In the past, the run up to Christmas has been a torrid time in my family. My eldest son hates Christmas. Not in a ‘bah humbug’ way, or a mean-spirited Scroogey way, but in a teeth-clenched, skin-crawlingly miserable way. He hates the uncertainty, the change, not knowing what is going to happen. He hates Christmas decorations, the Christmas tree, big dinners, lots of guests… You name it, whatever it is that the family tradition dictates at Christmas, the poor lad hates it.
However, for many years we didn’t know what it was that caused the meltdowns, the howling fits, the running out of the house. As he got older, he became more able to articulate his concerns and by the time he was about 9 or 10, and we had a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome (aged 7), we were able to work out strategies to help minimize his anxieties at Christmas time.
I met a fair amount of opposition in the early days. Mainly because the children’s dad wanted them all to be treated the same, and was uncomfortable with me doing things differently for C. Which is fair enough I guess, and a commonly held view. But I firmly believe C needed a different approach in order to manage his worries and his stress. The first main stress, for example, was not knowing what he was going to get for Christmas. Even though he might get something lovely, not knowing what it might be, caused him utter misery. So when he was nine, I decided, against the wishes of my (now ex-) husband, to take him with me to buy a Christmas present. I talked to him about it, and asked him if he would be happier knowing something he was going to get for Christmas. The relief in his face was palpable. I could have kicked myself for not thinking of it sooner. So that year, we went out and bought The Guinness Book of World Records, and agreed that although he knew he was getting it, I would wrap it up and put it under the tree. After that, he relaxed, because he knew that whatever else he did or didn’t get, he would be able to unwrap the book he wanted, for sure. I wondered if, over the coming weeks, he would insist on having the book immediately, but no, he was quite happy knowing that I had bought him what he wanted, and that it would definitely appear under the tree on Christmas morning.
The next issue was Father Christmas. The whole idea of a strange bloke coming into our house, by magic, for god’s sake, when he didn’t have a key, when we locked front and back doors every night just freaked the poor little mite out. I hadn’t realised that for years, he had been worrying about all the other ways that strange bearded men might get into his bedroom. So although he still believed in Father Christmas, and he had two younger siblings who definitely did and were not worried at all, I changed how we did things. The same year, aged nine, I suggested to him that perhaps he’d like me to have a word with Father Christmas and see if it was ok for me to do his stocking instead. This pleased C immensely, and so from then on, it was agreed with him and the younger two that Father Christmas would only come to them, but I would do C’s stocking, on behalf of Santa.
The following year, C was no longer believing in the whole FC conspiracy, and so we then had to make up more baloney for the sake of the younger ones. He could not, of course, keep it to himself that Father Christmas was in fact, Mum and Dad, as he is always compelled to say every last thing that comes into his head. Especially anything he shouldn’t say of course, tact not being a huge strength for many people with Asperger’s Syndrome. But O and G were happy to accept that obviously Father Christmas wouldn’t do C’s stocking if he didn’t believe in him: we kept this going for a little longer…
But Christmas is one of those times where families are supposed to do stuff together. There are school plays to go to, carol services to attend and family bunfights to field. These used to cause me so much stress, because I’d try and get all five of us to events, and then would usually end up leaving early with a distressed child. Pretty soon it was clear to me that taking C to a carol service was just a miserable experience for all involved, particularly for him. He really doesn’t like the noise, the closeness of other people and gets no joy from the occasion. So why persist?
I wanted to go that’s why. I wanted to be a family. I wanted to be a proper family that does things together, wears matching hats and scarves and sings carols round the piano. I just wanted to do stuff altogether.
However. That was not going to happen. For many years I had to give up on all these things. I tried to get to my younger son and daughter’s school events, but regularly missed them because I was looking after C. We never ever went altogether to anything, because either my husband or I would be at home with our eldest son. It just never happened. It used to break my heart because I couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. It felt as though we were becoming an increasingly autistic, insular family, lonely and away from everyone else. I used to watch other families from a distance and try not to envy their assumption that they would just go out together.
And that’s why I wanted to write this. Because, you know what? There really is light at the end of the tunnel and for once, it’s not the headlights of an oncoming train. No, it really is a bit fantastic. I don’t want to jinx the entire festive season, but actually, what the hell. This year’s run up to Christmas has been the best ever with C. And that is pretty odd for several reasons.
The first reason why I’m surprised is that it’s the first Christmas since my husband and I split up in January. I know that the kids have been apprehensive about Christmas, worrying about how it will be without their Dad there. The second reason is that I have been ill for the last 5 weeks, as I’ve been trying to get used to taking lithium and antidepressants to combat Bipolar Disorder. I’ve not been at my strongest, physically or emotionally and I am certainly less organised for the whole Christmas thing than usual.
