Do you dread the holidays because your family is split up? So often, families and divorce can ruin any chance of a decent holiday season. And anyone who has been through a divorce, if they're being honest, has had some real post-divorce holiday nightmares.
But, don't despair. This challenging time can also offer opportunities for parents to be our best selves, to call out our most generous inner voices and really give our kids a tremendous gift: Kindness to our exes and honor to the memory and reality of our families of origin.
Joint emotional custody?
As both a child of divorce and a divorced parent I can affirm that no matter how many years pass and how much water sails beneath the various bridges, holidays can trigger all kinds of feelings – conscious and unconscious – that spark all kinds of flashes of anger or snark, sadness and depression. We all know this.
So, I'm calling for divorced parents (for whom this is a reasonable request given their individual circumstances) to offer their kids this holiday season the spirit of joint custody – a form of joint emotional custody.
Tenderness to your ex is a priceless gift to your kids
For those of us who consider ourselves amicably divorced, this is very possible. We have shared many "broken-family holiday" meals. Having your ex over to your home, treating him or her with tenderness and humor, noticing out loud their similarities to your children, offering a funny memory that reflects your gratitude for their part in your life….these are priceless gifts to your children.
No matter how despairing a marriage, deep down, most children (and, studies show many adults) still long for a unified family or origin. This gets totally triggered as an adult, when you are forced to shuttle your own family back and forth to sixteen different holiday festivities because your parents are split, remarried, then your spouse's parents split and remarried.
Holidays bring family splits into stark relief. Somehow, for so many kids and adults of divorce, something essential feels inalterably fractured. It just does. You can see your parents as adults who in NO WAY should be married and still feel like you really, really, super wish in some primal way that your parents hadn't gotten divorced (42 years ago…)
Families and divorce around the holidays
And, our children still feel torn in big and small ways. Their world was one way, and then the whole divorce thing happened, and their entire world shifted. I remember as a kid so often feeling like – 'hey wait a minute, so we all lived together and then one day we will never be in the same room with our mother and father at the same time until one of us graduates or gets married? How is that even possible?'
So, I think the holidays offer us a chance to remind ourselves and our kids that yes, we were once a together family. It actually happened. Your parents loved each other in a special way. Now they love each other in a different way (again, if you can pull this off, if it's at all true, it's a priceless blessing for all involved.) I'm not talking about whipping out the wedding album, but I am talking about owning and honoring the reality of your kids' experience as a living-together, intact family. Even if one or both of you moved on and love someone else or feel like it's best if you forget the last 15 years ever happened. Our marriage is our kids' childhood. We should honor and treasure that, at least.
Dealing with divorce and the holidays
If you can, maybe share a meal together. See a movie together. Create some kind of safe encounter where the whole family of origin can be together in a gentle way, where you and your ex can show your kids how mature, child-centered adult divorced parents can behave, and you can be the kind of role models they – and you – can look up to.
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