All the Children’s Commissioner’s work is driven by what children told us is important to them
As a child I remember the countdown to Christmas beginning in school, and everyone getting excited for the holidays, whilst I just felt pure dread.
I hated Christmas as it was the time that I had to spend with my family whether I liked it or not. Usually I would spend all of the time I could away from my house, at the cinema or at my friends houses. But at Christmas everybody was closed for business, wrapped up with their own families, and for me it was the countdown until things returned to normal in the new year.
It’s not that I didn’t get anything under the tree, or that I went without food. I always woke up to a massive pile of presents and we had a huge dinner that my mum started to prepare from November. But that was because my Grandma came for Christmas, so everything had to look perfect. We had huge expensive decorations, we got huge sacks full of expensive presents and my mum spent many nights in the lead up to the big day upstairs rustling wrapping paper and fighting with sellotape to make sure everything was ready for show time. But that’s all it was: a show.
Behind the glittering bows and the fairy lights, it was a very different story. Christmas wasn’t fun for us, it was micromanaged beyond belief. We weren’t allowed to hang any of our handmade decorations, or to touch the tree, as we would ruin it. We weren’t allowed any input in dinner, as we would spoil that, and the meal would consist of the world’s biggest turkey whether we liked it or not. I hate turkey.
All I wanted to do was spend time with my mum, to play a board game, or talk, but all of our presents were always single player, and when I told her this she would call me an “ungrateful cow” and recite how much money she had spent, so I “better shut up and play with them.” There was a strict code of only sitting in the living room if we were going to be silent. So the options were to sit and watch the screen without speaking, or play alone in your room; no exceptions. Christmas was not about spending time together and I could never understand it when my friends and people on the telly said that it was. Christmas in our house was a time for my mum to show off what she could afford and then to ship us off to our rooms with lots of new distractions to keep us out of her way.
The more I pushed for my mum to spend time with me, the more distant she became and over the next few years this gradually turned into neglect and I was taken into care at 16.
I was placed with my foster carer just before Christmas. I liked my foster home a lot, my carer was down to earth and we talked all of the time, and her son became somewhat of a friend. But Christmas was still a really low point in the year for me. My life had changed considerably over a short space of time. but none of my peers’ had. They were all continuing their usual Christmas traditions with their families.
One of my friend’s, Holly, invited me round to spend Christmas Day with her family, which was a lovely gesture, but I felt very much out of place. All of her extended family were there, talking about distant cousins or memories from all of their years together, and I sat, unable to participate, wondering what my mum was doing and whether she cared that she couldn’t put out my personalised stocking that year.
Holly’s family had made sure that my pile of presents was as big as Holly’s was, but all of her gifts were so personal to her, and mine were mostly toiletries and chocolates; the kind of things you buy someone who you don’t really know. I was so grateful for them trying to include me in this way, and for sharing their Christmas dinner with me, but I couldn’t help feeling like an intruder. As if I was listening in on conversations that weren’t meant for me, and eating food that wasn’t cooked for me. I would honestly have been happier on my own, just so I didn’t feel such a burden. This is how I felt for years as a teenager, that I was better off being alone and out of everybody’s way.
Moving forward several years, I am now an adult in my own right, and although it has not come easily, I am (for the most part) settled into my own home with my partner and our daughter. Last year was our first Christmas together in our new house, and I had just given birth. I remember feeling so low and worried about Christmas coming around again. That initial worry returned, and I started counting down until January.
There were about two weeks to go until Christmas, and we had put up a tree. It all looked very neat and I was making sure the decorations were evenly spaced. I turned to my partner and asked him for the sixth time if he was sure that everything looked perfect. He responded with a very blasé, “To be honest, I don’t really care,” whilst trying to juggle our new born and simultaneously wiping vomit off of his dressing gown. When he said that I stopped, and I thought for a second, and I realised that I don’t really care either. And that I didn’t need to care anymore. I could have my tree exactly how I wanted it, in all its uneven glory. I remembered my mum banning ‘tacky tinsel’ from the house, so I bought some, and I vowed to myself to never buy my daughter unnecessarily expensive one-player gifts at Christmas. And to use Christmas time as an opportunity for us to spend quality time together, playing those crappy board games that I never played, and hanging those wonky homemade ornaments that I never hung, and most importantly no more bloody turkey on the dinner table!