Christmas Day can be a fraught time for families, with long-running feuds and unburied hatchets casting a shadow over the festivities. And they’re just the ones who are still together.
So imagine the tension and exploding fireworks if two exes, plus current partners and stepchildren, were to spend the day under the same roof.
But that’s exactly what this family did last Christmas for the sake of their children. Was there acrimony? HELEN CARROLL spoke to the ultimate ‘blended’ family to find out.
Danielle Pilcher, 39, a facilities project manager, is the ex-partner of Darren Brett, 45, a programme manager for a digital agency.
The ultimate family Christmas: From left, Georgina, Darren, Ethan, Danielle, Hannah, Ian, Immi and Kristi
They are parents to Ethan, six, and Hannah, three, and split almost three years ago after ten years together.
Danielle’s new partner is Ian Panting, 48, a solutions engineer. He and ex-wife Georgina, 39, an account director for a marketing company, split in 2013 after eight years of marriage, and have a daughter together, Imogen (known as Immi), who is nine.
Meanwhile, Darren’s new partner is Kristi Arlidge, 33, a project manager. They all live around Maidenhead, Berkshire, and will spend Christmas Day together with Ian and Danielle’s parents, too!
Sitting down to our annual Christmas lunch, laughing and joking as we clink champagne flutes and pull crackers, we will look for all the world like a normal extended family.
The guests around my dinner table this year will, once again, include my ex-partner and father of my two children, Darren, his new partner Kristi, my partner Ian, his ex-wife Georgina and their daughter.
To many, such a gathering sounds like the stuff of nightmares. However, thanks to all the effort we’ve made to keep these relationships friendly and put our children first, we will have a lovely day.
I know plenty of people will think I am saying these words through gritted teeth, but it’s the truth. And seeing how happy the children are is the icing on the cake.
We’ll gather, bright and early, at the home I bought with Darren and now share with Ian.
If he feels strange, sitting down at ‘our’ table, and eating off ‘our’ dinner service, he doesn’t show it. There’s no such thing as a ‘nice’ break-up, but I think Darren and I have shown that, with respect and decency, there’s no need for unpleasantness and for the children to suffer — especially at Christmas.
Danielle, 39, (pictured) split up with Darren Brett, 45, three years ago
It breaks my heart when I hear of families where one parent sits at home alone while children are ferried hundreds of miles across the country in a bid to keep everyone appeased.
It helps that Kristi, Darren’s girlfriend, is lovely — someone I think I would choose as a friend anyway. Plus, the children adore her.
It also helps that we had already separated when they got together, just as Ian and Georgina had been divorced for a couple of years before I met him. Sitting down at a table with someone who’d ‘stolen’ your partner, or if you still had feelings for your ex, might be a challenge too far.
Still, it would have been hard for me to imagine playing happy families in this way when Darren moved out, leaving me with a three-year-old and a six-month-old, back in early 2015. He had been very unhappy for a while — it’s a stressful time having young children, the work involved is relentless and our relationship just couldn’t survive the strain.
Instead of supporting one another, we would bicker about every little thing. It wasn’t, therefore, a complete shock when Darren told me he was leaving and I never doubted that he would continue to be a good dad.
Some people would find it impossible to forgive an ex in those circumstances, but I soon realised that the best thing I could do for my children was ensure that we all had a good relationship with their father. So Darren and I saw a Relate counsellor, not to try to get back together, but to work out how to build a new relationship as parents living apart.
It helped enormously: instead of arguing over the children’s heads as we handed them over at weekends, we were able to iron out lingering resentments and anger.
When he started dating Kristi a few months after we split, I can’t deny I felt a bit sorry for myself. I was a single mum with a baby and a toddler, while he was in the first flush of love with someone new.
But I was also glad that there was a woman around to help Darren with the children every other weekend and for a day or two in the week.
When Ian and I met, through an online dating site in the summer of 2016, one of the first things I told him was: ‘I hope this doesn’t worry you, but I’m on very good terms with my ex and we intend to spend our children’s birthdays and Christmas together.’
We’d spent the previous one together at Darren’s parents.
I was delighted to learn Ian also had a really good relationship with his ex, Georgina. She parked on his driveway to drop their daughter at school each day, sometimes calling in for a cup of tea. I soon got to know, and like, Georgina too.
So, fast forward to last Christmas Day and anyone peering in through my window would have seen our exes and partners — including my parents, who separated 13 years ago but who are on good terms and both single — eating, drinking, groaning at the cracker jokes and playing silly board games.
This year we’re also being joined by Ian’s parents, who are travelling from Devon. They are still together. After we’ve said our goodbyes, Ian and I will fall into bed, content in the knowledge that our children have spent the day surrounded by the people they love, and who love them most.
Danielle (right) will spend Christmas Day with her new boyfriend’s ex wife, Georgina (left)
Danielle and I were together for ten years and I think the demands of having young children shone a light on the many ways in which we are different.
It was my decision to leave because I was unhappy and that wasn’t a good way to live for any of us but, of course, I was very sad about breaking up our family. Separating couples often really resent one another, but we both made a concerted effort not to. The masterstroke was having counselling together. You hear stories about kids suffering because their parents’ hurt pride means they can’t have a civilised relationship. We were determined it wouldn’t happen to us.
