Is navigating the holidays after divorce an unsurmountable challenge?
By: Adv. Jay Hait
Navigating the holidays after divorce, especially if it’s the first holiday, really emphasizes how much your life has changed. You used to anticipate your children’s happy faces sitting around the seder table, or illuminated by the glow of the Hanukkah menorah. Now you’re wondering how to keep them from being streaked with tears.
Holidays are a time for families. Celebration. Bright smiles. Gathering for a festive meal. Sharing stories and laughter that create lasting bonds. The family is all together, secure, safe, enveloped in love.
But parents (and their kids) going through divorce, will very often experience sadness, loss and a sense of failure, instead. Everyone is facing emotional challenges and the parents have to deal with legal challenges as well. This new reality can be quite overwhelming. So here are some legal and emotional tips for navigating the holidays after divorce.
A divorce agreement has to be reached between two people who are ending their marriage. Either the court decides the major issues or the couple reaches a comprehensive divorce agreement on their own. If they make the latter choice they can get help from a mediator or their attorneys to work out the details. Then they bring the signed agreement to the court to be finalized.
In my experience, people more readily adhere to agreements they’ve come to on their own because the details they’ve worked out are more stable and equitable. They are less likely to enter into future litigation with the accompanying legal and emotional costs. Agreements lower the cost of the divorce and lessen the emotional damage to the children. Where the kids will live and when they will spend time with each parent can be negotiated, taking into account everyone’s needs and what’s best for the kids.
So, instead of the uncertainty of navigating the holidays after a divorce, everyone can just anticipate the fun side of the particular holiday. Both the children and the parents know who they’ll be with and how they’ll celebrate.
Working Out the Holiday Schedule
Being apart from your kids for the first time can be devastating. Yakov, who works in high tech in Tel Aviv, remembers his first Pesach away from his kids. “I went to a friend’s for the seder and all I could think of was my kids sitting around the table without me,” he says. “I think it was the lowest point in my life.”
Of course it’s not one size fits all when negotiating holidays. Nevertheless it’s helpful to look at some of the common ways other parents divide and share these times.
Alternate holidays every other year. One parent can take the first year and the other the next – alternating each year. This way you won’t miss a holiday with your kids more than one year in a row.
Split each holiday in half every year. One parent takes the kids for the first half of the week-long holidays like Succot and Pesach and the other parent the second half.
Assign fixed holidays. Each parent could celebrate the same holidays every year with the kids if they agree on which are more important to each of them.
Birthdays and Summer Vacation Schedules
Having a schedule can be very stabilizing. Esther manages a marketing department and works from home. “My kids’ made a chart for the fridge with a year’s worth of scheduled visits. It gives them a sense of personal autonomy. They are able to make plans according to when they’ll be at their dad’s and when they’ll be with me.”
Share your children’s birthdays. You can each make a party celebrating the child’s birthday. Or if the child is with one parent on their actual birthday the other could drop by to say a quick hello.
Divide summer vacation. This is something you can work out according to each of your work commitments and schedules.You could alternate taking trips with the kids every year or split each summer in half.
You can use any combination of these examples to divide and share birthdays and summer vacations. If you’ve been able to establish a report you can renegotiate any adjustments you may have to make in the future if either of your circumstances or schedules change.
The important thing is to create arrangements that allow your children to enjoy quality time with each of you. Look at it as an opportunity: by being proactive and exercising these choices, you can create new and meaningful traditions for you and your family.
The late Dr. Wayne Dyer wrote in his book, No More Holiday Blues, “If you allow yourself to indulge in self-pity or fantasies of how your holidays ought to (or used to) be and then permit yourself to become depressed, you’ll be defeating yourself and bringing on the holiday letdown.”
Have an honest discussion with your kids
It’s important to acknowledge the sadness surrounding the change in circumstances in order to get through any holiday after divorce. Yours and your kids’. Talking about how different things are helps to validate everyone’s feelings and gives you all a chance to process them together. No one gets criticized and everyone feels heard.
But how far should one go so as not to disappoint their kids? Should a divorced parent share their own feelings about the holidays? Should they be giving them extra presents or taking time off work to spend more time with the kids? Should they be giving into their ex’s demands about changes in scheduling in order to relieve tension?
For answers I turned to Dr. Mike Gropper, a prominent, American-trained clinical social worker and psychologist. He has over 35 years experience helping families through the challenges of divorce.
Dr, Gropper explained, “There is nothing wrong with telling your kids you’re having a hard time with the holiday. It validates what they may be feeling also, and gives you an opportunity to say to them, ‘What about you?’”
“You have to know your kids. Be attentive to their feelings. Give them more time and attention. They need it.” The Doctor said that one should be flexible concerning the other parent’s demands or requests that violate the terms of the divorce agreement. “Keep the focus on what is best for the child.”
Dr. Gropper and I both feel that newly divorced parents need to cut themselves some slack. “Knowing what to do is not always clear and can be difficult,” he says. “Get some guidance from friends and family whom you trust. There is much to learn about your child after a divorce,” he added. I always advise my legal clients to consult with a therapist if they feel the need and Dr. Gropper is an excellent resource.
Start planning before the holiday
Divorced parents often have extended family to rely on during the holidays to help bring a festive feel with meals and parties and presents. Celebrate together as much as you can. But also try to carve out some special time with you and your kids together. Sit down together and choose some fun activities you’ll all enjoy.
- A day-long road trip including hiking and a picnic.
- Making a BBQ together with other families.
- Planning a new and different holiday meal together. Choosing a menu, shopping for ingredients, and making a video of the whole experience.
- Finding a film you can watch together
Navigating the holidays after divorce
So, while navigating the holidays after divorce may seem to be an insurmountable challenge, it can turn out to be the best thing to happen to your relationship with your kids. Plan the schedule ahead. Have honest discussions where everyone can be vulnerable and feel safe. Start new family holiday traditions. Find ways to form a stronger bond and make great new memories.
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