My husband was married before and had two children. He and his wife get on well, and she's always pleasant to me. I've just had a new baby and she's married again and she's asked us all over for Christmas Day. I'm starting to dread it. I just don't know how I can cope. I feel I will be at such a disadvantage – I'm much younger than her, and feel I'm just tagging along. I can't sleep at night. I'm tempted to say I have to look after the baby and stay away.
Yours sincerely, Barbara
What a pity that, rather than be pleased and flattered that you've been asked for Christmas by your husband's ex, you feel ground-down and miserable. Because the truth is that there's no way you'd have been invited were you thought of as some drag on the proceedings, and it's a sign of the ex's affection for your husband's new family as whole that you've been included. Perhaps she also wants her own children to get to know their half-sibling, and is trying to construct an extended family in which love and harmony reign rather than bitterness and resentment.
Were you to cancel, I'm certain that she'd see it as a snub, because it takes quite a lot of effort to be as inclusive and generous as she's being, so whatever you do, go, even if you arrive late or leave early.
But I'm wondering if your gloomy forebodings aren't partly a result of mild postnatal depression. There's nothing like depression to make to you feel like a piece of rubbish, a lowly cockroach on which people would be sensible to stamp, even though of course that is a completely distorted view of the truth.
Now, I wouldn't dream of saying anything like "You'll enjoy it when you get there", even though it's probably true. Nor would I expect you to be grateful for being asked. Nor, by pointing out the kindly motives and friendly advances, am I expecting you to look forward to it. For many of us, Christmas, oddly, is a time of acute anxiety, even when we're going to spend with our loved ones.
So I suggest you do what my grandmother used to advise when faced with a ghastly situation. She'd say: "Offer it up." This means: think of the event as a sacrifice to the gods, a piece of selflessness that you are going to go through simply because it's right and propitious. You could see it as a sacrifice on your part to make your husband feel good about his new family, your baby to feel part of a bigger whole, his ex so that she can lay the ghost of a divorce to rest, her new husband so that there are no skeletons in the new family's cupboard, and her two children to give them a chance of having a new family member to love.
Don't try to change your mind about how you feel about this Christmas. Continue to dread the event by all means. But once you have invested this dread with some meaning – in "offering it up" – you will find that though you won't enjoy it, you may get some kind of fulfilment out of the act of bearing awkwardness, shyness and embarrassment for the sake of a greater good.
Count yourself lucky
You have just had a baby, so no wonder you are stressed out. Sleepless nights and the demands of a newborn can totally overwhelm. Your anxiety might also be postnatally linked – if this persists, please consider seeing your GP. You are lucky to have an ex in your life with a heart big enough to embrace her former husband's new family, and who wants all the children to have a good time with all the important adults in their lives. She is also kind enough to relieve you of more pressure this Christmas by doing the entertaining. So "go with the flow" and accept the goodwill of the season and those around you.
Eastbourne, East Sussex
Enjoy the goodwill
Don't be a goose – your husband loves you, his former wife is pleasant and wishes to be hospitable at Christmas, you and your new baby will be the centre of attention. However, you obviously feel a little vulnerable.
Why not ask the ex-wife (in advance) if you might have the use of a quiet room where you could feed and change the baby, and where it could have a nap (you, too, if you need it).
I feel sure that, with goodwill – and there seems to be plenty of that – you will all have a lovely Christmas. Please don't stay at home, you'll only feel resentful. Oh, and by the way, being younger is not generally reckoned to be a disadvantage.
Make an effort
It is understandable that your feelings are all over the place with a new baby in the house and all the fatigue and sense of inadequacy that new motherhood brings. However, if you cannot match the generosity of spirit your husband's ex-wife is showing, you will look like a spoiler. Your husband's children deserve to have their father around at Christmas (as I am sure you would wish for her own baby), so you should make an effort to join in, at least for the family meal. You could then excuse yourself gracefully, on the grounds of fatigue, and go home for a more intimate celebration with husband and baby.
Relax and enjoy it
You are lucky that your husband and his ex get along well and that she has always been pleasant to you. Christmas with her is only one day – and she may be quite happy to coo over your newborn and let you have some space if you need to go off and feed him/her and perhaps have some time out from the noise.
I think you will be pleasantly surprised that the day will go much better than you think it will. Christmas is no fun on your own – you'll mope and feel left out while the rest of the extended family are all having a good time.
Go along, relax, put away those worries and enjoy yourself. Don't be afraid to ask for help or "time-out", and you may find that the other two children will love to have their half-sister or brother to fuss over.
Next week's dilemma:
A friend has confided that her daughter is behaving violently towards her. Worse, a therapist has warned that the daughter might be violent towards her own child. This family is always seeing therapists, and being diagnosed with various mental conditions. They're a "let it all hang out" family, always having rows, which they think are "healthy". But I'm worried for my friend. How can I help her?
Yours sincerely, David
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