The magical holidays don’t feel very magical when they are filled with arguing and tears. Imagine how much more confusing it is for the children, who pick up on the tension and often are used as pawns in a very grown-up game of push and pull.
I get it. I have been there. For more than 2 decades I have been involved with co-parenting three children with three absent parents. All the stakes are raised to a very tense threshold at Christmas time.
The kids pay the price. A time that should be filled with love, compassion, giving, and nostalgia is often plagued by warring and manipulation.
As difficult as it is, I am here to tell you that it can be done, it must be done, and doing it takes a very firm commitment to putting the children first.
There must be “letting go.” There must be “choosing your battles.” There must be some “giving in” when it goes against every parental and personal desire of your heart. But we must go to these places in our hearts if the end result is healthier and happier children.
Before we get to the bullet points of advice that will help save your holidays, let me say this:
I see you. I hear you. I know how much seemingly unbearable pain you are suffering. I know the depression, the angst, the overwhelming anger. I want you to know that you can do this. You can be the “better person.” And your children will survive this. You can help them get through it, but you may have to do some very serious “rising above.”
Time apart can be a time of growth for all parties
First of all, remember that time apart from your children is not a prison sentence. Co-parenting alone will require that this must happen. Even if the time away from you is difficult, it will press growth into the hearts of your children. It can also press growth into you.
“The holiest of holidays are those kept by ourselves in silence and apart; The secret anniversaries of the heart.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Find ways to redefine the holiday time that you have without your children. Maximize on this personal time and do things that make you feel better. There is no reason to become “less of a person” when the kids are gone. Remember, there is also a YOU in this equation. Make this time special for yourself as best you can without allowing the undercurrent of anger or disappointment in the custodial issues ruin the holiday time you spend with family and friends.
We cannot control everything
Sometimes the lessons our children learn when they are away from us are ones you would like your child to avoid, but when you share the parenting with another person, you cannot ultimately control everything that goes on in their household, even if it involves your child.
You absolutely must try to make peace with what you cannot control. Battles for control are the groundwork for dissension at the holidays.
We simply cannot control everything. Our children are going to experience things that we ourselves are not a part of. This sucks. It hurts. But the sooner we make peace with this, give our children the “permission” they need to experience happiness without us, the sooner the tension can be eased, benefiting everyone involved.
Our children are going to experience things that we ourselves are not a part of. This sucks. It hurts.
Give your children the gift of “happiness without you”
This is so hard. There is this terrible feeling of betrayal when our children go to someone’s house that we do not love or even like, and they have fun.
They eat food you didn’t cook, and they like it.
They forget to call. They actually sleep at night without melting into a million pieces, and you are not there.
How dare they? — it is a human reaction that is rooted in jealousy. The very painful adult thing to do is to keep this jealousy in check and allow your children to be human beings in your absence. Their holiday joy with the less-than-perfect other parent is perfectly normal for your child. They are just kids being kids and enjoying the holidays.
Allowing them to do so will alleviate tensions for them and if you are really honest with yourself, will help you as well.
Give a little
Understand that you child loves you both. Your child has excitement in their heart about the holidays and wants to share this with everyone they love, including that other parent. I found that during the holidays, as difficult and uncomfortable as it was for me, I had to remember that my children wanted to give a gift to their other parent.
I set a small budget and took them shopping. I helped them wrap their gift and sign the tag. I supported them in this desire to give.
“Christmas gift suggestions: To your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.” — Oren Arnold
It is not personal. It is about the child. What they are thinking and feeling and needing. Do they need a better parent on the other side? Perhaps yes, but the imperfections and shortcomings of the other parent is not solved through the year and will certainly not be solved at Christmas. Remember that this is not about what the other parent deserves, but what your child needs.
Note: When you child returns home, bite back every emotion you can, smile, and ask them if they had fun on their visit. Allow them to lead the conversation. Let the little things that annoy you slide because what you are doing is supporting your child in their experience.
Remember that this is not about what the other parent deserves, but what your child needs.
The scheduling is a nightmare, I know
Remember that the holidays are not held to specific dates on a calendar, at least not when parenting is involved. Christmas with your kids is whatever day you do it. Make it magical, whenever it is.
Try to work out the details of Christmas parties and holidays as early as possible and remember one very very important thing: it will often not be perfect or not be exactly what you want.
And these ugly words: Deal with it.
Can’t get the co-parent to agree to something you want? Pick your battles. Imagine you are your child. Do you really care if you meet at the gas station or the mall, at 2:00 or 6:00, and whether you get to go to Aunt Nancy’s before or after Aunt Peggy leaves early? Your child does not care about all of this.
“Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling.” — Edna Ferber
They care if their parents are fighting, yelling, screaming, cussing, and crying when all they want to know is how will Santa find them if they are at the wrong house. They care about the elves and the cookies and the toys. They may be thinking of baby Jesus.
They may also be very upset that they are missing out on things while they are away. If they are carrying your angst over this on top of what they are feeling, they may not be able to talk to you about it.
Whatever the feelings involved, many arguments are about scheduling, which can leave your child’s feelings out of the equation, if you are not focused on them (rather than the other infuriating party.)
Is the other parent being a total pain? Probably, but can you change that? Nope. Don’t spoil it for the children over the logistics.
So, work out the details as kindly as humanly possible. Save the court battles for some other time.
(By all means, if the other parent is taking advantage, abusing, or failing to prioritize your child, make your notes and keep your records and take this up with the court system at another time.)
More on how to do the holidays the right way:
The Do's and Don'ts of Co-Parenting Well
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Now — the ugly stuff out of the way, let me encourage you a bit.
I know it is hard. I know it hurts. It is a painful time that dredges up emotions and amplifies them. But you will survive this. Your kids will be ok — even if it is not perfect. Even if there are moments that aren’t great. Even if they get their feelings hurt. Even if their expectations do not match up to their reality.
Be their safety net.
Talk to them. Hug them. Let the heavy stuff slide away and make popcorn. Watch a holiday movie. Let them know that it is ok to be confused and have mixed feelings.
And for yourself, it is ok to cry and be angry. It really is. You just have to manage it carefully so your child isn’t in the center of it. Grab onto the small, boring, normal things that give you comfort, and root yourself there. If you are a person of faith, this is a time of leaning, of praying, of confessing, and as the Footprints in the Sand story goes, of “being carried.”
It is ok. You are ok. All of this, perfect or not, will be ok. You do have the power to face it with dignity, with grace, and with strength.
Be their safety net.
Peace comes from being able to contribute the best that we have, and all that we are, toward creating a world that supports everyone. But it is also securing the space for others to contribute the best that they have and all that they are.
— Hafsat Abiola, Nigerian peace activist who lost both of her parents in tragic circumstances
I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
— Helen Keller, political activist for women’s suffrage, labor rights and antimilitarism, despite being blind and deaf
Happy Holidays to you and your families.
Christina Ward 🎄 is a poet, a writer, mom, co-parent, step-mother, and grandparent. She is a daughter of divorced parents. The holidays may not always match what she sees in the movies — but they are special all the same. She thanks baby Jesus for making all her Christmases magical and glorious.