Last year, I cooked Christmas dinner for all of us, plus Danielle’s parents, my former in-laws, and as we sat down to eat I broke the ice saying: ‘OK so this may not exactly be a ‘normal’ family gathering, but it’s fun!’
From the look on her face, I don’t think Danielle’s mum knew quite how to react at first, but we all ended up laughing. This year, we’ll be old hands and I honestly don’t envisage any awkwardness. Friends have questioned how I can handle another man living with my ex and our children in our old home, but it’s surprisingly easy.
It helps that Danielle has chosen a decent guy in Ian. Nor did I have qualms about introducing the idea of spending Christmas with my ex in our old home to Kristi.
She knows that being a good, present dad is hugely important to me and is very supportive of that.
I am so proud when I see how relaxed and happy everyone is, especially our children, on Christmas Day.
When Georgina and I separated, the most important thing for both of us was ensuring that Immi never felt pulled in two directions.
Generally, when parents divorce someone has been hurt, due to something like an affair, and they struggle to forgive and forget. But we had just grown apart and decided we’d both be happier living separately.
When I mention to people that I spend Christmas with my ex-wife, my partner and her ex-partner, I get a mixed response.
Those who are happily married, or unhappily separated, say: ‘Gosh I could never do that,’ while the adult children of divorced parents tell me how much they wish their own mums and dads could have been so amicable.
Our determination to maintain a good relationship with our exes, for our children’s sakes, was one of the first things Danielle and I realised we had in common.
I first met Darren and Kristi at Ethan’s birthday party in October last year and I was a bit nervous beforehand, thinking it might be awkward, but it really wasn’t
I wanted Darren to know that I would be a good stepdad to his kids because, as a father, I know how important that is.
We met a couple more times afterwards, so by Christmas Day everything was relaxed and easy.
Then we added Georgina, who already knew Danielle, to the mix and, as we’re all friendly, easy-going people, we got on really well together. Before I met Danielle, who is the lynchpin in all this, Georgina and I would take it in turns to have Immi overnight on Christmas Eve.
On the years she was with her mum, I’d head over there late morning and we’d give her joint presents from us. This way, we spent the day together.
I think our new set-up is much better all round.
Danielle’s new love, Ian (pictured), has also invited his parents
Ian and I separated when Immi was just five because we were no longer making one another happy.
Of course, we wanted it to have minimal impact on our daughter, but to imagine it would have no impact at all would have been very unrealistic. There are times when Immi inevitably feels torn emotionally, which has caused her a bit of anxiety, but we’ve always tried to put her needs first.
What most children really want, understandably, is for their parents to be together.
However, as that just wasn’t possible for us, we’ve tried to do the next best thing.
I have a partner, Duncan, who will be with his children while I’m at Danielle’s on Christmas Day.
He doesn’t join us, although he’s very supportive about me going, because he says he wouldn’t feel quite so relaxed in such an unconventional family gathering.
But it’ll be a joy watching Immi, Ethan and Hannah playing together with their new toys. It can be lonely being an only child, but they’re like a brother and sister to her and she’s learning valuable lessons about sharing things, including her dad.
Danielle’s and Ian’s parents, who I’m very fond of, will also be there, so I won’t feel like a gooseberry. We’re very lucky to rub along so well — better than many relatives on Christmas Day, in fact.
You never know, maybe one year my partner and his children will join the throng, but we’ll have to get a bigger dining table!
When Darren and I started dating, after meeting at work in the summer of 2015, I knew he had children and fully expected him and Danielle to want to celebrate birthdays and Christmases together with them.
I clearly remember what it was like being a child and wouldn’t have wanted to be without either my mum or dad on these special days. Some of my friends have expressed surprise when I tell them about our festive plans and have asked if I’m at all uncomfortable with them, but I can honestly say I’m not.
The first ‘blended family’ event was Ethan’s birthday in October last year and I admit I was a little nervous.
But Danielle is a very warm and open person who put me completely at ease.
There is no bad feeling between her and Darren, which is great for their children, who I also love dearly. The children are staying with us on Christmas Eve this year so we’ll have Santa presents at home then head to Danielle’s.
Any tensions there might be in such a group are definitely dissipated by having young children around.
They don’t care about relationship history. To them, we’re just a group of adults who love them.
Having both Mummy and Daddy there is, of course, great for them but I like to think that the rest of us also help to create a fun and loving atmosphere.
I’m sure that if Darren and I ever decide to have children we would be able to create a little extra space for them at the Christmas dinner table.
Immi, nine, says:
Christmas Day is a really special time and I feel lucky that I get to see both my mum and my dad.
I love it when Mum comes over to Dan’s (Danielle’s). It makes me feel so happy when everyone’s together.
Ethan and Hannah are my step-brother and sister and get very excited. I have to be the big sister and calm them down a bit.
Last Christmas was our first with Dan and her family, so it was special. This year will be even more fun!
Ethan, six, says:
I love having Mummy and Daddy together on Christmas Day because I love spending time with all of my family. Opening my presents wouldn’t be so much fun if they weren’t both there to see me.
Hannah, three, says:
I love my mummy and my daddy and I can’t wait for Christmas!