Acknowledge the loss
If this is the first time your family is not together for Christmas, Hanukkah, or other winter holidays, your kids will feel a sense of loss. They will grieve the loss of the traditions they enjoyed in the past. In addition, they make feel caught between you and your ex. They might worry about the parent they aren’t with or miss them. They might feel guilty about a parent spending the holiday alone. They will likely be caught in a loyalty bind.
You and your ex may also grieve the loss of the holidays as they once were. Claire told me that every Christmas the entire family would wear matching pajamas. “It’s silly, I know. But this year, do I get matching pj’s for my ex too?”
At the same time, you may feel competitive with your ex, who can plan the best activities or give the best presents. James described the annual rituals of ice skating, breakfast with Santa in a posh department store, seeing The Nutcracker, and spending a day bringing meals to the homeless. “Should I continue to do all these things? What if Emily does them too, isn’t that wrong to do everything twice?” How do you divide up those rituals, or does one parent take them all, excluding the other parent?
Extended family will also feel the loss of the family gatherings and traditions. Deb’s parents had become quite close to her partner Alice’s parents. They had spent the holidays together for the last ten years. The in-laws now worried about how the holidays would be celebrated, whether they would see their grandchildren, and if they would need to take sides in the divorce. I met with the four grandparents together and explored ways that they could support their children and grandchildren while remaining friendly. Years later I learned that the two families had begun to celebrate some holidays together again.
So here is how to help your kids have a good holiday.
- Many parents have told me how important it is to them that their children wake up at their home with them on Christmas morning. How can they give this up? Some parents try to celebrate the holidays together, to try to keep some of their traditions alive. If you and your ex can spend the holiday together without tension or conflict, you might decide to share the special moments. However, if your children pick up on your discomfort, this will spoil the festivities for them. Despite your best intentions, your stress could add strain and tension to your kids’ experience. Sharing the holiday only works for parents who are quite comfortable with each other, and not in conflict.
- Understand that this season is tough for everyone, including your ex, and your kids need your permission to enjoy the holiday even if you aren’t there. Prioritize your kids above your own emotions. If you aren’t with the children on Christmas morning, make other plans. Community service is a great Christmas gift to your community. Nathan, who was Jewish, agreed that the children would spend every Christmas with his ex-wife. He was surprised at how nostalgic he became about the times they all decorated the tree and made iced Christmas cookies. “I was surprised how much I missed my children during the holidays. All I could think about was how much fun they were having, and I couldn’t be a part of that.” After the first year, and every year, Nathan planned a week away with relatives out of state. This became his new tradition and was a good distraction from the loneliness he felt.
- Set aside your divorce proceedings till after the holidays. If you have been doing financial negotiations, put it on hold for the holidays. This way you can focus on your kids without the stress of divorce meetings.
- Work together with your spouse, if you can. Coordinate your gift-giving and share the time. For example, if you aren’t celebrating together, the kids could be with one of you on Christmas eve, and then with the other parent on Christmas day.
- Make new traditions with your kids. Most parents alternate the holidays, and if this is the case, create new traditions for yourself and your kids.
- Encourage your children to make cards or gifts for their other parent. It sends them the important message of giving while taking them out of the loyalty confusion when you encourage their relationship with each of their parents.
- Plan well ahead of time how the holidays will be celebrated, and when the children will be with each parent. Then talk to your children about the plan, and give them time to express their feelings of sadness, disappointment, anxiety, worry, or even anger. All feelings are ok. They might like to reminisce about years past, and you can even encourage this, while also reassuring them that you and your ex will still make the holidays wonderful, but just different. Above all, be sensitive to the pain of their loyalty conflict and try to avoid putting them in that position.
The winter holidays are celebrated all over the world, in many different cultures and traditions.
What they have in common is bringing light into the darkness of the winter solstice. The joy of giving, the wish for peace, and family togetherness are honored in different ways. Your family will look different when you are separated or divorced, and it may seem far from “togetherness.” So try to focus on the meaning of the traditions you celebrate, and to bring light, joy and peace to your children.
© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2021