Dear Divorced or Divorcing Parents,
We get it. Whether it’s the first year or the fifth, it’s never easy. Perhaps each year gets better. Or maybe sucks a little less. Regardless, you have more to do with this than you might think.
Truth No. 1: As a divorced or divorcing parent, the best gift you can give your child is no thing. It’s not the X-Box. Not the Hatchimals, even if they are indeed softer than anything else on planet Earth. Not the latest iPad with a fancy new Apple Pen. The thing is—and they may not know this because they’re kids so we have to play adults—what they want is not any thing we can buy. Avoid the temptation to turn holidays into an adoration competition over who scored the best loot (read: most expensive and unnecessary). You have a choice, and your children are watching you. What would it be like for your kids if you kept your co-parent in mind when shopping for presents? Or try this on: Join forces with your ex to get one big present that comes from both of you. Think what that gift says to your kid(s) about the parents you can be regardless of whether you’re married. That feels like safety. That feels like love. That’s what they want, though they probably won’t ever say it.
Truth No. 2: As a divorced or divorcing parent, you can create a holiday environment that changes negative to positive for your children. Instead of decorating your references to the other parent with drips of sarcasm or buckets of contempt, you can ditch negativity completely when it comes to your ex, especially around the holidays. It’s not so much what we actually say that our kids remember, but rather what we do for which they hold us accountable. Every annoyed tone, crossed arm, and eyeroll speak volumes. Don’t fool yourself. Instead of filling your home with anger, resentment, or even grief over a failed marriage, you can project calm and a sense that you are okay. