After being married for 16 years, and a mother for 15 of those years, my first holiday season post-divorce was something I was dreading. I wasn’t sure how to navigate some of the traditions we used to do as a family like going to cut down a Christmas tree.
Should I take the kids to do that even though it felt overwhelming to me?
I didn’t want my three kids to feel any more of a void than they already did. But, eliminating some of the things we used to do with their father and starting some of our own, new traditions (like ordering the fake, white Christmas tree I’d always wanted) might be good to help us all move on.
I ordered the tree and when it arrived, my kids couldn’t wait to put it together. We were able to leave it up longer than a real tree which made them happy. I also went out and purchased some new decorations. Having something fresh dangling from the tree was refreshing.
Instead of decorating the tree on a Saturday afternoon, we did it the Friday night it arrived in the mail. It sounds like something really small, but it set forth a new tradition. Now, we order pizza and get the house ready for Christmas in the evening.
Experiencing different situations and places (no matter how small) helped all of us find comfort and joy in the newness.
Another piece of being newly separated over the holidays is you are left with more time on your hands if your children spend time with your ex-spouse. This can feel empty, and I wondered what I was going to do with myself.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out this time of year, while it has its challenges and I didn’t come out of it tear-free, wasn’t as hard for me as I thought it would be.
On Christmas Eve, my children were with their father all day and I gathered the rest of my family to meet for sushi, which was really relaxing and gave me something to look forward to.
I filled up the time when my kids were with their father with activities of my own — such as shopping, wrapping gifts and baking in spurts. This left me more refreshed than when I did it in one big swoop after they were in bed so none of the surprise would be spoiled.
Julie Quimby, a Maine-based licensed psychologist and owner/director of Psychologist Specialist of Maine located in Brunswick, specializes in working with couples. Quimby shared some proactive tips for those who are facing the holidays this year as a single parent for the first time:
Be child centered.
Whether you have one child or a few, ask them what feels best for the holiday season and “consider your children’s best interests in all of your planning decisions,” Quimby said.
This may mean alternating who they spend the holidays with each year so there isn’t a lot of travel, or shuffling back and forth, on the actual holiday. Remember — the holidays can be celebrated on any day of the year. If you don’t have your kids on Christmas Day, you can celebrate it when they return and carry out all the same traditions.
For some families, this will look like splitting the day in half so they spend the morning with one parent and the afternoon with another.
“Whatever you decide, consider how your child will react to the plan and avoid direct conflict when possible,” Quimby said. The kids’ feelings should be front and center since they are the ones going back and forth.
Talk about the schedule in private.
Projecting negative feelings on your child is really easy to do, even when you aren’t aware you are doing it. Quimby suggests meeting or talk on the phone in private with your ex-partner while making plans about the new schedule.
Chances are, it’s going to be hard for one or both of you, so it’s best to keep the negativity away from you kids by “finding support for yourself so you can avoid expressing negative feelings to your children,” she said.
Don’t assume you know how your kids are feeling.
The holidays are typically a very magical time for your kids. “You may be feeling sad, angry or guilty about the changes in your family, but don’t assume your children feel the same,” Quimby said.
It’s also important to remember just because things will be different, it doesn’t mean things are going to be bad. “It may take some adjustment, but it can also be exciting for them in many ways,” Quimby said.
Quimby suggests surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family, getting enough rest, practicing healthy habits, and being compassionate with yourself. Divorce is hard enough on its own. When you throw the holidays on top of all your emotions, it’s really important that you are feeling your absolute best. Not just for your kids, but for yourself, too.
You deserve to get some enjoyment out of this time of year as well.
Don’t spend the holidays alone.
You don’t have to attend every party or get together, but getting out a little bit here and there can lift your spirits and get you out of self-pity mode. Quimby recommends to reach out to other people. “Don’t assume no one is contacting you because they don’t care,” she said. The holidays are a busy time for all of us, and people don’t know what you need unless you ask for it.
I found that whenever I asked someone to do something, they were more than happy to get together.
“It may seem easier to avoid gatherings, but don’t skip them all together,” Quimby said.
Being thankful for what is going well in your life, and trying your best to keep a positive outlook during the season, “is one of the most important skills that helps divorced individuals let in joy and hope and focus on healing,” Quimby said.
“Psychologists understand the single most important predictor of happiness is gratitude,” Quimby said.
Keep in mind with each passing year, wading your way through the season will get easier and easier. Your new (and old) traditions will start feeling more comfortable. Having some space and distance from a difficult situation always helps, and getting to a happy place during the holidays is no different. Just be patient with yourself, and know it’s normal and natural to struggle.