Founder of Reading Force, Alison Baverstock, was an Army wife for 30 years and experienced many Christmases separated from her husband. Here she shares her top tips for managing Christmas with a loved one away from home.
Our local department stores usually start their preparations for Christmas around autumn half-term. By now I imagine their staff are thoroughly fed up with the sound of carols and Christmas songs! Planning for Christmas can also be a very stressful business. To me it’s no surprise that it regularly scores high on the list of common events people dread.
There are just so many unresolved issues, hovering ominously. Whose turn is it to have the grandparents? What new provision is required for those with special diets? What about partners – how long before they must be together over the festive season? Who sleeps where? All now underpinned by the younger generation’s seeming fear of being tied down too early and the weight of tradition you feel compelled to maintain.
But in the midst of all this planning, there are many families who already know they aren’t going to be able to spend Christmas together, and so can feel very left out of workplace or school-gate conversations about whose turn it is to be with whom.
There are many people in this position, most notably those who are separated or divorced. But there are also thousands of military families for whom Christmas regularly falls within a period of duty – and enforced separation.
As an Army wife for thirty years, my four children and I have been through this several times. It’s always in the back of your mind. When an unaccompanied tour (when the Service people go away on their own, usually to somewhere unsuitable for families) is announced, one of the first questions you tend to ask is ‘what about Christmas?’
For any families – military or otherwise – facing Christmas with their partner away, here are my top tips to help you make the most of your festivities:
1. If you are used to managing Christmas, and everyone generally comes to you, why not allow other people to take the strain? Sitting at home, with all the same people around the same table apart from one, can place the biggest emphasis on who is missing – rather than who is there. So maybe this is the year to accept an invitation rather than repeat what you usually do.
2. Or is it the time to do something completely different? Like cook sausages over a primus stove on the beach, or walk up a local hill and have bacon sandwiches on the top? Think about creating some new memories. Vegetarian options do exist, obviously.
3. If you do decide to be at home, allocate everyone a different role (perhaps doing some of the cooking, perhaps managing the entertainment). This puts the emphasis on sharing and joint responsibility. In my experience children really rise to the challenge – so much so that ten years on from a separated Christmas, our youngest son is still responsible for the bread sauce.
4. Link with people in the same position. For Forces families, the festive season brings formal opportunities to get together. The unit wives club usually offers a Christmas meal and a children’s party, maybe a concert from the local Military Wives Choir. There’s often real joy to be found in being with others in the same boat. So even if you don’t feel like it on the night, why not go?
5. There are shelters for the homeless or hungry that are always looking for additional helpers. This can be life-changing for everyone involved (check for age restrictions on how old you have to be in order to help out).
6. Don’t build your Christmas Day around an all-important phone call. In military settings there will always be tremendous pressure on airtime and systems regularly crash – or get significantly delayed. If speaking to your partner has been the focus of your day, and you don’t manage this, everyone will feel let down. Remember that security still has to be maintained wherever they are, which may be somewhere that doesn’t recognise Christmas. Instead, why not write a letter to be opened on Christmas Day – and give it to them before they leave. Children could do the same.
7. For when the call does come through, make a list of things to talk about and stick it by the phone. Just hearing their voice will probably make you feel emotional, and having had a drink (it is Christmas!) may make you feel even more so. So prepare for the situation of not knowing what to say. This avoids regret afterwards when you realise you forgot to tell them something you really wanted to share.
8. Connect in another way. Over the years, when my husband was away, we would communicate through books. I would send him things I had read, he’d read them, and we’d talk on the phone about our reactions. As the children got older, we involved them too.
Reading together created some common ground and provided a welcome distraction from the stresses and strains of so many long separations. Back in 2011, I founded the charity Reading Force to provide story-books and scrapbooks for families to read and share their thoughts together. It’s simple, effective, provides a fun focus for those sometimes-awkward phone calls. Reading a story together also offers the opportunity to keep each other in mind in between calls. If you think this might help your family this Christmas, sign up to take part.
Above all, however you spend the day, try to feel proud about how you managed the separation – and at a time when there seems to be a universal emphasis on everyone else enjoying family togetherness. Working your way through an experience you were really not looking forward to can deliver a profound satisfaction – at the same time modelling resilience to your family and friends. You might be having more impact than you think…