I’m so happy as one of the experts for DivorceSupportCenter.com to have been asked to write this article for Newport Beach Lifestyle magazine!
(To see this article in the Newport Beach Lifestyle Magazine click here)
Divorce: a separation, especially one that is total or complete. Speaking from personal experience, I don’t think this definition from the World English Dictionary accurately describes the dissolution of a marriage. While the marriage itself may officially dissolve when a divorce is final, the ripple effect from the wreckage of the SS Relationship continues to make waves for years to come. Especially, around the holidays. Especially, when there are children involved.
When we first sail out into the sunset with our betrothed, we fantasize about what the future holds. Visions of our ideal life dance through our heads:
A home filled with children, their toys and their art,
Family dinners and trips that will stay in our hearts
And the holidays, filled with expectations so high
With menorahs or Santa, traditions money can’t buy.
Then, somehow our love boat hits rough waters resulting in divorce, and the relationship sinks along with our sugar plum dreams. Our happily ever after story changes course into a new and undiscovered land, and we learn how to reinvent our lives, one step at a time, to what will become our new normal.
While the new normal may ultimately be better for everyone, we often only hear the bad, the worse, and the ugly when it comes to divorce stories. Tales of revenge and children being used as weapons to inflict harm against a former spouse put them in the middle of the battle. Though they shouldn’t be anywhere near the divorce arena, they all too frequently end up there, feeling pulled in both directions, torn by the fear of disappointing either parent. This can be especially true during the holiday season.
The best gift we can give our children is to provide them with a sense of love and stability throughout the year, and to keep in mind that during the holidays it can be a bit more challenging, not only for us as parents, but also for them.
Below are some comments, questions and answers relevant to handling the holidays as divorced parents (all based on the assumption that a child’s safety is not at risk):
Q: I’m in the process of a divorce and with the holidays approaching I’m not sure what to do. How do we divide up these special family days? I want to make it as positive an experience for our children as possible. Any suggestions?
A: 1. For starters, make sure that every decision you make is with the intention of doing what is best for your children. No matter how upset you are at your ex, your children’s sense of security must come first.
2. Put your differences aside and communicate with your ex. This is the number one way to help ensure smoother sailing for your kids and for yourself! Be (literally) on the same page as your ex.
3. Have a schedule in writing. Create a schedule that is very specific as to whom the children will be with and when. This lessens the chance of having any misunderstandings. (Caveat: each situation/ family is different. You might want to consider consulting with a therapist, or clergy professional as to what is best for your individual situation.
4. Tips for making a schedule:
a) Be Specific. Sometimes it is necessary to state exactly the day and time children are to be picked up and returned, and by whom.
b) Alternate Holidays. Some families alternate years, and some alternate between Thanksgiving and Christmas or Chanukah in the same year.
c) Divide up the Holiday. Some families prefer to split the day– Thanksgiving lunch with dad, and dinner with mom. Or, if mom has Thanksgiving, dad can make a turkey the week before. Who says you can only have turkey on that Thursday?! Christmas and Christmas Eve can be split, and Chanukah has 8 days for lighting candles and gift giving. On the positive side, the kids get to celebrate more!
d) Share Holidays. Some parents are able to be together in the same room to cut the turkey, sing carols, or light the candles. Sharing the holidays as a family can be a positive experience for some, and others not so much. It also may confuse or sadden the children. Each family is different, so talking with the children and consulting a professional could be helpful.
Q: My parents divorced after I left for college. I looked forward to coming home for Thanksgiving to celebrate as we always had at my aunt and uncle’s house. Unexpectedly, my dad told us kids he wanted us to come celebrate with him and his girlfriend. While it felt great that he wanted us to be with him, it was hard because that meant giving up an important tradition. We ultimately came to a compromise that we would be with him for appetizers, and then go to my aunt’s for turkey, but I think he felt disappointed that we didn’t compromise further by changing our tradition. Did we do the wrong thing?
A: We tend to forget that even older children need to keep some old traditions. You were able to reach a compromise, and that’s a good thing. Being flexible is hugely important to successfully finding a solution. Another option to consider is suggesting that Dad begin a new tradition on another holiday that isn’t ‘taken’ so there is a dedicated holiday for him as well. Start new traditions! There are often great opportunities hiding in what we think of as problems. Get creative and make new memories.
Q: Sometimes I wonder if continuing our traditions will make it harder on the kids. It’s not the same as it was, and trying to reenact the ritual is just a big reminder that things have changed.
A: It’s important to balance old traditions that provide familiarity and comfort to all, while creating new ones to assist the family in moving forward. By doing this, it makes it easier to transition into the new situation.
