Celebrating the Holidays as Children of Divorce: A Conversation with My Brother
Everybody has holiday drama. It’s part of human existence. They make movies showcasing all different kinds of holiday drama. But there is a particular type of holiday drama that exists when your parents are divorced. Who do you spend the holiday with? How do you make sure everyone has equal time and attention? Most importantly – how do you make sure YOU stay sane and enjoy the holiday, regardless of whatever you are facing at home?
To clarify, my relationship with my parents is very good and my holidays are generally very enjoyable, which is not the case for every child of divorced parents. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my share of parental divorce challenges as well. My goal in writing this post is not to dwell on the past, but to share some of my experience in the hopes of helping others. Even though this isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of situation, hopefully something in here will resonate with you and give you the courage and strength not only to keep going, but also to find some happiness along the way.
To discuss some of the tips and tricks that have helped me over the years, I invited my brother Rob to join me in a conversation about how to navigate the complexities of divorce dynamics during the holidays.
Rob, say hello to everyone.
Rob and I are going to share our tips for navigating 3 of the hardest holiday challenges as children of divorced parents. Even though this is something we’ve talked about a lot over the years, we each have a different opinion on the subject, which hopefully will be of some use to you, our wonderful readers. And don’t worry – our parents have already read this.
Challenge #1: Competing parents
Erin’s Tip: Show them you love them, but don’t get caught in the crossfire.
Of all the ways divorce can impact children, this seems to be the one that is the hardest to avoid. It’s human nature to want to be loved, and when you are already feeling vulnerable about the dissolution of a relationship that was supposed to last forever, it’s only human nature to worry that your children are going to turn away from you the same way your spouse did, and so you compete for their love.
As a child, sometimes this can have unexpected benefits. Christmas was always pretty great for me, because I got two Christmases instead of one. Same with family vacations, birthday presents, etc. But the excitement fades the second one parent asks you what you got from the other, and all you can think to say is, “um…”
Over the years, I have learned that the best way to handle this is to show your parents how much you love them and then draw a line in the sand that you will not cross and guard it with your life. Creating boundaries for what you will and won’t do or say is the only way to protect you from carrying a burden that is not yours. Instead of putting time into assuaging their fears, put time into loving them and building relationships with them as individuals, which is something you should be doing anyway, whether or not your parents are divorced.
Rob’s Tip: You can’t win.
This one is hard, and I’m sure other people in mine and Erin’s position feel the same way. Every year we start off with the easy stuff like trying to balance our time perfectly, getting equal value presents so that it doesn’t appear love is one-sided, and a very short while later it hits you…you can’t win.
I’m quite familiar with the “can’t win” reality, especially if you compare me to my Ivy League, high achieving, never failing sister. And though I may be an expert on the subject, I know you all know how this feels. So what have Erin and I done to deal with this? First, you need to just accept things the way they are. Things between your parents didn’t work out so you have to adapt. Erin and I always seem to have more phone calls this time of year because there is A LOT of planning that has to happen. (This year has been particularly one-sided as far as sharing the work load goes because Erin lives in Boston with the other high achievers and I live with my mom. Yes, I live with my mom.) In addition to coordinating a holiday schedule, which is now your responsibility instead of your parents’, gift planning suddenly becomes a little more complicated than when your parents were together. For example, the budget has to change because you can’t cheat anymore and get them both something to share, like a toaster. You also can’t ask one of your parents for money to buy gifts for the other parent.
But the biggest hurdle to planning comes when you realize that at some point on Christmas day, one of your parents is going to be alone and left out. For me, I think this is one of the hardest things about being a child of divorce. The really difficult part we face as the children is that we have to make decisions for a circumstance that is nobody’s fault (parents or kids) that inevitably brings some sadness with it. And there’s no easy answer for that. You simply have to plan ahead, do your best, and realize that there’s only so much you can do.
Challenge #2: Now there’s a new person…
Erin’s Tip: Try to see this as an expansion of your family, not a replacement.
