I left a very bad marriage when my daughter was just 2 months old. It was October 1. I had put up with years of emotional abuse and gaslighting and infidelity and it all came to a crescendo when he made it clear that not only was I not important, but neither was she. It was one thing to make me feel less than, but I refused to let her ever feel that way. And while so much about that fall is still hard to think about, that first Christmas post-separation — my baby girl’s very first Christmas — was one of the best. In a season of Should-Be-Sad, I felt light and loved and joyful. I felt exactly like Christmas is supposed to make you feel.
It was the simplicity of it all. At the time, I wasn’t sure I could make it anything other than a day to be survived. I loved this holiday so much. I wanted my baby to have good Christmases — the kind I had in childhood that I remembered so fondly. But I wasn’t sure it was ever going to happen. All the things I wanted for her felt like they were slipping away in the chaos of a “custody agreement” — Sundays that were slow and relaxing and not focused on driving to Mom’s house, Friday nights with pizza and zero stress instead of fighting against rush hour traffic to get to Dad’s house. The closer we got to Christmas that year, the more I tried to swallow the panic about having to split the day forever, of eventually having to explain why Santa wrapped presents at one house but didn’t at the other, of worrying about her holidays being spoiled by a parent who was spiteful for the sake of being spiteful and would use her like a pawn to remind me he was always going to have some control.
When I left quickly that October, I grabbed only a few necessities, but I knew it was the end. He was never going to love either of us in the way we deserved, and I could not love a person who thought of my daughter as an inconvenience, who told me “we should’ve waited to have her” as I cradled her two weeks postpartum. The thought that I was going to have to share her at Christmas with a person who couldn’t even answer his phone, or who spent his money on a trip with his secret girlfriend and told me we couldn’t afford diapers, was too devastating to think about.
And as much as it hurt at the time — our baby’s first Christmas and you don’t want to be there for any of it? — it was the greatest gift, the unexpected present found in the bottom of your stocking that you still have years later.
The ending of my marriage was a gift, but it was still sorrowful. I was sad for myself to be divorced at 26. I was sad that I had let myself be treated so poorly for so long. I was sad to think of my daughter, just a brand new soul when I left, being passed back and forth every other weekend, her life always split into two. When I asked my ex if he was interested in coming over that first Christmas Eve to help me play Santa, he firmly said no. He didn’t want to give me the “illusion” of a happy family, he said. And as much as it hurt at the time — our baby’s first Christmas and you don’t want to be there for any of it? — it was the greatest gift, the unexpected present found in the bottom of your stocking that you still have years later. The gift that nobody thought you’d be able to appreciate — until you did.
Photos of the author and her daughter that first Christmas.
We spent that Christmas in my mom’s house, and we made cookies together and passed my snoozing baby back and forth on the couch while we watched A Very Brady Christmas. My grandmother was just five minutes away, and I could spend as long as I wanted at her house decorating her Christmas tree without a husband blowing up my phone to demand I come home. The night I showed up at my mom’s with my baby girl, the night I was brave enough to finally leave, my dad and my brother and my toddler nephew arrived like the Three Wise Men, but this time they brought pizza.
That first Christmas really showed me just how much it mattered. How much I mattered to my family.
I wasn’t alone. My family at Christmas is half-Clark Griswold, half-Buddy the Elf. Nothing is too much trouble. And while I always knew how much we cherished the holidays, how much all of us enjoy being together and decorating with tinsel and eating tin after tin of Quality Street chocolates, that first Christmas really showed me just how much it mattered. How much I mattered to my family. My siblings came over every chance they got. My sister snuggled my baby, my brother lowered my daughter’s crib mattress. My grandmother took me shopping and bought my daughter’s Christmas presents. My parents stayed up with me on Christmas Eve, sipping Bailey’s and stuffing my daughter’s stocking, all while reminiscing about their own Christmases as parents of babies.
I felt it all. There was relief. There was worry. There was joy. There was anxiety.
But above all, there was Christmas magic. And because my heart was so raw — tender and mild — I was able to grasp it.
In my state of heartbreak and exposed nerves, I truly recognized that the nativity story is about a mother and her baby who had nowhere to go and a mother who would do whatever she could to protect her child, a mother whose purpose was wrapped into her infant in a way I did understand until I held my own infant in swaddling clothes. Her baby was going to change the world, was going to be a balm for all of its woes, and at that point in time, I was the world and I had all of the woes. And I could look down at my baby girl in her brand new Christmas pajamas — Christmas pajamas I bought with money I made from a part-time job stuffing corporate Christmas card envelopes — and know that everything was going to be OK. It was Christmas and I had her.