The holidays are so hard for divorced and separated families. They just are. Especially if you are new to sharing the kids on the holidays. You are grieving what you thought your family would look like. What you hoped and expected your family would look like. And so much of that image is wrapped up in special occasions like holidays — holidays informed by magazines, movies, Hallmark and William Sonoma ads — not to mention social media and your own memories from your childhood (whether you hoped to replicate good times, or deviate from bad ones). Now your family looks different and it sucks. No matter how you dice it, it is ugly.
If you're negotiating holiday schedules for this season, or are in custody negotiations, here is my one piece of advice for you this year, and years going forward:
Let it go. Give him the holidays.
- It doesn't matter what day you actually celebrate on. Christmas Eve on the 20th, Thanksgiving on a Monday, Yom Kippur on the week before the actual holiday … whatever. It doesn't matter.
- Holidays are about time with your loved ones, traditions and having a good time. You kids won't remember if you celebrate Passover or Easter according to the good book's date, or when you and your ex sort it out. They won't, I promise. They will remember you and their dad bitching at each other, tension in the house before they are to depart to their house, or that stink eye you give him when you drop off the kids. They will remember, I promise.
- If he is fighting for more time with the kids, give him more time. I have written a ton about the benefits of equal co-parenting, and the devastating affects of fatherlessness, which is perpetuated when families have unequal parenting time, and one parent presumes to be the superior parent by way of gender. Old-fashioned and sexist. Just give him the time.
- Ask yourself: Do you really care about that dinner at your parents, or the neighborhood caroling thing? Maybe you do, and that is OK, and you should try to negotiate in a reasonable way with him so everyone wins. But for real: Do you really love that thing? Or do you do it out obligation, and then resent it? Or do you do it because you've always done that thing, and never really thought about if it brought you joy? Does the cookie swap sound cute, but you know will be annoying? Does it sound really lovely to spend a whole day with your extended family each and every year, but in reality the event is rife with resentments, judgements and avoiding your drunk uncle like the plague? Let that shit go and take some control of your holiday!
- Ask yourself: Why are you arguing with him? Is it because you are trying to punish him because yo are hurting? Are you trying to keep your family time looking like it did before the breakup? Do you feel entitled to get your way because he pissed you off about something else? It is tough, trust me, I get it. I get it! But really? Just let that go.
Lisa messaged me on Facebook and said:
I think it takes awhile to get to this point after a difficult marriage, but the truth is that only light takes away dark and only love replaces hate. I wish I had learned that much sooner. Set boundaries and then just give and give so that you and your kids benefit.
Fighting with your kids' dad about holiday schedule? Here is the ONE thing to kill this debate …
How to negotiate the holidays with your ex instead:
- Mainly: Just let him have his way. The more you give, the more you get. You may not get your way right now, this holiday or even this year. But it will come back to you.
- Stop keeping score.
- Pick one special thing you really love doing during the holidays and make a big deal out of that. Tell your kids' dad that is important to you, and go all out. For me, Christmas is my cultural touch-point, and my kids and I hold a tree-trimming party at our house. I make gallons of chili and pans of corn bread and it is fun. There are other holiday traditions and festivities, but that is our main jam, and we work that date around what their dad wants to do. I don't remember there being any conflict.
- When your kids are with their dad, do something you really enjoy doing. Read a sleazy magazine. Get your nails done. Go to a movie. Last year on Christmas Eve I found myself without plans and a little blue, so called an old friend who invited me to her holiday dinner in her darling Brooklyn apartment. There were a dozen adults drinking and eating excellent wine and food and I spent the evening making fascinating new friends and not missing my kids a bit.
- Do something really nice for your ex. I don't care how you feel about him, do something nice. Buy a gift on behalf of the kids — or, — CRAZY! — yourself. Give his new wife or girlfriend a good bottle of wine or candle. Give him a hug and wish him happy new year. And mean it (or at least try very, very hard to be sincere). Take a step at healing.
- If you are mourning your old life, or traditions that may not work out long-term, that is OK. Create a new tradition that will carry you forward. This is a new chapter. Honor it with a new ritual. And for the love of humanity, let go of all the pressure to make the holidays look like something they're no.
Full transcript of Like a Mother podcast with Emma Johnson
Hey, guys. Emma Johnson here, WealthySingleMommy.com. I am getting a lot of questions. Here it is the week before the holiday, before Thanksgiving, and everybody seems to be bickering with their kid's dad. Maybe it's your ex. The holidays, man, they are stressful. I can't say I love them. This time of year, I get down in the dumps, and it's all I can do to muster up some mom energy to make the best of this time of year. It's hard.
And when you're co-parenting, especially … it gets easier. At least you can decide that it will get easier. But especially if you're new to co-parenting, coming out of a divorce or a relationship, the idea of not being with your kids on the holiday, it can be heartbreaking. And it's just really mustering all of those horrible feelings that you have that your family is not what you had hoped it would be. It's not looking like you think it's supposed to look.
Single moms and the unattainable perfect Christmas ideal
A lot of us, around the holidays, it's like all those pictures, even before we had social media, it was the frickin' Norman Rockwell paintings and the Christmas cards and the Women's Day magazine pictures that tell us what things are supposed to look like. And they're not looking like that if you are a separated family.
If you are butting heads with your ex about when he is going to take the kids and when you're going to take the kids, here is the number one piece of advice I have. Just let him take them. Just be overly generous. That's the spirit. I don't care what the history is. I don't care about who owes who what because we're starting new here. This is a new time. He's going through all those bad feelings that you're going through too. The kids, of course, they're stuck in the middle.
A couple of things. One, it does not matter what day you celebrate the holiday on. It just does not. You can celebrate Thanksgiving on the Tuesday before or the Sunday after. It really does not matter what day it is.
Second of all, it is about that time together and doing the fun thing and the good feelings because your kids will not remember if they missed the thing at your parents' house. They're not going to remember that, but they are going to remember if you and your ex are screaming at each other. They will remember that for the rest of their lives. And even if you don't scream, they are going to remember that tension. Man, that tension is a real thing.
Holidays are about memories – not fighting
Second of all, ask yourself if you really care about the holiday tradition that you're missing. Most people don't deep down love them. Some people do, and I'm not trying to project my agenda on you, but if you don't really love that caroling thing with the church that you're trying to argue for, just let it go. Just let it go and while your kids are enjoying their time with their other parent, go get a massage. Read a book. Hang out with your girlfriends. Volunteer. Do something else.
Again, make this the season of starting anew. Give more than you think you can. Just enjoy the time you are with your kids and think about starting a new tradition. Start something new for this season that can carry you and your kids forward that is not attached to a date.
So, tell me. I want to hear about a change that you made in the holidays. Maybe you had an idea about how they were supposed to be, but you were successfully able to let that go and move forward for the goodness of not only your family, but for your relationship with your ex and for yourself and for the spirit of making the holidays a little less treacherous for all of us.
Related posts about single moms, divorce and the holidays, including if your kids' dad is not in their life:
How about you? How have you successfully negotiated the holiday schedule with your ex? Share in the comments!
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.