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London - A few weeks ago, I received a birthday card from one of my closest girlfriends. On the front was a picture of a mother reading a bedtime story to her sleepy daughter.
The caption read: “Once upon a time, a man asked a girl to marry him. The girl said ‘No!’ and she lived happily ever after, went shopping, dancing and drinking. She always had a clean house, never cooked and looked fabulous all the time. The End.”
My married friend is a wonderful, but often exhausted, working mother-of-three. She told me to frame the card and to look at it every time I feel sad about the fact I have never been able to have children of my own.
So I did. But however well-intentioned the gesture, I think she”d be surprised at how often I would gladly swap my lovely, tidy home for the chaos of children. And never more so than at this time of year.
For 50 weeks of the year, being single and child-free does indeed have its benefits.
I can live my life as I choose.
But the unavoidable truth is that my glamorous, free-wheeling life suddenly shudders to a halt for the Christmas fortnight when I am reminded in so many unexpected ways of what I don’t have.
An example? A few days ago, I was in a taxi accelerating away from the frenzy of pre-Christmas Oxford Street when the driver glanced back at my carrier bags stuffed full of presents and asked me how many children I had. I paused, then answered: “None, sadly. These are for my nieces and nephews.”
The cabbie and I were soon reminiscing about the Christmases of our own childhoods, remembering how grateful we always were for the smallest toy.
As he described his eight-year-old daughter’s astonishment when he told her that the best Christmas present he’d ever received as a child was a second-hand bicycle, I suddenly felt an overwhelming sadness.
Who will I tell my childhood memories to? Who will hear the story of the Christmas when we were so skint my mom and dad bought me a second-hand tutu for Christmas? (I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world. And in many ways I was.)
Or the time I was desperate for a doll’s house, but knew there was no way my parents could afford one.
On Christmas Day, there it stood - the most beautiful doll’s house any girl had ever dreamed of. Only years later did I learn that for a month before Christmas, my dad had come home from work each night and sat in his shed and built it.
Everyone has their own magical Christmas story to tell, don’t they - the memories handed down from one generation to the next.
Except for me, there is no one to whom I can pass on the stories of my life. For me, there will be no children to roll their eyes and groan: “Oh no, not that story again, Mom!”
The myriad tales of my life, of all that has happened to me, will end... with me.
‘Tis the season to be joyful? For a childless woman like me, that can be a struggle. However blessed our lives may be in other ways - and mine is - every event at this time of year is touched by the one privilege we don’t have.
In my neatly ordered house, there will be no little face peeping through the bedroom door at 5am to see if Mom and Dad are awake and pleading to be able to open presents, even though it’s wickedly early, just as I did to my parents many years ago. There’ll be no shrieking as gifts are snatched from under the Christmas tree at my house, no children climbing into my lap beside a roaring fire, no mittened fingers clasping mine for a bracing walk.
Even the Christmas Day service is a reminder for women like me of what we don’t have, as we watch families filling the pews, wrapped up warm against the wintry cold, children nudging each other, giggling with excitement, and singing their little hearts out.
I know I am not alone in my seasonal melancholia: there are millions of women who, by defeat, default or decision, have not had children.
In my case, it wasn’t for want of trying. Having visited the top fertility clinics in London, at least I had one consolation: it wasn’t that I had left motherhood too late - being childless was simply the hand God had dealt me. Of course, there is a difference between being childless at Christmas, and being on your own. In fact, I have spent only one Christmas alone - the first one after my marriage ended. I couldn’t face the smiling, sympathetic faces of my family and friends, so I chose to wake up on Christmas morning alone, in my own home.
I spent the day tucked up under the blankets, watching movies such as It’s A Wonderful Life and The Sound Of Music, crying from the opening titles through to the closing credits.
For in Hollywood, as in real life, it seems there is no escaping the idyllic family Christmas dominated by the excited laughter of happy children
Since then, my friends have been incredibly generous about inviting me to join them for their festivities, but in truth it’s your own family you yearn for at this time of year, not someone else’s.
And I’ve been fortunate to have shared many happy gatherings with my parents, brothers and their young children most years since. Sitting on the floor with my nieces and nephews on Christmas morning among the chaos of ripped paper and discarded boxes, deafened by the squeals of delight, only one thing could have made me happier - that they had been my own children.
And in a way, they have been. A few days after I learned I would never have children, I had dinner with my brother, Cameron, and his wife, Ingrid.
When I shared the news with them, Ingrid reached across the table and took my hand.
“Just think of it this way, Mandy,” she said. “My kids are half mine and half Cameron’s, so that makes them a quarter yours.”
Their children would often tell me, with the innocence of youth, that they were glad I didn’t have kids, because if I had I might have loved them less. Well, I couldn’t love them any more.
My 18-year-old niece, Monique, wrote a letter to me the other day which said: “Over the years you have been so much more than an aunty to me. You’ve become a constant source of inspiration and kindness.
“I am so grateful for the support you’ve always showed me, Ari and Claude, treating us no differently than if you were our mother - which I think you partly are.”
I’m so grateful for their love and for having them in my life - and for all the wonderful Christmases past.
But I can’t help wondering, especially at this time of year, what it would have been like to have had my own children.
To have been wholly, not partly, a mother. - Daily Mail