Surviving the Holidays

photo by Theresa Thompson

The child in me will always love the holidays. I take such pleasure in traditions–hanging our outdoor lights, getting the tree, retrieving the Christmas boxes from the attic, spending one night of Hanukkah with friends.

Along with the glitz and magic, however, comes the reality that holidays are hard on everyone, divorced or not. I remember my father, a psychiatrist, being called away in the middle of many a Christmas dinner to tend to a patient’s suicide attempt or depression. He told me once that everyone “goes the most crazy” during the holidays.

Holidays are stressful for obvious reasons–so much to do while still managing our daily responsibilities and jobs. The shopping, the wrapping, planning meals, house guests, figuring out what to do with your children for 18 days straight. And let’s not forget the personalities—dealing with your spouse’s parents, your parents and other relatives over holiday dinners. The mix of it all, combined with any losses in our life which become more pronounced this time of year, are surely what account for the craziness my father describes.

When divorce is added to the mix, there’s a whole new dimension of stress. Particularly the first few years, the holidays can be a heartbreaking time. Too much tradition, too many memories, too many arguments about who gets the kids, and too many days alone for each parent while the children switch homes for the custody share.

I wish I had some formula for making it easier. The best I can do is provide some holiday tips, accumulated from years of observation. None of these tips will take away the sadness people feel those first few holiday seasons after divorce, but hopefully with a little planning and just by knowing what to expect, you’ll make it through the holiday blues.

TIP #1
(Everyone hates this first tip, but I have to say it because it’s a big deal for kids. If you can pull it off, you’ll feel good too.): If (and only if) it is possible to be in the same room with your ex-spouse without fighting, arrange for all of you to spend some holiday time together as a family–even just a few hours–to keep a family tradition going. For example, spend the last night of Hanukkah together, or go to a holiday parade, or attend a holiday service if you used to do this as a family, or spend Christmas Eve or Christmas morning together so both of you can watch your children unwrap their gifts.

Again, if you and your spouse cannot be civil to one another, disregard this tip and divide up the holiday time instead. No judgment here if you can’t be together—I know sometimes the pain or animosity is just too great, particularly when the divorce is fresh.

TIP #2
If you are going to have the kids for the holiday, without your ex, consider doing something completely different than what you’ve done in the past—at least for the first year or two. The absence of the other parent is much more pronounced when you are doing the same traditions you did as a family, so you’re better off trying something new. For example, if you get your children for half the school break (as many parents do in the joint custody situation), plan a trip away. Go to the snow, go skiing, take an inexpensive cruise to a warm climate, go visit their cousins, go anywhere you can afford to take your kids.

The first year my parents were separated, my mother took us on a budget cruise to Mexico that left the day after Christmas and ran through New Years. My mother told me years later that she was grieving the entire trip, but my brother and sisters and I had a great time and it took our mind off the divorce. My mother said that our good spirits made it easier for her to make it through the first holiday season separated.

TIP #3
Create a new tradition for the future. For example, if you used to spend Thanksgiving at home, maybe it’s time to start a new tradition of spending Thanksgiving with close family friends. Another example is something my neighbors did for about a dozen years while I was growing up–they hosted a Christmas open house from noon to 3 each year. This filled their house with holiday spirit, and I always thought this would be a great holiday tradition to begin. Another friend I know has started a tradition of hosting a Hanukkah party the last night of Hanukkah. My family has does old-fashioned caroling around the block with neighbors, ending back at our house for hot chocolate. These are just some ideas, maybe not exactly right for you, but the idea is to start some new tradition that will replace an old one.

TIP #4
If you are going to be alone for a holiday or part of the holiday break (i.e., it’s your ex’s turn to have the kids for Thanksgiving and for half the winter break), this is the time to call on your friends. Do some advance planning so that you aren’t sitting home depressed while your children are away. Plan where you will spend the actual holiday–preferably with a best friend or extended family. Line up things to do with your time throughout the week–things you enjoy, such as going to a movie and dinner with a friend, reading a favorite book, getting a pedicure, getting tickets to a sports event, going skiing, hosting a poker night with your buddies, whatever it is that makes you feel good.

Plan to talk on the phone or in person with a close friend each day so that you can share your emotional ups and downs with someone. Go out of town to visit family or a friend if you think you will get depressed being home.

TIP #5
Not really a tip, but essential to know: All the action items listed above are to keep yourself from falling into depression and to make the holidays easier for your children. Equally important is that you reserve some time to be alone and to grieve, to accept your sadness and sit with it. My clients have told me that those dark nights of the soul were often, in retrospect, when they learned the most about themselves and made an emotional leap forward. In my own life, it was in times of great sorrow that I gained a deeper sense of spirit in my life, and this carried me through tough times. You won’t find this tip in most holiday lists, because it isn’t fun or catchy, but it will make the most difference in what you get out of this holiday season, when it really comes down to it.

  • Jason Mar

    great tips! thanks alison