Let’s face it - stepparents can be tricky because there is a lot of worry, on all sides, that a stepparent will come in and either try to replace an existing parent or sever the children’s ties to their remarried parent. In my experience, however, if the stepparent is a good person, this is not true. No one on this planet (or any planet really) could replace either of my parents. They are my parents and always will be. I’m not suddenly going to forget that they exist and turn to my stepparent instead. But I have learned, over the years, to acknowledge the benefits that can come from being willing to expand my family circle to include a new person, even if it was not an expansion I ever wanted. In my case, my stepmother was single until she met my father. As a single woman in my 30’s, her unique experience and counsel have been really helpful to me in times when I have struggled with the reality of my marital status. Rather than resenting her for her presence in my family, I have learned to be grateful for it as an unanticipated blessing in the midst of what was otherwise a very threatening situation.
The most important thing to remember with stepparents is that it takes time to learn the dynamic that will be right for your family. By time I mean years or sometimes even decades. But it’s okay. It’s okay to let your family grow. There is enough room to love them all. At the end of the day, it’s really no different than having in-laws, and everybody has in-laws. Just remember to show your existing family members that you love them, and be patient with them if they’re struggling. Also, be communicative and honest with your parents. Tell them what you need from them to make sure you maintain a good relationship. It may be awkward at first, but be persistent, be patient, and do it in a spirit of love. If they love you, they will listen, and you will work through it together.
Rob’s Tip: Um… What?
It takes a long time to figure out how to deal with divorced parents, and then one day you wake up and realize that one of your parents got re-married. Christmas tactics that worked previously may not work the same way anymore. You’ve got to do everything you did before but now add to that the step-parent.
I remember the first Christmas when Erin and I had to solve the Christmas conundrum of three parents. I can remember having discussions like “Ok so is our budget going to be the same for each parent?” and “We have to be extra sneaky when wrapping presents this year just in case we get asked who it’s for.” We also had to guess what kind of gift would be good for this new person. With our own parents this was easy because we knew them so well that we could almost anticipate how they’d react – you know, the fake smile when you know your parents don’t get why you got them something or it isn’t exactly what they wanted but they’ll settle for it because they have to. I imagine it’s like when you get the “thanks for trying” ribbon cause nobody is a loser anymore. For me, that first Christmas was absolutely nerve-wracking because I just didn’t want to mess up. I could picture my dad looking at me with shame and embarrassment if I bought the wrong gift. To be clear, my dad would never do that to me in this situation but that doesn’t mean that the fear wasn’t real.
The reality of that first Christmas with a stepparent is that the stepparent is a stranger who’s now also part of the family. They are strangers to us just as we are to them. But here we are, celebrating Christmas and trying not to be weird about it. Over time this gets better. Over the years, Erin and I have realized that it’s ok for us to treat all family members with respect. And it actually had some unexpected benefits. One of the things that I didn’t expect to gain from all this is that it brought me and my sister closer together. Our family may not be normal by traditional standards and we’ve all had to make changes and adapt to the situation. But to perfectly honest, I wouldn’t trade any of my family for anything.
Challenge #3: Finding your own joy, regardless of the circumstances
Erin’s Tip: Love your family, but give yourself permission to enjoy the season.
The biggest thing I’ve learned over the years is you are responsible for your own happiness. No one can make you be happy any more than you can make others be happy, and that’s true for any family situation. When it comes right down to it, happiness, especially during the holidays, is a choice – not a choice to be happy instead of being sad, but to be happy in spite of being sad. That’s a really important distinction, and truly what the Christmas season and the birth of Christ are all about. Every year at Christmas, I always feel a little bit of sadness at the fact that my parents aren’t together – that I don’t get to wake up and see both of them making breakfast in the kitchen, and that I have to leave one of them to go spend time with the other. But I have learned how to treasure each moment with them anyway, and to develop new traditions that I can look forward to instead of the old ones. And that’s ok. Holding on to the ideals of the past can sometimes be more harmful than helpful. Sometimes it’s better to stare your circumstances in the face, acknowledge them, then learn how to adapt and move on.
Rob’s Tip: Always have an escape plan built in.
OK this one is short and sweet. Love your family and be grateful for what you have. Don’t focus on the things you don’t have or can’t change. And the most important thing of all is figure out who is driving, code words for escape, and an auxiliary cord for the iPod.
Have you experience a similar situation in your life? What other tips and tricks would you share for finding joy in the holidays?