As the child of divorce, holidays were usually a flurry of activity from the moment I woke up. After age 9, I never experienced the leisurely Thanksgiving meal, post-dinner games, or staying in PJs all day on Christmas and playing with my new toys. Because every holiday was split between my parents, I felt uncomfortable and unsettled. I also spent a lot of time worrying about my other parent and how they were feeling when I wasn’t with them. Then, when I later got married, my (now) ex-husband also had divorced parents, which created a flow chart of activities that made our heads spin.
Have you ever seen the movie Four Christmases? That’s what it felt like. Without the funny jokes.
Maybe you didn’t have divorced parents, but you might recognize this scenario: it’s Christmas morning. You’re rushing your children to open their presents, barely having time to scarf down a cinnamon roll, so you can get on the road with a pile of gifts to spend time with extended family. Several hours later, you arrive at home exhausted and grumpy.
Stressful, right? It was my 45th Christmas when I realized I didn’t want to do that anymore – I needed a change. It was no longer enjoyable for me or my family.
Here are some steps I took to bring back some joy during the holiday season:
1. Remember the true meaning of Christmas. If you’re a Believer, Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus. How do you want your attitude to be during this season?
2. Release the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). It can be uncomfortable and maybe a little bittersweet, but if you want to feel joy again during the holidays, you’ll have to let go of some of the traditions you got used to. Teach yourself to feel gratitude and appreciate the little moments of happiness during the holidays. And, of course….
3. Create new traditions. After my divorce, my kids and I began the new tradition of going out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve (an idea we borrowed from the movie A Christmas Story). Last year, my youngest child told me he wanted Indian food this year instead. Don’t be afraid to modify traditions along the way.
4. Don’t hold your adult children hostage. Insisting that they be with you during every minute of every festivity will only cause stress for everyone. Let them make plans that work for them. There’s nothing wrong with having two Thanksgiving dinners. Or celebrating Christmas the week after the 25th (especially if you get to take advantage of the after-Christmas sales). Learn to be flexible and let go of the idea that the whole family has to be together in order for the celebration to be special. The faster you let go of that idea, the more enjoyable your holidays will be.
5. Be sensitive to your children’s needs. As a therapist who has spent hundreds of hours with children of divorce, as well as my own personal experience, I can tell you that your child will likely be worried about their other parent. While you may feel grateful that you’re free of the other parent, your child doesn’t share that feeling. Disparaging comments are not helpful, and are incredibly damaging to your child. Instead, help your child manage their own feelings while not taking on the feelings of others. A healthy thing to say would be, “I know you miss mommy/daddy and it’s hard to be away from them. I know mommy/daddy loves and misses you too. I also know that mommy/daddy knows how to take care of themselves, and you don’t have to worry.” If your ex has shared their plans with you and you can remind your child that they are with others that can be helpful as well.
Remember your children didn’t have a say in your divorce. If you have younger children, putting pressure on them to comply with a rigid schedule and difficult parent switches need to be faced with compassion and love.
6. Let your child have access to their other parent when they want it. If your child can’t shake the worried feeling, consider reaching out to your ex via text to let them know what’s going on. In a healthy co-parenting situation, you should be able to let your child call the other parent to have a brief conversation or video chat where the other parent can reassure them. Remember, just because someone is not a good romantic partner to you, doesn’t mean they are a bad parent.*
However, I know a healthy co-parenting relationship doesn’t exist for many people. If you’d like some tips to work towards a healthier co-parenting relationship, read my blog post about how to keep divorce from damaging your kids.
If a positive co-parenting relationship doesn’t exist, the next best thing could be encouraging your child to talk about something fun they’ve done recently with their other parent, or something they want to do with them the next time they’re together. You can share that information with the other parent over text or email. And of course if you have the means, consider seeking out a counselor who specializes in helping people co-parent.
7. Make plans with friends or family for any holiday time that you will find yourself alone. This is especially important in the first year after divorce. Have you ever seen Bridget Jones’s Diary? It’s not glamorous sitting at home by yourself eating ridiculous amounts of ice cream in an ugly sweater. Make plans with people that lift you up well in advance so you don’t find yourself in this situation.
The holidays can be challenging for many people, for many reasons. If you’re willing to be flexible and can manage your expectations, you may find that the new normal produces some unexpected blessings.
*Remember: these tips only apply to unrestricted, healthy parents. If issues of safety arise, seek professional counsel.