Q: My husband and I recently had a very ugly divorce, and he will be taking our two young children out of town for the holidays this year. I can’t imagine spending the holidays alone, how can I get through it?
We need to acknowledge that this is a tremendous loss for you. Even if you are comfortable with the marriage ending, you probably still have feelings of defeat, shame, guilt and pain. And fundamentally, it’s incredibly difficult to send your children off with someone you are in conflict with.
You already recognize that spending holidays alone will be different. I’ll be honest, this first holiday is going to be heavy and painful. But there is also opportunity for you to do some work that will ultimately help your wounds heal, and help your children grow. Let’s talk about how to do that.
First, there is the very real challenge of sending your children off with their dad. Perhaps Dad will speak ill of you. He may not even have the kids call you. You know that you will forever share this burden of holiday co-parenting. You know that will influence your children’s lives, and you have to figure out how to navigate that.
You can’t control what their father does, but you do have the opportunity to set the tone for your own parenting style. You can be the parent that you wish he could be.
For example, send them off with kindness. It’s ok to show emotion, saying, “This year will be really tough for me, and I’ll miss you. But I’m happy you’ll have time with your dad. I’ll be thinking about you Christmas Day and can’t wait to hear all about your trip when you come back.”
Of course, if you aren’t getting along with Dad you may not fully believe this truth yet. But saying the right words is the first step toward building good scar tissue vs keeping these bloody wounds open. Also, if you are the parent who leads with kindness, you influence your children with consistent positive energy and trust. They will trust that you will always act in a consistent, safe way.
Like you, our first responders and those who serve often spend holidays alone. Many create their own special moment or day to share with family. Can you create an event or tradition for the kids before they leave? Maybe you enhance an existing family tradition (like visiting Santa or decorating the tree) with a holiday meal and presents. Or maybe you start your own tradition, like opening all the Hanukah presents in one night. Create a new “normal” that will become consistent in your family’s life.
Now let’s talk about the painful reality of spending holidays alone. When the kids leave and that front door shuts, that’s a very isolating moment. You’re left with a flood of emotions, at a time when people reach out to hold those they love. What do you do when they aren’t even with you?
Well, here you have the opportunity to simply fall apart. If you’ve been “holding it together for the kids,” then indulging in your pain and sadness can be cathartic. It might help to call a friend or family member you trust. Tell them you just need them to listen.
Plan as much as you need in order to get through the time. It might help to distract yourself by taking walks, volunteering, going to church or running errands. If you join other family members or friends, be honest about your emotions at this time, and explain that you may not feel very lively, and may decide to leave early.
Overall, I encourage you to really own the emotionality of spending the holidays alone because it’s a significant moment in your healing process. Have an ugly cry. Do a deep dive on “this really sucks.” Watch sappy movies and go to bed early. The intensity of these emotions may be painful, but if you can really feel it then you are taking healthy steps toward feeling better.
And you will feel it. Your house is probably full of pictures, toys, drawings and other emotional triggers and reminders. Expect periodic crying and mourning as you spend your holiday without the kids.
But guess what, your children are coming back. They left feeling love from you. They will be excited to come back to that love and tell you all that happened.
This first year, you might be “faking it until you make it,” and that’s ok. Year two will be better, and so will year three. You are creating a new normal, and you are showing your kids that you can create a new normal when difficult events happen. That kind of resilience is a far better gift than what’s in their stockings on Christmas morning.