Sucking It Up For The Kids

One of the nicest things my parents did after their divorce was to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner together as a family, not just one year but several. At the time, I didn’t realize how unusual this was, nor did I have any understanding of how difficult this must have been for each of my parents. In retrospect, we were a strange group after a few years: my dad with his serious girlfriend in tow; my mom with her new husband; my sisters with their boyfriends (who eventually became their husbands); my brother and I usually stag, although some years we had a serious mate at our side. My new step-brother and step-sister came too. There were some awkward moments, but it worked well enough to make us feel like we were still a family, divorce and all.

Don’t ask me why it mattered so much for me to see my divorced parents together and getting along, as I don’t have a logical answer. I was 17 when my parents split, so these “post-divorce holidays” took place for me when I was well past childhood, between the ages of 20 and 32. Nonetheless, even though I had my own life, I wanted our family traditions to continue. My siblings felt this way too, particularly the younger ones who were still living at home and already missing out on the family life I had had. All of us being together at least once a year somehow made it feel like the holiday season, with peace on earth and goodwill to all men, even divorced ones.

My mother is now a 74-year-old grandmother with 14 grandchildren, and this year it is our turn to have her for Christmas. So as we were talking the other day about holiday plans, I thought I would ask her for some words of wisdom that I could share…something that would give deep insight about how she and my dad were able to get along for all those years after their divorce. With her counseling background and her various Masters Degrees, I was sure she’d have a lot to say on this subject.

This was what she said to me: “Well, I sucked it up — we both sucked it up — because we needed to get along for you kids.”

I waited for more. “Uh, Mom, is that it?”

After a little more prodding, I got some elaboration: “You can’t let yourself choose anger over the welfare of your children. Dad wasn’t a bad guy, so there was no reason he shouldn’t be with you kids. We had to make it work. It was hard at times, but we did it and I’m glad we did.”

As I write this now, I am still amused by my own ridiculousness in thinking there was some profound insight out there that would be the key to successful co-parenting. Wishful thinking, when there are only matter-of-fact truths we all know already. Anyone who has been divorced will tell you, the only way to make a custody share work is to suck it up.

Clearly, holidays together are not possible for many divorced parents, for whatever reason — whether the animosity is just too great, or the pain too fresh, or the distance or logistics too daunting. The main point of this story is not the shared holiday dinner, but the choice one must make. You either stay angry, or choose the welfare of your children.

We’re approaching the New Year in six short weeks, a clean slate. Let it be your resolution to truly put the welfare of your kids first — and commit to this for the holidays as well. Easier said than done. But the most damage you can do to your children is to continue fighting as divorced parents. You must choose. You can’t have it both ways.

I’m not suggesting you become a doormat or allow your legal rights to be compromised. This is not about actions so much as it is about attitude and how you choose to view your spouse and your divorce. It’s about choosing to be civil. It’s about respecting your ex-spouse’s relationship with the children. It’s about letting go of grievances from the past. Do you walk around most of the time feeling like you have been victimized? If you do, that’s probably a sign that you are still choosing your anger over the welfare of your kids.

How will you know when you’re making progress? It’s simple. It’s like the Gift of the Magi. When you’re sucking it up until it hurts, that’s when you will know your sacrifice is making a difference for your kids. I personally believe this is the truest expression of love any divorced parent can give to their children. Seeing their parents get along will mean a lot more to your kids than any present you can buy them.

So I hope you’ll take the challenge this holiday season and continue it into the New Year. If you want to make t-shirts, have them read: Sucking it Up for the Kids. Someday when you’re 74, or maybe even sooner, you will have this same conversation with your grown kids. They’ll finally understand the depth of what you did for them. And as it is for my mother and father, it will all be ancient history for you and seem like a lifetime ago. There won’t be any more pain or struggle and you’ll be so glad you made the right choice.

(originally published 11/16/11 on Huffington Post)