Not a Creature was Stirring, Not Even a Spouse

For the newly divorced (or even for those in the process), Christmas looms large as a test of the ability to deal with a new reality and the often-painful feelings of change and loss. The holidays are powerful symbols of family life – think of the Norman Rockwell image of a loving and joyous family gathered around the Christmas tree – and most families have developed a set of traditions that can be threatened by divorce.

Chances are that a good deal of thought, negotiation and stress have gone into holiday scheduling in the parenting plan – attorneys report that dividing the holidays is usually a highly emotional issue. Each family situation is different and complex in its own way, but there are a few guidelines that can help both parents – the parent who “has” the kids, as well as the parent who doesn’t – figure out how to make the holidays enjoyable and meaningful.

Guiding Principles

  • It is your job to deal with your own feelings of loss and deprivation and to control any anger and resentment so that those feelings don’t impact your children. Ideally, the holidays would send the important message that although Mom and Dad are no longer together, life will go on; the world has not fallen apart; and Mom and Dad are still able to maintain stability and predictability. For newly divorced parents, the first holiday season can require a heroic effort.
  • It is always vital to minimize the amount of conflict between you and the other parent, and conflict around the holidays is no exception. Research has shown that the quality of the parent-child relationship and conflict between parents – married or divorced – are the most important predictors of psychological problems in children.
  • Give your children “permission” to enjoy their holiday time with the other parent and his/her extended family despite the envy and resentment you may feel – Academy Award performances are often needed here! It is destructive to make children feel that they will be disloyal to you if they enjoy their time with your ex-spouse. They will not be able to enjoy holiday celebrations if they feel you are bereft and suffering.

Strategies for Success

  • Keep as many traditions in place as possible, and where that is not possible, invent new ones, often in collaboration with the children. Almost anything can become a tradition if it is done with intent and spirit.
  • Begin to plan for the holidays as soon as possible. If the holidays have centered on your ex-spouse’s extended family or friends, put out an S.O.S. to your friends and family, or tackle the holiday on your own. Often the holidays present a particular challenge for the divorced father who has not been accustomed to “producing” the holidays and must solicit the advice of friends or family (or a therapist) to create a meaningful holiday celebration.
  • Holiday time without the kids can be very difficult, especially if you have no extended family in the area. The best solution is to Make a Plan.  Whether you go away for the weekend, volunteer in a soup kitchen, attach yourself to another family’s celebration, or plan dinner and a movie with others in the same boat, be proactive in filling the time. Or,” have a pity party and wallow… order a pizza, get a bottle of wine, rent a movie and go to sleep early.” Next year be ready to make a different plan.

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