It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday and I’m enjoying relative peace and quiet save for the leaking bathtub faucet. My cats are in different corners of my apartment curled up and cozy. My daughter is lying on the sofa next to me sleeping very sweetly. I would like to make a cup of coffee, but this might necessitate waking up the baby and she sorely needs her sleep. So mama will make do without. It’s the mama way.
And Christmas is upon us. Looking around my cluttered apartment, the only sign of the holiday are the barren trees that loom solemnly outside my window and the tiny red velvet and plaid dress I bought for Dagne to wear to her first Santa visit. It sits under a roll of wrapping paper and some clean sheets on my kitchen table. I feel like a bad mother when I realize that I washed those sheets two weeks ago. I suppose someone should put them away. Around here, the only capable is me. Plus, I need to find room in this place to put up a Christmas tree.
As a single mother to a fairly-new human, I had all kinds of fantasies about our first Christmas together. Before I got to know my daughter’s father’s side of the family, I had hoped for a fun family day together. Now that I know them, I realize that is unlikely to happen. It’s not that they’re bad people, but they are as plagued by dysfunction as the rest of us. In some ways more so than others; for instance, my daughter’s father is the only one of his mother’s three children who is still speaking to her. He’s also the oldest and to some extent probably feels the most responsible, but this makes for a challenging happy holiday story. Even though I am an adult orphan, my story would be no more cheerful if my parents were living. They became Jehovah’s Witnesses when I was 10 and all the happy holiday stories of my childhood ceased to exist then. I feel like this year, I get a big life do-over.
Does she know it's Christmas time at all?
For a while I wondered if my daughter would even notice Christmas. She is barely six months old now. She is intrigued by so many things because everything is her “first” now. A few weeks ago she squealed with joy when our cat, Zuzu, approached her in her bouncy seat and allowed the baby to run her tiny, fat fingers through her fur. As jealous as my cat can be, this was a remarkably kind thing for her to do. She has been cautiously approaching Dagne since then. Each time, she launches her chubby fingers like unguided missiles in the direction of Zuzu’s fur, my heart melts. I realize that she does notice things.
Right after Thanksgiving, her daycare provider put up some lighted candy canes in her yard and installed her massive and beautiful Christmas tree inside her home. While I cursed the candy canes at first (I have to walk up a steep hill to get to her front door and the candy canes sort of block my ability to get there easily), I noticed my daughter noticing them one night as I sat her car seat down to maneuver around them. Her blue-grey eyes lit up with wonder at the undulating colors twisting in front of her face. Yesterday, she sat in wonder of their Christmas tree as I buckled her into her car seat to leave. I realized that I had to get her a Christmas tree. It is baby’s first Christmas, after all.
Things with my daughter’s father have been strained for a while. We are nice to each other in person, but I have grown weary of his inability to see how difficult it is being the primary caretaker of our daughter. I really don’t complain because I enjoy her so much, but the day to day mechanics of doing things, going places and caring for her needs as well as my own can be downright unmanageable at times. I don’t have time to properly clean my apartment because after working 40 hours a week and taking care of a baby, too, all alone, I am exhausted. It might easier on a younger woman, but I also have two arthritic knees and a bad back. I’m doing the best I can do to not let this affect the way I raise my daughter, but her father fails to see all of my challenges and it just makes me mad. So much for a nice family Christmas.
All I want for Christmas is not to be sandbagged
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, his mother invited me over for a family dinner. I agreed to go because she has become a part of my life and she is Dagne’s grandmother. A few months ago, she was glowing about how much fun the holidays would be for her this year with her three grandchildren. Her own daughter, who is very sweet, has two boys of her own. The second son was born right before Thanksgiving. I didn’t expect to see her at the dinner for several reasons, but I knew that Dagne’s father and uncle would be there as well as her grandfather who is divorced from my daughter’s grandmother. When Dagne’s grandmother said she had a friend coming over, I looked upon it as an opportunity to get to know her better even though I knew there would be some strain. Little did I know what surprises were really in store.
As we finished eating, there was another knock on the door. I was hoping it was Dagne’s aunt. Instead, my mouth dropped open when I saw my daughter’s father’s girlfriend standing in the living room. Why nobody thought to mention her coming by staggered me. A few months ago, I explained to Dagne’s father exactly why I didn’t need to see his girlfriend. Every time she visited, she took the focus off my daughter bonding with her father. Instead, she would do things like sit behind him while he was holding our baby and wrap her legs around his body and hang over his shoulder or she would attempt to use my daughter as some sort of prop to bring them closer together. The day she told me how her mother was excited to be a grandmother, I almost lost it. Her mother, who had friended me on Facebook, had never even met my daughter let alone me. It all started to feel very creepy to me. The last straw was seeing my daughter’s picture posted on her Facebook page without my permission. I cut them both off from my life. I felt stalked.
Back at the awkward dinner where I tried to maintain my composure after obviously being sandbagged by my daughter’s family, I sat through a few excruciating minutes of small talk as the girlfriend tried to engage me. My daughter needed a diaper change, so I handed her to her father who took her into the living room to change her. A few seconds later, she was screaming in a way that sounds the way she cries when she is scared. I tried to get up to see what was happening, but her grandmother insisted that she was fine. After putting up with her cries for two or three minutes, I couldn’t take it. I came into the living room where her father and girlfriend were laughing as my daughter was in absolute hysterics. I don’t know what happened, but her grandmother grabbed her to calm her. I realized that even though my daughter was related to her by blood, she hasn’t spent enough time with anyone on her father’s side to know them emotionally. I pulled her from her grandmother’s arms and said, “She needs ME.”
After we left, I stopped by a local McDonald’s. I realized that Dagne was tired and hungry. I poured the last of her formula into a bottle and held her in my arms as we sat in a dimly-lit parking lot with the smell of French fries permeating the night. I could have stayed a while longer at her grandmother’s house, but I was too exhausted and so was my daughter. So much for a nice but awkward family dinner with people I am only related to because of my daughter.
A recipe for tidings of comfort and joy
Since that night and the days that followed, I struggled to figure out what I would do this holiday season, again, my daughter’s first. I want to give her something special, even if it means just the two of us. I don’t need it hijacked by frustrated, misguided well-meaning people.
This past Thanksgiving, I was invited to my daughter’s grandmother’s house, but since she couldn’t convince the rest of her family to come on that day, the offer was rescinded until that awkward Sunday. I could have driven to Pennsylvania to see my sister and her kids or even my cousin and her twin boys and husband. Instead, I packed my daughter up into our car and drove to Wegman’s for some prepared foods. We returned with a cache of goodies that I ate as we spent our first big holiday alone. It didn’t feel alone, though. I realized that I was with family—my daughter and two cats are truly all the family I need. I counted my blessings, the two furry ones and the one with big eyes and dimples who looks upon me every day as the greatest person in the world. I have a feeling that Christmas, no matter how it happens to us, will be just as wonderful because we have each other. Nothing else is needed in our recipe for happiness. Now to find that tree…
Harry Connick, Jr.'s "When My Heart Finds Christmas"