For most of us the Christmas season is safe, reliable and built on the kind of traditions we celebrate in this year’s Make Theirs Magic Christmas calendar. But this isn’t everyone’s experience and family circumstances can sometimes lead to a more turbulent experience during the festive season. Here an adult care leaver explains how Christmas felt for her as a child, and how she’s come to forge her own traditions now she’s a parent.
My early memories of Christmas are unusual as they’re all fragments – just little bits and bobs of memory – because I was in care on and off from just after birth until I was 18.
My siblings and I were passed from pillar to post as my dad wasn’t around and when my mum couldn’t cope with her bipolar disorder we often found ourselves in care homes or staying with foster carers.
Christmas was a time she struggled with, and she always become more anxious during this time, so we’d often spend Christmas seeing what other families’ traditions looked like.
I remember one New Year when the family who were looking after me all went into the neighbour’s house for a New Year’s party, which we never did at home – I was surprised by how there were so many people around!
I remember seeing Santa at some kind of community centre once when I was very young and I also remember receiving presents one year which had been sent to a foster carer’s house by my mum.
It’s funny as one of them was a giant doll that I remember being the same size as me. It was a nice gesture, but I was absolutely terrified of it!
We did have some Christmas’ at home though and sometimes “homemakers” – what would be called a support worker now -would come in when mum was in hospital and look after us overnight. I remember once when I was seven, they came and took us out and it was amazing because it was the first time I’d ever been to a chip shop.
There were also some really good “normal” Christmases at home. I remember, for example, coming down one year to a chair full of presents.
Oddly it’s the smells that stay with me – the smell of buttery gravy and the lavender perfume I got one year… I still love that smell now.
It might sound odd to you reading this but to us all these different experiences felt completely normal… I just thought everybody’s mum was taken off to hospital occasionally.
It was almost like a rota – I’d enter care for hours or days and then I’d go home, but it never worked and whenever I put a foot in the door I knew it wouldn’t be for long.
Finally, I ran away for good when I was 11 and, after I was homeless for a short while, I got taken into full-time care and fostered for 11 months or so.
When I was about 13 or 14 I decided I needed stability while I was being assessed so I decided to make a children’s care home my permanent “home”.
That’s a decision I took on myself – I was already quite independent as, for example, I’d prepared food for the family when my mum was unable to take on the mothering role.
Perhaps ironically the Christmases in that care home were the best – mostly because I met my best friend while I was there.
I always say we were like chalk and cheese but joined at the hip, and with her there I started to really enjoy the celebrations.
One year when I was there my mum and I had argued, and I couldn’t go home to visit, so my social worker arranged for my friend to be with me.
My social worker had wrapped this huge box, with smaller boxes inside, and boxes inside that… Eventually we got to the bottom and there were little gifts inside – smellies, that sort of thing. It was great.
The tree in the home was also the biggest you’ve ever seen – it felt like it was 20 feet tall.
They had a Christmas party and all the children from other homes came… It was wonderful and felt stable, but despite everything that was going on, they still weren’t MY traditions.
I think that’s why, when I had my own child at 19, I didn’t have any template to follow, so I made up my own.
My husband and I separated at 22 but I still wanted to ensure my three children had their own traditions, and so I’d give my them a present the night before Xmas that contained new pyjamas that they could wear to bed. In the morning we also had a a big black bag to put all the wrapping paper in.
When I remarried we gained more traditions still.
The Christmas tree went up on the 7th of December because it was his birthday and we’d hang the decorations together and take a “traditional” photo of us all under the Christmas tree
It wasn’t until I met my third husband and had my fourth child over a decade later that things changed again.
At first things continued as normal but it became clear as he got older that he had autism, and it once again changed my Christmas completely.
We knew he was quirky and different and he didn’t like parties. He couldn’t cope with noise and we’d notice he’d keep trying to get out of the chair and get away from joining in during parties.
Our traditions changed too – he didn’t like getting new pyjamas at Christmas because he only liked to open things on the day, he wanted to put the tree up on the 1st because that was the “start” of the Christmas season and he wouldn’t eat Christmas dinner until teatime… because it was “dinner”.
He was also bothered by things such as large piles of presents and carol singers at the door -he was easily overwhelmed.
For example when the last of his older siblings moved out we had some additional problems, such as when his sister brought a huge bag of presents round one year on Christmas Eve and said we could open them the night before, because we wouldn’t be seeing her the following day .
When she went he had a massive meltdown and we had to re-wrap them and put them under the tree.
So everything changed again: now my Christmas’ are quiet, we don’t go anywhere and, you know what?
It’s still really lovely.
In some ways I have sacrificed for him, and I remember going through a stage of thinking he was missing out and thinking he wasn’t happy.
But that’s me thinking that, not him, and the thing is he’s taught me so much.
I’ve learnt that time to process things is so important – not just for him, but for all of us – and in a lot of his ways of dealing with things are right.
I’ve also learnt that Christmas traditions, are personal and built on the family you have and who you are.
He’s so different and I love him to bits, and it’s made me realise how far I’ve come – I know I’m a damn good mum now, and that makes me proud.
If you are finding this Christmas hard and would like to talk to someone you can contact our FamilyLine service for free. Alternatively care leavers aged 18-27 can contact our Listening Works service for support, advice and information.