39  A Christmas Birthday


 “Our second child is expected to be born sometime between Xmas Eve and Boxing Day. I should feel pleased but I feel awful about it. Everyone is telling me what a special time it is to be born but I really wish I had thought about the timing of my pregnancy better. My husband does not mind - he is just pleased we are completing our family. However, our 5 year old is already nervous of Xmas after being frightened by a Father Christmas at a Christmas party last year. I am worried he will now dislike Christmas for two reasons”.

 Mrs W.L.


 First of all, congratulations on your pregnancy! More important than any other consideration - including the timing of birth - is the fact that this is a wanted pregnancy and in your final month the baby is already viable. However, for many women, after the pleasure and comfort of the middle period of pregnancy the last month or so can be a more anxious time. As psychoanalyst Joan Raphael Leff, author of  “Pregnancy: The Inside Story” comments, “… towards the end, the expectant mother usually becomes more aware of the momentous change that is about to occur. The moment of truth looms large with anxieties about the mutual journey” Could perhaps some of the worry about the Xmas delivery be worry about the new life?


 If this second baby is also the final baby for Mrs W.L. it would not be surprising for fear about the birth to be transferred to the birthday. It is not just the 5 year old who is worried. It can also be upsetting that the powerful feelings that lead to making a baby are not always consciously linked to an expected delivery time. Being reminded of a mathematics that is out of conscious personal control can be difficult. We do not have newspapers and television programmes putting out statements in March “If you conceive now you will have a Christmas baby”!


 Every week a surprising number of people look at their horoscopes or at newspaper items to see who they share their birthday with and whether they might share any other characteristics with an “astrological twin”. However, sharing a birthday with an unknown other or a famous individual alive or dead is very different to sharing your birthday with a momentous historical event. Christmas is one of the most powerful birthday to share as in itself it can be a significant event for Christians and non-Christians alike and it is helpful that Mrs W.L is thinking ahead about the impact this will have on her baby.


 Even within non-religious families, in clinical work with children it becomes clear that there can be painful rivalry with this special baby, Jesus, whose birthday is so important that many people all over the world share it. Psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas comments “Some colleagues and patients with December birthdays feel that the best Christmas present they could be given would be a hammer and a miniature manger”. Primary school teachers are well aware of the difficulties involved in successfully rehearsing and performing nativity plays. The doll representing the little baby Jesus is frequently dropped by a rivalrous little Mary.


 Psychoanalyst Joan Raphael Leff comments “While doing research at the Institute of Psychiatry I watched a nativity play at a school for children with a severe learning disability. Joseph asked Mary “How has He been?” and Mary ad libbed “He’s been a right blighter all week - you take Him”. If rivalry with an idealised perfect baby exists for us all on some levels, how much more for those born less perfect.”


 Indeed, Jane Bernal, Senior Lecturer in the Psychiatry of Disability at St Georges Hospital Medical School is well aware of the children and adults with a learning disability who find birthdays a painful reminder of their vulnerability, let alone a Christmas birthday.


 How can Mrs W.L. help to mediate the impact a Christmas birth will have on her unborn baby? Firstly, by what she is doing - being able to bear in mind that the date will have an effect. Secondly, it will be important to separate the unique significance of the child and its own birthday from the parallel celebration. Many December children remember receiving one present and being told “It’s a double present” when they knew quite well it was not. “They just get short of money in my family when it gets to Christmas”, said one perceptive little boy, Johnny. “My brother’s birthday is in June and he gets lots of presents but my parents don’t think of putting money aside for my birthday in June. They wait until Christmas and then they haven’t got anything spare”. Susie, aged 11 wearily added “I think my mum and dad just run out of ideas at Christmas”. Christopher Bollas pointed out that Freud’s famous patient “The Wolfman” ascribed some of his childhood difficulties to such feelings of deprivation.


 Mrs W.L. would do well to listen to Johnny and Sarah’s words. It is not just an economic issue. Families can often run out of ideas when Christmas and birthdays come together. Having some forward planning would make a big difference. It would also be important to not expect baby W.L. to be pleased to share his/her birthday with another. Tavistock Clinic Child Psychotherapist Eileen Orford points out “One of the difficulties with celebration days is that they are supposed to be happy events” Sarah, aged 18 said “When my sister was born on Xmas day my parents told me I had been given an extra Christmas present. I didn’t know what to do about that as I knew I was supposed to be pleased with my presents but I wanted to hand her back. I still find receiving Christmas presents hard”. Sometimes there is a further problem over such rivalry; regardless of religious themes of resurrection - for many young children the holy sibling ends up dying.


 Midwinter festivals of light exist in many cultures and did so long before Christmas was incorporated. They retain their double sense of darkness and loss and light and life. There are children and adults for whom the underside can be more apparent. The rituals of dressing up are also of pagan origin and in our culture Father Christmas costumes and manners can also be frightening. We do not know whether Mrs W.L’s son was particularly sensitive to such transformations or whether the particular Father Christmas was insensitive. However, as Eileen Orford comments “ If his family accept that such events can be difficult and lessen the imperative to enjoy yourself he might be able to relax about it more”- this would also include not being expected to be thrilled with this new Christmas present.


 Helpful Information & Addresses


 “Pregnancy. The Inside Story” by Joan Raphael-Leff (1993) Sheldon ś 12.99


 “Being a Character, Psychoanalysis and Self Experience”. Christopher Bollas, 1993 Routledge. ś 14.99