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A Divorcée’s Guide to Navigating the Holidays

How to succeed in making new traditions for yourself and for your children.

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holidays, gif of woman waiting for the holidays, time passing, family, divorce
Chloe Batchelor
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As the holidays approach, those of us who are divorced often brace for an emotional onslaught, especially when children are involved. Holidays are still challenging for me since my divorce. Our young adult children live in different cities but come to our hometown for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They attempt to split their time between our households, but adjustments and accommodations are not easy.

Holidays are often laden with expectations, many of which were formed during our own childhoods. Divorce throws a monkey wrench into things. For me, having expectations breeds resentment. So I try to minimize them.

According to 2019 census figures, 7.6 out of every 1,000 marriages in the U.S. ends in divorce. The majority of those divorces occur in families with children under the age of 18.

For the welfare of their children, it is important that former spouses try to establish conflict-free parenting relationships to minimize any difficulties. Children should not be made to suffer for their parents’ decisions.

Port-divorce co-parenting relationships run a wide gamut. Some couples do it seamlessly. Jacqueline “Jack” Perez, 57, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and her ex-husband began by dividing up the holidays evenly. Once their son was old enough to voice his opinion, they tried to accommodate his wishes. “I have to say that I feel incredibly grateful that both my ex and I put the security and stability of our child’s life over ours,” Perez says. “We may not have been happy about missing out on a particular holiday, but we never griped about it to our son. Grownups need to be grown-up.”

For others, however, anger seeps into their interactions and planning. I have very little contact with my ex-husband. We communicate by text, and only when necessary. I hope we can be friends in the future and possibly even spend time together with our children.

My parents divorced when I was 6. When I was young, I was thrilled with my split household, thrilled to celebrate two Christmases, with multiple gifts at both houses. As I got older, I did not look forward to it as much. My ex, who has much more money than I do, often takes my children and their partners on an expensive post-Christmas trip, which rankles me. I have learned to be grateful that my kids get these opportunities and to recognize that there is enough love to go around. But it was not easy.

I have checked in with some wise divorced women, who have children of various ages, for tips on the best way to handle the challenging holiday season. Clear communication is paramount, they say.

“In the beginning, it was so stressful,” says Sue Sudbay, 59, of Palm Springs, California. “I think the key is really proactive and early communication between the two of you, and not via the kids. For example, send an email or give a call and say, ‘I’m planning on having the kids this year for Thanksgiving. How about they come to your place for dessert?’ The other thing that worked for us is when they didn’t come to my house, we’d have another Thanksgiving dinner on the Saturday or Sunday after. We’d sit around and watch football and just enjoy a nice day together. It felt just as good as the actual holiday, without the kids having to bounce back and forth.”

Cecily Banks, 57, of Warren, Rhode Island, and her ex-husband made the decision together early in their separation to come together as a unit at important family and holiday events. “We told our two children that our marital situation was a painful loss, but not determinative of everything about who we are and will continue to be as a family,” says Banks “We told them that we will always be a loving, supportive unit. As my ex-husband and I moved into long-term relationships with significant others, we brought our partners into the fold and now celebrate most family and holiday occasions with them. That is not to say we don’t feel the deep loss of a marriage and a single-family unit, but we don’t feel the loss of these loving and joyful moments.”

Denver, Colorado, resident, Erin Glover, 60, advises flexibility and not taking anything personally. She is considerate of her children when they leave to go to her ex-spouse’s home. “Remember, they are creating memories from both experiences, and you don’t want to make your children feel guilty for sharing time with your ex-husband,” advises Glover. “It’s all about being respectful of your children’s feelings. I coordinate times for holiday meals with my ex-husband, and try not to make my sons eat too much at my house, recognizing they have to visit their father. Above all else, always do things that bring your children closer to you rather than pushing them away with guilt or bad-mouthing their father. It also goes a long way to text or email your ex-husband on Father’s Day, saying thank you for fathering our beautiful children.”

As I have found in navigating the holidays after divorce, you can succeed in making new traditions for yourself and for your children.

But you must recognize what you can and cannot control. My ex hosts the children for a Thanksgiving brunch and I get them for Thanksgiving dinner. My ex gets the kids for Christmas Eve and I get them for Christmas Day. Now that my adult children have serious partners, I have to share their holiday time with those parents as well.

Since so many people compete for time with my beloved children, I focus on the quality of the time we have together instead of the quantity. Be present and celebrate — while you have your children under your roof.

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