Divorce During the Holidays

How to Stop Thinking About How Things Used To Be… And Focus on How Things Get to Be


If you’re a divorcing parent of school-age children, one of the most important agreements you and your former spouse will make is a parenting plan.

When you design your parenting schedule, I highly recommend including a holiday parenting schedule that supersedes the regular routine.

Knowing well in advance where the kids will be each day of any given holiday gives you the opportunity to plan, avoids miscommunication about holiday plans between you and your former spouse, and helps provide certainty and set expectations, all of which is important for us and for our kids.

Be thoughtful and creative when determining your holiday schedule. You may be told by friends or your attorney that there’s a way you “should” share holidays.

Some examples include alternating odd and even years so that each parent is with the children on a particular holiday ever other year, or if one parent is with the children Christmas Eve, then the other parent is with them Christmas Day etc.

However there is no “right way” because every family is different. It’s best to think about what makes sense for you and your children.

Maybe a certain holiday is extremely important to you and your former spouse doesn’t hold onto the same sentimentality about that day, maybe that’s a different day for them. Or maybe your former spouse & his extended family have a tradition on a certain holiday that’s a big deal to your children, and that they wouldn’t ever want to miss out on.

I know couples who’ve decided Dad gets Thanksgiving very year and Mom gets Christmas every year, and that just works for them. You get to make the rules and so long as you’re thinking about what’s really going to make the kids happy and make you happy, it doesn’t matter how somebody else does it.

Plan Ahead

Planning ahead helps reduce the stress that comes with last-minute decisions. Setting clear and reasonable expectations relieves anxiety. The more prepared you are the less anxious you’ll feel. Make sure you recognize what you need and have a set plan for how you’re going to get it so when strong emotions bubble up you have a framework to lean on.

Be Authentic

I’m in no way saying you should have a breakdown in the middle of the living room, but if you sugarcoat everything, your smart, perceptive children are going to see right through that. Kids can feel your emotional energy. And you’re just sending a message that certain emotions are not ok. Rather, When you acknowledge it’s an emotionally charged time, that recognition immediately turns down pressure. Then you’ve created an opportunity to set an example for your kids that says this is hard and we can do hard things, especially if we’re in it together.

Ask for Help

There’s this romanticized notion that no matter what’s going on we’re supposed to be photo-ready for a social media campaign at any moment, especially during the holidays. These ideals we all compare ourselves to always show Mom & Dad & their little darlings enjoying the perfect activity while sporting perfect smiles and of course perfect hair. Bullshit. You know all hell broke loose the second portrait mode closed on that phone.

Life is messy. We all need help sometimes, and most of us are totally uncomfortable asking for it. Time to get over it. The people in your life need to know what you need. They want to be there for you and need to know HOW to show up for you.

Going through a divorce, for anyone, is a vulnerable time. Sharing our vulnerability and expressing our needs… is strength.

Whether it’s understanding your finances, learning to use the grill (which is not that hard by the way), making a career connection, helping with the kids, not showing up to a tough event alone, or asking to be included in the dinner plans, asking for help is an act of courage, not weakness. We need to talk to ourselves how we talk to our dearest friends, with less judgement and more generosity.

Look Ahead, Not Back to Create New Traditions

When a marriage ends it can be hard not to focus on how things used to be, and instead to see how things get to be.

When we try to recreate all the details of an event that we used to enjoy as a couple, we’re putting a spotlight on the thing that’s different, the absence of that former partner. When we tie ourselves too tightly to old traditions and make the inevitable comparisons, we get stuck.

So shake things up. Change who hosts, where you celebrate, what time of day. Invite friends. Volunteer somewhere. Take a trip.

When I first celebrated a big holiday on my own with my kids, I knew attempting to recreate what we used to do would fall flat. It would feel like a lesser version of what it used to be. So I needed to come up with a celebration totally different from what we use to do.

But HOW?… That’s where I got stuck. A very wise friend & divorce coach helped me find a starting point…

She asked me WHY our past tradition had been so special to me.

For me, my parents passed away many years ago, I was very close with them & I don’t have much family nearby. Throughout the years I was married, we use to do every holiday with my former spouse’s tight-knit family, and once a year I hosted, and that was always very special to me.

It was special because it was the occasion when I most felt a strong connection to my own parents because I was incorporating the traditions I grew up with. It wasn’t my Nana’s china or the jazz in the background that was so important, but that feeling of connection to my family of origin that those things evoked in me.

So instead of hosting, I took my kids across the country and we celebrated that holiday with relatives of mine who shared that connection to my parents. My kids hadn’t spent time with this crowd before. It felt like a gamble. And then I watched them become fast friends with their cousins, hear stories about my own parents, and just be part of a vibe that was familiar to me. I felt proud of the decision, which made me relaxed. And for our kids, those positive emotions are just as contagious as the negative ones. Not only did I feel connected to my heritage, but I felt incredibly connected to my own children, sharing that with them.

When we keep the essence of WHY a tradition was special, and change the details, we’re able to see the power we have to create new things that are beautiful.

So start with a solid holiday parenting plan, and write it from a place of imagining how things get to be.

This post originally appeared on The Divorce Hour