How to Navigate the Holiday Season if You’re Separated or Divorced

The holidays can feel like a tricky time for two-home families. Here are some tips for making it a success!

December 3, 2018

There’s something about the holidays that really puts a spotlight on anything about our family lives that doesn’t quite live up to the Hallmark-movie images we may have in our minds.

If you’re separated or divorced — particularly quite recently — the festive season can feel especially fraught.

But it doesn’t have to be. With some smart planning and a cooperative spirit between you and your former spouse, you can create a memorable holiday season for your children and yourself.

Many people negotiate a schedule for sharing time with kids through the holidays while they’re drafting a separation agreement.

If your situation is fairly new and you haven’t yet put anything on paper, it can seem kind of daunting to come up with a plan that will make everyone happy.

Instead of seeing this as a big compromise, though, it helps to view the holidays as an opportunity to show your children that you’re still a family.

All together now

More and more we’re seeing cooperative co-parents who can come together for big moments in their kids’ lives, including holiday seasons. Maybe you’ll light a candle together on the first night of Hanukkah. Or maybe you’ll both be there while the children open their stockings on Christmas morning.

In my house, we’ve continued to share most of the celebrations on the 24th and 25th each year. Whether we hold it on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, our main meal is shared, and each year my kids’ dad and their stepmom come over in the wee hours of the 25th so we can all watch the kids open their gifts.

In fact, we present all of the gifts as from either Santa or “Mom, Dad and Amy,” avoiding any comparisons or competition about who will give them the thing they want most that year. To make this happen, we roughly divide the shopping between us to split up the expenses, and most years keep track of what’s been purchased in a shared Google spreadsheet.

This approach may not work for everyone, but it’s been great for us.

Double the fun!

If shared festivities don’t suit your plans or the relationship with your kids’ other parent, that’s okay!

Plenty of co-parents have success with a plan where one parent has the children for Christmas Eve and the morning, and the other has them from lunch through Christmas dinner and overnight on the 25th. The next year it flips.

Given kids are off school for a good two weeks, there’s plenty of time for each of you to celebrate the season.

If some of your festivities happen over the course of a few more days so the kids have holiday meals and present openings with both sides of their family, well that’s just an awesome extension of the fun.

Best face forward

The critical thing is that your children aren’t burdened with worry about whether mommy or daddy will be okay while they’re spending time with their other parent.

You may have a heavy heart about being apart from your children for part of the holidays. We get it. None of us expects this kind of thing when we start our families.

Still, it’s important to keep these tough emotions under wraps in front of the kids so they can have a joyful season unmarred by grown-up problems.

Instead, get support from friends, family, therapists or other trusted people in your lives, so you put your best face forward for your children.

If you’re going to be without your kids for an important part of the holidays and aren’t quite sure what to do with yourself, here are some thoughts:

* Don’t assume you’d be a third-wheel at someone else’s celebrations. It can be golden to have a friend at the holiday dinner table. Not only can you be an extra set of hands, you might just help with your friends‘ tricky family dynamics simply by being around. Consider saying “yes” to an invite or letting a trusted friend know you’d love to join them.

* Enjoy some downtime. There’s such an exhausting level of running around in the lead up to the holidays that some single parents have grown to treasure a window of time to decompress. Treat yourself to a sleep-in, uninterrupted reading time, wine, cheese and Netflix at home with no kids to pester you.

* Volunteer. Turning your focus to service can be a wonderful way to take what could be a melancholy time and turn it into an exercise in community connection and gratitude. Just make sure you research this well ahead because soup kitchens and other charities sometimes have more hands on deck than you’d think — a sure sign that plenty of others are also searching for meaning this time of year.

* See a movie. There are a lot of good films out over the holidays, and this could be your first chance in a while to see a movie that’s not animated!

* Get out into nature. Bundle up and head to a local park or other pretty winter wonderland. After a busy season, this is a chance to breathe, destress and let Mother Nature help you clear your mind and set intentions for the new year.

Happy Holidays, everyone.