It might sound like a Hallmark holiday movie title gone wrong, but this is one of the most dreaded months for families who are contemplating, in the process of, or living their lives post-divorce. If there are children involved, the holiday season can be far more frustrating than festive.
Divorcing families already face the daunting task of managing new sets of agreements and schedules, but the pressure of the holiday season compounds it to an unbearable degree.
When parents were children themselves, they experienced the holidays with particular rituals and routines often passed through families over generations. They then expect that one of the rewards of being a parent will be to relive and share them with their own children. And let’s not forget grandparents– they have a certain set of expectations as well. The profound grief of not being allowed to indulge in the rituals in the same way, or not being able to travel to be with extended family, or to simply feel cheated with owning half or every other holiday, can be devastating.
Part of the difficulty of divorce is often the dismantling of a dream or an idea. The dismantling of holiday traditions has a particularly emotional component. I worked with a divorcing parent who had grown up with a large family and it was the melee of activity that defined the holiday season for him. It was that atmosphere that he was determined to provide for his own family, but when divorce interrupted that plan, he found himself alone with his young daughter, holiday after holiday. He later discovered that as he held onto his own disappointment of how every holiday fell short of what he believed his daughter should experience, for her the way they quietly celebrated it together remains a cherished childhood memory. She never wanted it to be any different because that was all she knew. To her, the holidays spent that way were perfect.
Divorce requires us to think differently. We have to dream new dreams, establish new rituals and develop new routines. December comes and goes each year, children will repeatedly indulge in holiday magic, and while it may not always look exactly the way we had imagined, it can’t be defined by our memory or expectation. It will become defined, for us and especially our children, by what we create.
Being a parent can require us to be selfless, and the most selfless thing we can do is to not allow our own disappointment of an idea to bleed into the holiday and to avoid using our own grief to punish the other parent. Instead, we should create an environment in which children can freely enjoy the holidays, spend time with both parents, and as with all things divorce, embrace the new normal.
Divorce and shared parenting tend to ignite the complicated aspects of family, extended family and emotions during the holidays. Once we re-frame our mindset and move toward our own success as a parent and away from grief over the change from what was, we begin to re-define it for ourselves and others.