Navigating the Holidays as an Adult Child of Divorce
At Christmas, decisions for an adult child of divorce become especially difficult, with both parents vying for your loyalty and attention.
I never wanted a stepmom. And I certainly never wanted my kids to have a stepgrandmother.
But when my first daughter was 6 weeks old, my mom left my dad. It had been a long time coming. And from every professional’s advice, he certainly deserved it. No one faulted her for it.
I was glad they waited so long to end their marriage. I never wanted to be a kid with divorced parents. Now, at the same time I was learning to be a mother, I found myself adjusting to becoming an adult child of divorce.
How do you navigate that? No one else knew, either.
My husband was a child of divorce, but that happened when he was a boy. He knew what a 7-year-old should and shouldn’t do. But he didn’t have any suggestions for his 28-year-old wife. He fit the template of those who became children of divorce when they were young enough for the court to mandate shared holidays.
Vying for your loyalty
During the holidays, decisions for an adult child of divorce become especially difficult. Whose house do you choose to spend Christmas at? It gets complicated when both parents are vying for your loyalty and you don’t have the judge’s visitation decree as a safe excuse.
It hasn’t been easy. My dad remarried three years ago. Gaining a stepmom was a new challenge to tiptoe into. Thankfully, my now 6-year-old daughter and her 4-year-old sister think two sets of families is all the more fun.
As the grown-up, it’s a lot to juggle the schedule—and emotions and expectations—of multiple parent and grandparent figures. I have seen though, that it’s worth finding a way to make it work. Here are some ways we’ve been able to pull it off.
First, we set the holiday schedule inside our own home before we plan with our extended family. Then my husband and I talk through countless options of travel, stressors, tired kids, tired grandparents, cousin complexities, etc.
Once we have our own family expectations sorted out, we communicate with our own parents individually to learn their expectations. Before committing to any extended family plans, we talk through it again, agreeing on what works for our family. Finally, we report back to our own parents one-on-one to nail down the Christmas schedule.
We can’t prevent all the problems by discussing what-ifs, but we can prepare ourselves for appropriate attitudes and responses. And being in agreement with each other reduces the stress between the two of you as you step into other complicated situations.
As much as possible, plan out holiday activities in advance, even small ones. If your parents aren’t in an amiable place to conduct one big civil celebration for the family’s sake (and what newly divorced parents are?), then you know you’ll have to fill your calendar with multiple family get-togethers.
It’s true there’s only one Christmas morning. Remember, though, that other family time can be equally special. Maybe plan Christmas Eve with one parent and Christmas morning with the other. And use the days before Christmas Eve strategically. Consider swapping in years to come if there are traditions you and your children want to experience at each home.
Let yourself off the hook.
All of this got a lot easier the day I stopped thinking it was my job to placate both of my parents. Yep, I said it and I mean it.
I’ve wondered why peers, who were young at the time of their parents’ divorce, thought it was their fault. It seems so obvious it wasn’t. They, in turn, wonder why any adult child of divorce thinks we are responsible for a peaceable solution. We might be well meaning, but we’re also wrong.
Your dad will be sad on Christmas morning when you’re not there. Your mom will be hurt on Christmas Eve when her grandbabies are cuddling with their stepgrandma. You’ll find yourself feeling something is missing, thinking fleetingly of the other parent alone on an important family day.
But that’s okay. It’s not your job to make all the hard feelings go away. You can’t anyway. Enjoy the family you’re with while you’re with them. It doesn’t mean you love the other parent any less, even if they feel like (or outright say) it does.
Let your parents off the hook.
Sure, your parents made promises they didn’t keep. You had dreams for what your adult life would look like … raising your kids with married grandparents and intact family traditions.
But it’s time to forgive your parents and choose to honor them anyway. As adult children of divorce, we can admit our disappointment runs deep. We can also recognize our parents are likely still suffering the grief of broken dreams, too.
Let your kids off the hook.
When I start thinking about how my daughters should say thank you and sit straight and not fight and wear the right hair bow and eat the full helping of the weird holiday salad, I make all of us crazy before Christmas ever starts. Phew! I’m getting anxious already.
My husband helps me remember kids will be kids every day of the year. We can require them to be kind and respectful, but it’s important to maintain age-appropriate realities. And to not put pressure on them to quickly adjust to new stepfamily faces present around the holiday table.
Commit to commitment
See? Easy peasy … except, not really. Handling the holidays as an adult child of divorce is doable, though. Honoring your mom will be complex. Honoring your dad will take work. Adding multiple extended family times to your December calendar will take time and money you might rather spend on something else. But following the biblical command to honor your parents won’t let you down.
Every year when we start the holiday-juggling conversations, my husband pulls me close and whispers, “Let’s stay married.” So one last encouragement as you head into some complicated holiday celebrations: Renew your commitment to each other. Resolve to be the Gigi and Pop huddled around the same Christmas tree in 40 years, cooking the same turkey and stuffing, roasting marshmallows with your grandkids over the same fire.
That won’t be easy either. But your kids and grandkids will surely thank you that you’ve spared them the complexity of a stepfamily Christmas. And living a life of commitment to each other will certainly be worth it.
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