So I was astonished at my boy, who had taken everything in his stride. Quite amazingly well. The present choosing was fine – he wanted an electric razor, which I bought him. He asked specifically not to have a stocking, as he feels it is a waste of money to be given things he hasn’t asked for. I explained to him that actually, putting things in his stocking made me very happy and I’d like to be able to do it still. I promised him that I would only give him useful presents, “none of those silly things that are pointless, please Mum”. Oh! Ok. Pants and deodorant it is, then! (and God knows, he needs the latter)
And since he is now almost fourteen, it has been much easier for me to leave him at home while I have attended Christmas concerts and events for the other two children, safe in the knowledge that the worst he will be doing while I am out is spending the entire evening glued to the Playstation. So although I still haven’t managed to go to something as a ‘whole’ family, I have at least been able to go to things, be there for the other two children, and not be panicking that I’d have to leave in the middle with a shouty child.
But it was really when we decorated the tree this year that he just blew me away. In previous years, decorating the house has always been a period of great stress for C. I have never quite understood what it was that caused his panic and stress, over lights, tinsel and baubels, but for many years, he would shut himself in his bedroom while the rest of the kids and I decorated everywhere like mad. Once it was done, he would emerge, glaring at the offending pretty things and pace around the house to check what was where. Once he had done this, and poked the tinsel, switched the fairy lights on and off a couple of times, he would pronounce the tree “fine” and usually complain that we had not put the correct lights on it. But that would be the end of the stress. However, in all his years he has never participated in the actual Christmasifying of the house until now, which explains why I was unprepared for his sudden sea-change.
While the children were at school, I had bought a beautiful tree, but had suddenly run out of energy after hefting it out of the garden centre and into the boot, and had left it in the car. C and his younger brother volunteered to carry the tree inside, struggled in and brought it into the sitting room for me. At this point, I was beginning to feel quite ill, the tremor from the lithium was getting quite severe and I simply couldn’t lift the tree into the holder. But being a stubborn git, I continued to try, until I was forced to sit on the floor in a clammy state of wobbliness. While I sat there, swearing over my lack of a hacksaw and inability to lift a tree and generally, to do the whole Christmas thing on my own, my boy said to me, “Mum, you should really let me do that, you know. I’m a lot stronger and bigger than you.”
Anyone that knows me in real life will know that I am spectactularly awful at accepting offers of help, particularly on this day, feeling that I should be somehow doing it all myself. I had persuaded myself that I had to be Supermum in the absence of the children’s dad…. (I know, idiotic).
So. I ignored C’s offer of help, as he tutted and shook his head at me. I carried on, with my younger son fetching the bread knife to hack bits off the bottom of the tree so we could fit it into the holder. But try as I might, I simply didn’t have the strength to saw the wood. C patiently sat there, holding the trunk, while I got crosser and crosser, cursing the perishing tree and myself with increasing ferocity and impending tears.
But after fifteen minutes of this, C had had enough. “For god’s sake Mum! ” he said, “Why aren’t you letting me do it? I can cut through that branch easily! You are so stubborn, mum. Jeez! You’re worse than me! Just stop! “
And he was right. I should have let him do it. I hadn’t yet made that change in my own head that I didn’t have to do it all myself, that I had a teenage boy who was bigger than me and far more capable of chopping up a tree than I was. I was in Protective Mother Mode and didn’t want anyone cutting their fingers or hacking their own legs off by accident. Which, in my ridiculously wibbly wobbly state was much more likely to happen to me than to him.
To cut a long and sweaty story short, I carried on until it turned out that my nine year old daughter had phoned her dad and asked him to bring the hacksaw over and help us put up the tree. I reluctantly admitted defeat and we all sat on the sofa with hot chocolate, while we looked at the bloody tree lying on the carpet in the middle of the room and waited for the arrival of some proper tools and my ex-husband. I pondered, as I sat there with my three kids, and, for the first time as a mother realised that my kids actually could help me. Properly and practically and essentially. It was being pointed out to me by my son with Asperger’s, whose empathy and compassion is not well known. But he is pragmatic and practical and he could see what I could not, in my emotional haze of “I’ve got to make our first Christmas just the four of us, utterly marvellous” that it is fine to ask other people, including your children, for help. I am often brought up short by my eldest son.
“Right”, said C, “Next year, mum, I don’t want any arguments from you. As of next year, being in charge of cutting the tree and putting it into its holder is mine and O’s job. Seriously. Ok?”
He fixed me with a fierce look, raised an eyebrow at me, “Ok, Mum?”
“Ok.” I said and hugged him.