Q: I’m going to be without my kids for the first time over the holidays. I’m not sure what to do with myself. I’m already dreading it!
A: My first suggestion, and I’m not saying it’s easy, is to try and view this more positively. When we dread something, it will likely be dreadful. Being without our children during the holidays can be difficult or even painful, but feeling miserable will not change the situation. You can, however, change how you look at it. Challenge yourself to see this as an opportunity for you to have some rest and relaxation. Choose to do something that will nurture your body and mind in a healthy way. Perhaps this means exercising, reading, or seeing a movie. Maybe you’ve been meaning to visit friends or family you haven’t seen in a long time. Whatever taking care of yourself looks like for you, do it, so that you can return home to be with your children feeling rejuvenated and ready to enjoy your time with them.
Second, giving is the spirit of the holidays. One of the best remedies for feeling down is to serve others. You could consider doing this by volunteering at a soup kitchen, or bringing gifts to children who are stuck in the hospital over the holidays. This is also a quick way to feel grateful for what you have.
Last and definitely not least, don’t try to numb your feelings with drugs or alcohol. Your kids need you to be in good shape when they get back! It is also important for children to know that while you will miss them terribly, you will be okay without them. You don’t want them feeling responsible for your well-being.
Q: This is my first Christmas as a divorced dad. My kids are coming to my place for dinner and I have no idea what to do. My wife did all the cooking and I don’t know where to begin. I’m afraid I’ll disappoint my kids and they won’t want to come over anymore. What should I do?
A: Take a deep breath and remember your children love you unconditionally.
Next, try seeing the positive side: you have options!
1. If you’re too afraid to attempt cooking this year, tell them you want to give them a special treat by going out for dinner.
2. If you’re willing to take a stab at that ham or turkey, the Internet is your friend, providing a plethora of recipes.
3. Make it a family project. Get the kids involved and cook together in the kitchen. Make it fun and create new memories!
Q: I’m Jewish and my wife converted to Judaism when we got married, and we have raised our kids Jewish. We are recently divorced and she told me that she has decided to start having a Christmas tree again. I am very upset. Our kids are young, and I think this is a very bad idea. Am I wrong to be concerned and angry?
A: No, you are not wrong. Your wife made a commitment to raise your children Jewish and she is reneging on her promise. This sounds like her way of sticking it to you, and that is not fair to the kids. In my opinion, if your children are still in their formative years, this could be very confusing for them. If they are teenagers, it may not be as crucial, as they are old enough to understand. If the two of you cannot talk civilly and come to an agreement, I suggest asking if she’ll seek professional assistance with you to determine what is in the best interest of your children.
While I like to always focus on the positive, there are some things not to do in order to facilitate a positive outcome for children and for parents. So, here are a few do’s and don’ts that are helpful for the holidays, and all year round:
Don’t make kids feel they have to choose sides.
Don’t tell them how awful their other parent is.
Don’t try to buy their love.
Don’t use them as pawns on your chessboard of divorce.
Don’t make them feel responsible for your happiness.
Do teach them that attitude is everything.
Do teach them they have a choice in how they respond to situations.
Do show them that they’re loved unconditionally.
Do create a loving, secure environment.
Do show them it’s possible to stand up for yourself and still compromise.
Holiday time carries with it certain expectations. Some of these we put on ourselves, and others are imposed upon us by society. Try to focus on what is best for you and your family and tune out the rest of the noise. Let it be a time to be grateful for what we have. When we focus on all that is good in our lives it helps to brighten the dark shadows cast by the difficulties we face. Children will follow your lead, so always take the high road. Onward and upward! Happy Holidays!
Nancy Lang is a Certified Life Coach, published author, professional actress and M.D.D. (Maven of Divorce and Dating!). It was her role as a divorced woman that inspired her to write the book, You Want Me to What?—The Dating Adventures and Life Lessons of a Newly Divorced Woman (available on Amazon). Nancy writes for Huffington Post, The Orange County Register, Hope After Divorce and DivorceSupportCenter.com, LAFamily.com, CupidsPulse.com, SuddenlySolo.org, Life After 50 Magazine, and others.
The Hope After Divorce Foundation and DivorceSupportCenter.com offers the resources and support needed when facing divorce through its digital library, media outlets, partnerships with contributing experts, and its educational scholarship program. Its founders are Lisa LaBelle and Amy Osmond Cook, Ph.D. Visit their site athopeafterdivorce.org and divorcesupportcenter.com. Follow them on FB at facebook.com/divorcesupportcenter.com and Twitter @hopeafterdivorc. You can contact Amy and Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org.