Splitting the Holidays with Your Ex

Holidays can be some of the most miserable times for parents who are recently divorced. Shuffling the kids between parents feels foreign and uncomfortable. But it gets better with time, practice, and lots of planning and communication. Here's how to cope.

holidays

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

The first holiday I experienced after my divorce was Thanksgiving. My ex took our kids to New York City to see his family, and I found myself alone for the first time since I could remember. I’d had three kids in four years and been home raising them for more than a decade. After they left I walked around the house for a couple of hours, circling the quiet like an old golden Lab trying to figure out where to land. I ended up calling a friend who was three years into her divorce and whose kids were with her ex. After talking for a long time, we decided not to try and attempt some (pretend) semblance of normalcy; we would rather surrender to the misery we were feeling. 

The next day—Thanksgiving—we met at a diner in town. And not the nicest one. We’d agreed to wear sweats, make no effort and go baseball-hat bad. We looked perfectly awful, which suited the near-empty place. The turkey dinner special arrived a little too quickly with its side of canned carrots. As I took my first bite, my friend reached into her purse and pulled out several rag magazines. We sat in the ratty booth, reading trash, eating soft carrots and turkey in silence. And then finally we looked up at each other and burst out laughing. You do what you have to do to get through…

Being divorced at the holidays is so completely different emotionally from anything else we ever experience. And there’s no way of knowing or understanding how it truly feels until you actually have to live it. Especially, and perhaps most important, when you have children. 

I grew up in a household where the holidays were the best thing that happened to any of us all year, every year. Our mom was a committed fanatic. It wasn’t just the obvious—traditions, caroling, decorating, food, movies. This was deeper. Our mom visibly changed during the holidays. She actually seemed to chill out and open up—she was lighter, easier and the most hopeful I ever saw her. Whatever it was, it was contagious. She gave her kids the gift of loving Christmas and being able to count on the ease and fun of it all every year. And I’ve carried that with me and have wanted to give my kids that same experience. So despite splitting up with my husband, regardless of how complicated and un-joyous it randomly feels at times, I’ve ended up creating some of the best and most connected times we’ve ever had. Memories of my mom moved me out of my funk by forcing me to look for the good when the bad felt so close to knocking me down. 

I’ve learned quite a bit in this decade of rebuilding my life and my family, especially during this time of year. The practical stuff is practical for a reason, and can help avoid a ton of conflict. Then there’s the bigger, less tangible stuff that swirls inside us: the choices we make and the effect they have on our kids and their own experiences. Here’s my two cents on divorce, kids and the holidays. 

 

Plan and schedule like you never have before

Typically, division of holiday share time with the kids is covered in the custody section of divorce papers. It includes dates, who has the kids and when, and that’s it. Except that it usually changes year to year. Kids get confused. They don’t keep track, and they don’t want to keep track. They want to know where they will be for the things that matter to them—and how it will play out if it’s different than before.

RELATED: 4 Tips for Successful Co-Parenting from a Stepmom

  • Make a calendar (a big one) and put on it where the kids will be and go and when and how for the whole season: whose house, what event, pick-up and drop-off times. Be as detailed as you can.
  • Add parties, school events, sports, and dance or music performances—anything they look forward to doing.
  • Hang it up weeks before the holidays, somewhere they can all easily see it.
  • Most important, give a copy of the calendar to your ex. (Yes, you must.*) This will help make misunderstanding and miscommunication less likely.
  • Have a conversation with your ex about school performances, parties and anything that involves both of you attending. Decide whether you’ll sit together, and be sure to tell the kids the plan either way so they know what to expect. 

*If you have an unreasonable, difficult relationship with your ex (and perhaps that’s putting it nicely), this planning idea applies tenfold. If you have a reasonable situation with your ex, this planning idea applies tenfold. Reasonable during the holidays can go south in a nanosecond. You just don’t want to go there. It’s the holidays!

These are the details that impact kids

Our first divorced year was when our youngest was in second grade. During a school performance, I sat on one side of the massive audience and my ex ended up on the opposite side. The principal announced that the kids could wave to their parents before the show began. Everyone started waving. I saw my son find his dad in the sea of people and then frantically look for me. He never spotted me. Later he told me he thought maybe the divorce meant I couldn’t go. 

