Empathy sometimes wears a black santa hat

Being a ‘bah humbug’ over Christmas can be the therapeutic gift that keeps giving for adoptive parents, says Sally Donovan

Image: Fotolia/Glenda Powers

By Sally Donovan

Last weekend my husband, our two children and I were sat eating our usual Saturday evening takeaway when much mirth broke out. While he was out buying said takeaway, my nearest and dearest had seen an hilarious twist on the amusing red santa hat. It was a black santa hat with the words ‘bah’ and ‘humbug’ on it. They nearly bought it for me.

I laughed, and dug my nails deep into the palms of my hands.

This is the position I assume for much of December. By about January 3rd I am ecstatic with relief. It’s over. I survived. We survived. The collective insanity has passed.

I am, they are correct, considered by many to be a ‘bah humbug’. I could talk at length about how Christmas has become a bloated caricature of itself but I mainly, for reasons of social cohesion, try to keep it to myself (others may disagree).

Therapeutic parenting at Christmas

Christmas is not one of the times I find particularly challenging to approach therapeutically. As far as the ridiculous season goes, being a ‘bah humbug’ has been the therapeutic gift that keeps giving. Don’t want to go to the pantomime with 500 over-excited children? No problem, neither would I. Feeling overwhelmed and out of control? I’m right there with you. I make it sound easier than it is, but you get my drift.

Parents like me know too well that as soon as the pressure’s on to make a day, a meal, a party – or anything – perfect, that’s when a child will blast you with their inner trauma.

And then, if we don’t manage our and others’ expectations, our child has gone and ‘ruined something that was meant to be nice’ (and there are few worse social crimes than this).

The ability to swim against the tide is crucial when trying to preserve a child’s emotional well-being. It’s tricky at the best of times. At Christmas it requires extra courage: to remove them from a school activity they will surely ‘fail’ in, to go with it then they refuse to ‘join in’.

Therapeutic parenting makes better people of us, though, because it forces us to think carefully about what is valuable and not to just go with the tinsely flow.

Swimming against the flow

I gathered the courage to swim against the flow some years ago when I found, with the help of my bah humbuggery, the empathy to appreciate the huge impact that Christmas has on one of our children. Since then, I’ve had to develop a thicker skin and I’ve taken heart from others who are leading the way in search of a simpler, less cluttered and, I would argue, more child-focused Christmas.

Last year friends of mine decided they would not do Christmas dinner and instead they and their adopted children each chose a takeaway meal. It took a heap of pressure off and they had the best Christmas ever. The children remained, for the first time in years, regulated and everyone enjoyed themselves. We’ve decided to copy their idea.

This year the Donovan family will be doing it differently. We are heading to the coast. We will walk and skate and rockpool and go to the pub and eat chips and takeaways and watch films. There will be presents, of course (I might be a ‘bah humbug’ but I’m not a miser). We will welcome a few visitors. It will be all about the children (well, mostly). And I’ll do my best to laugh along with the ‘bah humbug’ jokes because empathy comes in many different forms and sometimes it wears a black santa hat.

Sally Donovan is an adoptive parent, and an award-winning writer and author.

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