christmas without kids

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. 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:

The single mom holiday manifesto

Holiday o-parenting schedule conflict

Just let him have the holiday


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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, judgments and avoiding your drunk uncle like the plague? Let that shit go and take some control of your holiday!
  5. Ask yourself: Why are you arguing with him? Is it because you are trying to punish him because you 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.

How to negotiate the holidays with your ex instead

Negotiate all the holiday schedules well in advance of the November/December stress. This includes:

  • Which parent is responsible for child care during school holidays
  • Who is responsible for pick up and drop off, and details of these exchanges
  • Confirmation on any school, community and family events and projects special to this time of year
  • Specific details about celebrations that require special coordinating, including dress-up clothes, any gifts or baking required for events
  • Communicate about gifts you plan to give the kids. For example, in my family, my son recently became enthusiastic about his taekwondo classes, and I bought him the expensive sparring gear as a Christmas gift. I told his dad, so that he wouldn't also buy the same thing (plus, the equipment gift may mean for your family that that expense does not need to be shared between you and your ex).

If you are not already on a co-parenting app, now is the time. Consider buying a membership for your ex (but not if he will interpret that as a passive-aggressive or controlling move).

The 2020 best co-parenting app review — including free co-parenting apps

Best co-parenting apps:


One of the first co-parenting apps, and widely used app, OurFamilyWizard's features include messaging, information storage, and financial record-keeping, and a unique ToneMeter feature to help keep communication drama-free.

Military discounts, fee waiver program, and a free, 30-day trial make Our Family Wizard accessible to most families. $99/year per parent. B+ Better Business Bureau rating. Check out Our Family Wizard now >>


Fayr is backed by co-parenting advocate Gwyneth Paltrow. Features include co-parent schedule calendar, expense recording, date-stamped messaging, and geo-location pinpointing so you can prove you were on time for parenting exchanges. Fees start at $9.99/month.


This app provides messaging, expense documentation, and geo-pinpointing, plus on-demand, live conflict resolution from a team of retired judges, child specialists, mediators and therapists. $12.99/month.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Stop keeping score.
  3. 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 cornbread 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Take this as an opportunity to create a holiday visitation schedule. If you don't already, use a co-parent app like Fayr to establish a co-parenting holiday schedule, with alternate years (many divorced families alternate between even and odd years, so each parent gets the kids every-other Christmas, for example). While you're at it, take this as an opportunity to improve your co-parenting relationship overall. New Years resolutions! Read my Rules for co-parenting — even with the most toxic ex
  6. 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.
  7. 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 not.

Full transcript: Co-parenting during the holidays

Hey, guys. Emma Johnson here, 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.

How about you? How have you successfully negotiated the holiday schedule with your ex? Share in the comments! 

About Emma Johnson founder  Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist and author. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Emma's Top Single Mom Resources.


  1. Andrea on November 20, 2019 at 12:15 am

    Thanks for the encouraging post. I’m approaching my first separated holiday. Breaks my heart just writing that. I had already come to the conclusion that I should just “let him have the kids” for the sake of maintaining peace but it doesn’t feel good. My ex is controlling and I’m often put in a position to feel trapped. If I don’t accommodate the schedule he wants then he’ll retaliate with a harsher punishment-stonewalling, cruel language or who knows? We don’t have a legal custody agreement, we were never married. All I can say is I hope this bid for peace doesn’t dig me farther into a hole in which I have no power to negotiate. Fingers crossed it calms the seas for the next holiday.

  2. Laura on November 28, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    What would you recommend to people with abusive exes? Your advice sounds wonderful for normal people, but what about when you have an abusive ex who keeps badmouthing you in front of your children?

    • Nick on December 3, 2017 at 1:18 pm

      Laura, I recommend all communications be in writing. Talk to a lawyer about enforcing any non-disparagement clauses in your divorce agreement/parenting plan, and switch to using scheduling software such as Our Family Wizard, which has a tone meter for keeping thIngs civil.

      Read “Why He Does That” by Lundy Bancroft.

  3. Eliza Cross on November 27, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    Your advice is so good and spot-on. It was important to my ex to have our son on Christmas Eve with his family, so we started a new tradition where he and my son came over to join me and my daughter here on Christmas morning. I filled a stocking for my ex and we exchanged a gift or two, and we all had a fun morning opening presents followed by a nice brunch. Sadly, my ex died very suddenly and unexpectedly in 2016. I am so, so thankful we were able to put our differences aside and share those precious Christmases together. My children and I treasure the memories.