Planning—as much and as thoroughly as you can from the very beginning and letting the kids in on all of it—will stave off some misunderstanding and conflict. If there were ever a time in your life to get super vigilant about scheduling, this would be it. I’m sorry to say there’s never going to be a way to make the holidays totally stress-free or seamless. Married or divorced, it’s still the holidays. But over time the changes wrought by divorce do become the new norm. Every year it can get a little bit easier and slightly more comfortable. My kids now love the two sets of present-opening and the opportunity to celebrate twice. 

Talk it out

Yes, talk to the kids about the holidays more than you have in the past. Ask them what they’re thinking; tell them the plans. Ask for their input, probe, share and stay connected to them.

  • Use the calendar to start conversations. Talk about the break. Anything to get them talking. You want to learn where their heads are at.
  • Your kids know you better than anyone. If you’re stressing, they feel it. If you don’t tell them stuff, they guess it. And usually their guess is far worse than what’s actually happening.
  • Don’t bleed on them. Sharing your emotions and truth is important, but knowing the boundary is critical. Bleeding on them is when you go too far and end up burdening and worrying them with your sadness or fears or both. Teens can appear older and wiser, but in the end they are young and have enough to navigate without knowing the depths of our issues. Call a friend, your mom, anyone but them to vent about the bad stuff. Remind yourself that your ex is their dad. And remember that their experience of him is very different from yours.
  • Always remember: The more you share (of the “right” stuff), the more they’ll share. Talking is the key to staying close. 

Honor old and new traditions

Kids love the consistency of the holidays. They know exactly what to expect, what it will look like, where they will be and who will be there. After divorce, things no longer look exactly as they once did. It’s a change we need to keep our eyes on.

  • Do what you can to maintain what they loved from when you were married. If dad used to make Christmas waffles, you make them or introduce mom’s Christmas pancakes instead.
  • Add something new to the ritual and traditions. Let the kids have input.

But the most important tradition that really needs to become consistent is you. The kids want to see us at ease, having fun and being earnestly OK with the choice we’ve made to divorce. As impossible as that might feel sometimes, your embracing—and believing in—the new version of your family is what the kids need to count on year after year. 

holidays

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

Learn to manage the players

Stepparents, step-in-laws, step-siblings, step-dog, anyone or anything connected as a love interest to your ex is now a player in your kids’ life. Truth is, they probably won’t cross your path too often, though it’s more likely over the holidays. It’s our kids who experience and build relationships with these people who we won’t ever know well. Which can, and often does, cause some unsettlement. This is my version of how to cope.

  • Try to keep from commenting on the players—especially if there’s a new wife. (Call a friend. Or tell your dog.) Your kids don’t want to hear it.
  • Don’t troll for info on the players. Let the kids offer up what they want to share. Trust me, in time you’ll hear it all.
  • Channel the part of you that’s the most grown-up when dealing with the players. Challenge yourself to out-adult everyone else. It’s a good game to win. 

Dig deeply 

Divorce is one of the few chances we get in life to show ourselves who we really are. How we choose to get through it is what ends up
defining the experience for both our kids and ourselves. It takes navigating and patience, so remember:

  • When the ex forgets, messes up or otherwise puts a wrench in something—which they inevitably will—try to keep your reaction to a minimum. Or try to let it go. You’ve already tried that? Try harder.
  • When your kid says something nice about the other players, don’t comment. Try like hell to let them feel it’s OK to talk about what they like about the players.
  • And finally, put your love for your children over and above the disdain and conflict you feel toward your ex. This is mega hard; I suggest reading the previous line over and over again until it becomes a part of the way you think. 

Let’s be honest: The holidays are a hard time for many people. They sneak up on us and tend to shine a spotlight on all the things we feel we’ve messed up or don’t have or should feel. But there’s also a spotlight on all the things that make us feel full and loved and grateful. Find that spotlight and stay in it for yourself and your kids. Merry Christmas.

About our expert

Liz Pryor

Liz Pryor is an author, speaker and advice expert. Her books include What Did I Do Wrong? and Look at You Now. Her writings, talks, and advice can be found at LizPryor.com.