One night during dinner, a friend of mine, divorced for over a year, was upset and anxious about not having her 7 and 11-year-old kids this year during Thanksgiving and the December holidays.
Like many co-parenting arrangements, the kids alternate years of where they are spending the holidays. Last year was her year.
She planned ahead and contacted extended family living out of state. But, planning on her part did not translate to coordination and planning on their part, and two separate gatherings miles and hours apart were proposed.
The prospect of traveling hither and yon and take her mind off the fact that she would not be with her children seemed miserable, so she abandoned the trip altogether.
Her next brainstorm was to solicit her kid’s father to invite herself to whatever he had planned. She wanted to be with her kids and she convinced herself she could tolerate the tension between her and her ex-husband.
They were accustomed to attending events together because of their kids’ involvement in sports and extracurricular activities, so coming together for the holidays was not out of reach.
If you have experienced (or are experiencing) divorce, this may sound all too familiar to you. Here are some tips on how to get through it.
Here’s How to Enjoy the Holidays Without the Kids During Your Co-Parenting off Year.
Holidays without children, especially early into the cycle of a co-parenting schedule, can stir many emotions. Among the most common are anxiety, anger, shame, and fear. These can feel overwhelming. Memories of how you used to be together as a family, even if they never were very satisfying, may become distorted with tinges of nostalgia.
The one irrefutable thing about these memories is that you were together, and this carried with it societal approval. Your identity is safe and undeniable: you were a family. Even if you felt ill at ease in your role for a little while or a long time in your relationship, society at large didn’t question you or your status. This stamp of approval is stripped when you become separated and are now known as a single parent.
The questions from others are many, and despite the high numbers of those in the same situation as yourself, there is a constant veneer of doubt shrouding you. The curiosity about how things ended or who did what is never simple even if the reasons are relatable and common. This often unspoken judgment doesn’t rest and becomes more poignant during the holidays.
I understood my friend’s desire to ingratiate herself with her children’s father and to tolerate whatever unease she may feel throughout the day. Early in my divorce, when my son was young, his father and I would get together during the holidays, not wanting the other parent to not see our son that day.
As the years went by, we would split the day so that each of us would see him separately. While I appreciated seeing my son on holidays, neither the scenario of coming together for the day or in having him half of the holiday gave much peace.
When we were together, my mind raced through the catalog of reasons why this didn’t work anymore and battled with the background noise of torturous self-doubt about whether or not our relationship could work now. Meeting my son’s father at some halfway point also never failed to incite a bit of competition of who would have a better day with our son.
I became better at looking six or eight weeks ahead to have a place to go on the holidays. And more often than not, my planning did not instigate any urgency for whomever I reached out to. I didn’t want to appear needy or desperate, but I silently hoped that a family member or friend would know how anxiety-producing it was to spend a holiday alone, feeling inadequate because I no longer had an entity that I could point to where I knew I belonged.
When your children become the only embodiment of what family is for you, and this is split with the other parent, it is unsettling and it is easy to think of yourself as not enough. The best gatherings I had were with other divorced and single mothers. We weren’t questioned or judged.
There wasn’t the tension of how you ended up where you did. We all knew each other’s stories and we didn’t care about them anymore. The series of decisions that evolved into our current landing spot was old news. We were no longer insecure, threatened, or less than.
Don’t Let The Holidays Be Defined By Your Expectations
It took many years of cycling through the pattern of on-again-off-again co-parenting holiday-time to look at the holidays as a time that was not defined or constricted by expectations. I was beholden to no one. I didn’t have to ingratiate myself with a friend or family member. Another option was to volunteer at a shelter or organization or to be free to go to a movie, or simply to hang around home until it was time to retrieve my son.
I encouraged my friend to invite herself over to her ex’s house. Maybe it would be enough for her. I also told her to have a plan B, C, and D, including going to a spa, spending the day with friends, or to think creatively and find a way to construct a toolbox of positive, self-affirming actions that would lift her out of the inevitable sense of loss that the holidays without her children might evoke.
I asked her to also consider volunteering at a shelter that day, or even on a regular basis. Our worlds become isolated and insular when we feel inadequate and as though we have failed at a relationship and/or our children.
But we can let go of these doubts and transform them through giving back. It won’t erase the missing entirely, but it will broaden our perspective on how circumstances shape lives. Giving to others is the highest form of self-care because it is through this that we are making our immediate worlds a better place, a kinder, compassionate expansion of how we want to live.
Remember: you can enjoy holidays without the kids. The small and large decisions that added up to the larger decision to leave the relationship will be poignant during the season of little daylight and high expectations for happiness and celebration.
With a little creative thinking and the courage to reach toward others, holidays without our children can be reconstructed anew. It is an opportunity to invent new traditions and customs that are satisfying and rewarding in their own right.
Jane Binns grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and now lives in Denver, Colorado. She is the author of Broken Whole: A Memoir (She Writes Press, Nov. 2018), and the recipient of the Jack Kerouac Award for Prose from Naropa University, 1998. She shared custody of their son with her ex-husband until his death in 2014. www.janebinnswrites.com