There you are, just chugging along. Life is working out despite some serious roadblocks. Your divorce happened, and somehow you’ve managed to pick yourself and your kids up, dust everything off, and make nice headway into your new normal.
Then the holidays arrive. Sometime around Halloween, your divorce “Spidey sense” starts tingling. You make furtive glances toward the calendar, knowing in your heart that although they seem so far away, those biggies we call Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas will be here in the blink of an eye.
You get out that decree, which if you’re newly divorced, is probably still smooth and stapled together. You should see mine now, LOL, highlighted, wrinkled, and stained with blood, sweat, and wine). You go over the holiday stipulations. Most of us divide up the holidays on an even- and odd-year structure. Sometimes you and your ex are agreeable to changes and swap certain dates with a smile. Sometimes you and your ex can barely speak to each other and cling to that schedule like Rose hung on to that freaking board in Titanic.
Sometimes you even join forces with your ex and decide to toss that schedule to the wind and hold your own Big Happy Holiday, providing your children with a united front.
All of these situations are normal. All of these situations are OK.
You must know this right now: All of them are OK.
There is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to piecing together a family holiday post-split. What there is, is black and white and 50,000 shades of grey. And you need to do what is not only best for the kids but also what is healthiest for you. These two objectives are like big circles in a Venn diagram; sometimes they overlap so much they look like one, and that’s awesome. When they don’t? Well, that’s life.
If you are in the Big Happy Holiday camp, bravo! From the bottom of my heart, congratulations! What you’re doing is remarkable and wonderful and will no doubt instill some lovely, warm memories into your children’s brains. They will look back on these times and be grateful their parents were able to put differences aside and go all kumbaya.
For those of us who don’t fall into that camp — and who couldn’t even find the freaking campsite with a park ranger and GPS — don’t sweat it. Around this time of year, we begin to be inundated with stories of ex-husbands and wives who come together with their new loves and write each other sappy open letters of appreciation. People will say, as they always do, “All divorced parents should be this mature,” and “Too bad not everyone can put the kids before themselves,” and “This is how all divorced families should do it.”
You know what? What works for some people doesn’t work for everyone. Sometimes there is animosity between exes, and sometimes there is very good reason for that animosity. Maybe there was abuse. Maybe there was malice. Maybe your ex is an asshole, and you’ve chosen to not allow assholes into your life. Boundaries are necessary for some people. As long as you don’t stand between them and your kids (unless, of course, the safety of your kids is in question), then you are doing OK.
To quote all the cool kids, “You do you.”
A lot of you are still in survival mode, and during the holiday season, you have to kick it into high gear. The absolute worst part of this season will be letting go of the kids. Whether it’s for one night or a week, most of us will be apart from our babies for a while. That first time is like nothing else. I can’t really describe it accurately, except to say that watching them drive away felt like my heart was a big ball of yarn, and someone was slowly, deliberately unwinding it.
Waking up on Christmas morning to a silent house. No hot kid breath in your face imploring you, “Wake up, Mommy! Santa was here!” No little feet pounding down stairs. And no squeals of joy when that lusted-for toy is discovered under the tree.
For some of us, this is the stuff of nightmares. And guess what? It sucks. I could pussyfoot my way around this one for you, drape some garland over it and say, “Oh, honey, it’s not so bad.” But my friends, that shit hurts.
The good news is you’ll survive. The better news is that so will your kids.
And each year it gets better. Does the hurt ever go away? For some, yes. For others, it doesn’t disappear completely, but it shrinks down to a manageable size. Some of us take time to reflect and go back over the pages in our brains and press our hands over memories, remembering long-ago moments and noises and faces. It’s fine to do that. It’s normal to look back.
But what you really need to do — what is best for you — is to also look around your now. Look at their faces. They’ve changed so much, but you can still see those little kids inside them. Enjoy the moments you’re given and really let them sink in, so when your kids are not with you, you can close your eyes and see them.
As for what to do with all that quiet time? The options are endless. You go ahead and wallow that first year, and OK, maybe the second one too. That’s your God-given right, and nobody can tell you otherwise.
But eventually you’ll tire of being the divorced Christmas version of Miss Havisham and want something different. Here are a few ideas:
1. Get the word out that you’re going to be alone.
You might be surprised by the invitations you receive. Whether it’s a friend inviting you to her big family shindig or a fellow single who needs some companionship, embrace the offers. They are symbols of love and caring.
2. Eat something you love.
If you’re struggling financially, this might be the perfect time to go big and buy a few crab legs. Try making a cheesecake, and eat that sucker right out of the pan. Buy a bag of Red Vines, let them get a little stale (please, God, tell me I’m not the only one who prefers them that way) and chow down without having to hide them from the kids.
3. Binge-watch something on Netflix or Amazon.
I always joke that I need a good blizzard in order to really get my binge-watch on, but my best watching times are when the kids are with their dad. I’m currently sucked into The Wire on Amazon. Idris Elba has become the face of my body pillow.
4. Move your ass.
Go for a walk. I once took my dog for a walk on a lonely Thanksgiving. The smell of turkey dinner and intact families hung over my city like a fog, and I walked through it like I owned it. It felt good, and my dog-mom guilt was relieved for a day.
5. Go see a movie.
I have never mastered the whole “go alone” thing, but I’ve heard it’s not so bad. Theaters are open on the holidays. Even if you just go and sink into a plush seat and don’t cry for approximately two hours, it’ll be worth it.
6. Have you a lovah? (Say that with your best Downton Abbey accent.)
If so, yay! Now is your chance to do something crazy, like go get a glass of water in the middle of the night completely naked or make out in the living room. Get your freak on, friends. It’s what Santa would want for you.
7. Do something nice for someone else.
Babysit a dog, volunteer at a soup kitchen or shelter, or surprise a sad neighbor with a basket of goodies. Nothing on this planet will chase away the woes like doing a good deed, although pretending your body pillow is Idris Elba does a fine job too.
Whatever you do, remember this: Holidays come and go. Your kids will too. One day there won’t be a decree telling you who goes where and what days are yours.
What you do with these dates now is entirely up to you. I encourage you to make the best of it, regardless of how crappy you feel or how mad you are or how much it hurts to see so much change.
It may seem impossible, but you can make the holidays happy (or at least not entirely miserable). And never forget this: You aren’t alone.