In part one of this blog series, my sister painted a pretty honest picture of what our Christmases looked like growing up. (Click here to read part one.) Depending on if you count the Christmas our dad moved out, I had seven or eight typical, nuclear family Christmases before our parents’ divorce changed the picture entirely. (My sister had 11 or 12.)
The holidays not only look completely different after a divorce, they look completely different from one divorced family to another.
Maybe remarriage is part of the picture. Maybe it isn’t.
Maybe there are step-siblings or half-siblings.
Maybe the kids are preschoolers, elementary aged or traveling home over college break.
Maybe everyone gets along pretty well. Maybe they don’t. At all.
And while each family has their unique place on the complicated spectrum (Hint: the more members added to the no-longer-nuclear family, the higher the level of complication), we believe there are a few core practices that can help every broken family survive (and dare we say enjoy) the holidays a little better.
1. Keep siblings together.
No matter your custody arrangement, siblings need each other—especially on the holidays. In a divorce situation, a sibling is not only an anchor—a physical representation of the family that was—but also a partner in pain. A sibling is the only person in the world whose family picture looks the same as yours.
2. When possible, be in the same room as your ex.
It took 14 years, a second divorce and the birth of the first grandchild for our parents to be able to be in the same room for special occasions. But if we could have started off where we are today, it would have saved everyone a lot of pain. Depending on your comfort (or courage or pride-swallowing ability), it could mean anything from inviting your ex to stay in the guest room on Christmas Eve to having your ex over for an hour mid-morning for an eggnog latte and Christmas gift run down. Setting down your anger or pain for a few hours says to your kids: We are always a family, no matter what.
3. Be the one to celebrate Christmas in January.
There are many divorce situations where it is impossible to be in the same room, peacefully celebrating the holidays together. And that’s okay. If you can’t make that happen in this season, be the parent who is okay celebrating Christmas on a date before or after Christmas. In our family, we (the kids) were the ones who eventually had to set some boundaries—for our own sanity. Christmas in January (or February, or March) became a new tradition. We would have our first Christmas on Christmas Day with one parent and would enjoy post-holiday sales while shopping for our second Christmas with the other.
4. Champion your child’s relationship with the other parent.
This is really a year-round practice but is especially important at the holidays. Maybe your child has fond memories of baking Christmas cookies with your ex using a grandparent’s old recipe. Or your ex always took the kids ice skating, tree-chopping or Christmas light driving while you did some shopping. Make room for these traditions to carry on between your child and their parent. You may have to appear completely fine letting your ex take the kids to see Santa (then find a safe and trusted friend to vent and cry with about it).
5. Resist the urge to use gifts as weapons.
Whether your motivation is pure or not, being the one to buy the most gifts or the ONE gift (we all know that one gift our kid is really looking for under the tree each year) can come across—to your ex as well as your child—as a strategic move in this war called Divorce. I still remember trying to hide some of the gifts one parent gave me so the other parent wouldn’t get upset. Communicate ahead of time about who is going to give the big gift, and how. Show genuine joy when hearing about or seeing the gifts your child received from their other parent. Strive to keep gift-giving to its simplest form: giving, so all your child has to do on Christmas is receive.
6. It’s okay to not love the holidays.
Post-divorce holidays are hard. Your child may wake up Christmas morning hating life and taking it all out on you. There may be tears, outbursts or silent treatment. It’s okay. Allow the space for that to play out and know you haven’t ruined all Christmases for the rest of eternity. This year may be a difficult one. There’s always next year. And here’s a super important tip to remember when they are angry at you: your kid wants to forgive you. The anger will seem disproportionate and unfair at times. But whether they show it or not, kids are quick to forgive. So if the whole Christmas season has gone downhill, if you had a screaming fit with your ex in front of your kids at the drop off Christmas morning, if you let a harsh word slip when you see the brand new diamond earrings your twelve-year-old received from her step-mom, remember there is incredible power in saying “I’m sorry. I’m having a hard time with this, too. I hope you can forgive me, and I’ll try to make next year smoother.”
There’s just something about the holidays that highlights the brokenness of a family, but there’s also something about them that can bring a family together in an entirely new way. Just remember, it starts with lowering our expectations, holding our pictures loosely, and embracing a new story.