Everything seems simple on TV. A cozy couple snuggles on the couch while children nestle nearby. The tree's aglow and the fire crackles. Switch stations: Mom brings the turkey to the table while Dad proudly basks in his family's abundance. Switch again: Children bounce onto their parents' bed before dawn on Christmas Day, eager to share the holiday together. Switch to another station: There's Mom lighting the menorah while Dad, kids, friends and family gather around, exuding as much warmth as the candles themselves.
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Apparently, the media would like you not to know that millions of families are divorced. But for many, the holidays are one-parent affairs--hopefully, just as joyful--that look much different from the images flashing at us on TV and in advertisements. Wouldn't you just love to see a commercial where Mom's putting together a bike on her own late Christmas Eve? Or one where Dad's by himself stuffing stockings? How about something about parents whose kids are traveling to "the other parent"?
With almost a million marriages ending in divorce annually, divorced-family holidays aren't unique, but they do require special care and planning. For those with friends or family going through divorce, it can be awkward. When you've always spent the holidays with the couple together, who do you invite? How do you socialize without exclusion, tension or anger?
Families who've been divorced awhile usually have the holidays "figured out." Custody arrangements often include a schedule of holidays the children will spend with each parent. For the freshly divorced, these new arrangements can be especially confusing and painful. It's hard to find any season more family-oriented, and newly divorced families may feel like they're getting their nose rubbed in it. Their family is different now. Traditions and rituals change, sometimes causing grief and anxiety. The world's focus on holiday cheer may magnify feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Child psychologist Redmond Reams, of Reams and Associates in Portland, Ore., says, "Holidays are inevitably a reminder of how the family used to be together. This is part of the loss of divorce and needs to be grieved--but doesn't have to be the whole holiday experience. It's especially hard for parents who don't have their kids that first holiday. Most divorced parents get some holiday time. Make the most of it. There will be ups and downs, but look for the ups and cherish those. Over the years, the pain will lessen."
Experts advise creating new rituals and family traditions while honoring the past. Reassure children that holidays will continue, just differently. Involve them in planning new ways to celebrate. Reassure them that you're fine when they're with their "other parent." You don't want them worrying and feeling guilty that your holiday will be sad and lonely. Plan ahead and keep yourself busy to avoid lying about "being fine."
Laura divorced years ago and is happily re-married. She and her ex maintain a "good divorce." They've restructured their holiday traditions to focus on their daughters. Laura remembers, "The hardest thing that first Christmas was going to my ex's and seeing all the ornaments I'd bought to remember various events and years hanging on his tree. We didn't split things like that, and we didn't split Christmas day. It was important for the girls to have a family day, not a travel day where they felt pushed. During years we weren't together, I knew they were happy with their dad, and I was happy they weren't stressed out trying to split the baby down the middle, so to speak."
Divorced people without kids grieve the loss of "family" too. Reams says, "Line up your supports and figure out what helps you cope, like friends, exercise, crafts, volunteer work or travel. Be productive to avoid feeling isolated and sad. Consider joining a support group of other divorced people who'll share the same feelings and experiences. Be realistic about your expectations. Just knowing that it's normal to have a tough time can be reassuring." Take care of your health, avoid excess alcohol (and drugs), and schedule time for rest and exercise to keep your well-being balanced.
What to do when a family member or close friend divorces? Be as supportive as you can with both members of the ex-couple. If the divorce isn't amicable, it might be uncomfortable inviting both to holiday events. Reams recommends emailing both and asking for their suggestions. If they're able to spend time together without tension, consider inviting both to the same events to emphasize that they're still family. If things are "fresh and messy" and that just won't work, tell them you want to support them both without added tension at the family gathering. Consider inviting them to separate events, or invite neither of them. Says Reams, "It's all about communication. Be up-front with your concerns and ask for their help in dealing with it." Ultimately, it comes down to doing what's best for your family and friendships. As tough as divorce is, given time, your holidays can once again be merry and bright, and filled with new memories, traditions and bonds.
About the Author
Jeanne Faulkner is a freelance writer and registered nurse in Portland, Ore. Her work appears regularly in Pregnancy and Fit Pregnancy, and she has contributed articles to the Oregonian, Better Homes & Gardens, Shape and other publications.