    • Emma on November 30, 2017 at 7:54 am

      I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this perspective. Ties with our exes continue after the relationship ends, and your story shows us why and how to manage that with grace. Well done, great example for your kids and other families.

  4. Patsy on November 22, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    My ex just stopped everything..addiction does that to a person. I leave it up to my kids to make a plan with their dad. I never say no you can’t go . I say that sounds like fun. The oldest might visit a couple hours when she’s home from break. My middle never sees him. My youngest might see him once a month. Their father is a notorious breaker of plans. I don’t see myself ever hugging him but I do wish him well. He lives with his gf but still sends me inappropriate texts. I never text back but I will answer a phone call. I’ve completely moved on..physically and emotionally. I’m a good mom and I️ want what’s best for my kids but it’s going to be on their terms.

  5. Saroja Chepuru on November 22, 2017 at 11:35 am

    Good Lord, God Bless you Heart first of all in bringing this out during the most stressful and painful season for moms like me to decide what to do with your child and how to do share your holidays. I have no clue about this clearly because this is my first year of real separation. And yes, i groan with pain when i dont have my child every single day but something that i have to deal with. This gave me a gut wrenching confidence and clarity that yes, i can let it go and and yes i can take control of my holiday as i want.
    Your website and posts have been so reinforcing to my beliefs and ideas. I commend you for doing what you are doing. Love it! Absolutely love it!

    • Emma on November 30, 2017 at 7:53 am

      It gets easier and it is clear you are committed to moving through this. Love to you!

  6. Lisa on November 21, 2017 at 4:30 pm

    Hello. I saw your book on Dooce’s blog. And it caught my attention. I am a single mom to an almost 10 year old amazing little girl. My husband and I separated in July of 2016 and lived together until October 2016 when he moved out. The moment we both agreed to separate, the next words out of my mouth were: and we will continue to be great parents, together. That is the rule, no arguing, you may not like me at all (under statement!) however we will be nice to each other starting right now. Pretend to like me if you have to. And that is exactly what we did. And have continued to do. It was a relief when we both agreed, together, and at the same time to separate. A relief that I was not expecting to feel, I thought I would be sad and devastated but it was a long time coming and I was actually happy about it. It was odd but freeing. And I think he felt the same. We told our daughter 2 weeks before he moved out (I googled and googled the best way to do this). And followed what I read. Tell the child about 2 weeks before the separation if you can and do it together. Keep it simple and to the point. Be certain that you say that you will be friends and parents together forever and make sure the child really understands that. We literally consciously uncoupled, when I first heard that concept from Gwyneth, I laughed and joked and made fun of it like everyone else. Little did I know that I too would be following her terrific example just a few years later. We make it a point to attend almost every school thing together that we can, we have been to lunch and dinner together. He came to my families house for Xmas last year and may this year as well. And I went to his families for TG. Our daughter has not missed a beat, has never asked me if I hate her father (I do not), has never asked us to get back together. None of that. And it is because we have continued to co-parent and never talk crap about each other in her presence. We have certainly had some text fights, we are not perfect. And he can be a real dick at times, and I am no saint either. And yes I have told him off more than once, but only over text. Never on the phone and for sure not in person. There was one time in the beginning of our separation that he came into my house and started to yell about whatever it was, and I immediately stood up, opened the door, told him to GET OUT NOW!! and he did. When he left I texted him and said don’t you ever, ever come into this house and yell at me in front of our daughter EVER again. And he hasn’t. I will never ever understand how people involve their children in their adult crap, say nasty things, and continue to hate each other through their children. All the while thinking it is okay. I am incredibly proud of us. When we attend things with mutual friends and their kids, people ask me, hey are you guys back together? And I laugh because we get along so well that it gets confusing to others. People are usually shocked when I say how we are now and that we get along. They look at me like I am crazy, delusional or lying. And say, well that just means you guys will get back together. And I am like, NOPE!! And I agree that any Holiday can be celebrated on any day. It is just that most divorced people want that control, ignoring the well being of their children. Demanding to have the kids on this day or that day. That is just too much drama for me. I have learned that just saying OK, OK, OK to most things that he does that annoy me works quite well. I am enjoying the PEACE!

    • Emma on November 30, 2017 at 7:54 am

      Ha! So glad to read this, well done!

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