to do a good job but secretly it feeds on telling us that whatever we are, whatever we do just isn’t good enough. Christmas day, the presents you have chosen, your children’s behaviour, your mood, the food, the weather and so on does not have to be perfect. A relaxed, peaceful happy you is far more beneficial to others and much better for your health and wellbeing.

You are enough

Whoever you are, whatever you look like, whatever you feel is ok and enough. You do not have to be Supermother – it would be dreadful if you were! Supermother would need to have Superchild – far too much pressure for you both. Focus instead on being and becoming more of who you are, the real essence of you. Tell yourself, “I am loving and lovable”, out loud in the mirror. Smile at yourself because it is true. Go and do it right now and do so every day over the holiday period and into 2011. Believe that you are enough, just as you are.

Sarah’s new self-help book: A Mother Apart

Support for women

Sarah specialises in counselling and training women. She helps non-resident mothers find inner peace by dealing with guilt, distress and other difficult feelings which can be experienced when living apart from their child. Her self-help book, 'A Mother Apart', published by Crown House, is available now. She also supports business women grow in confidence whilst growing their businesses. To find out more, please visit Sarah Hart's website

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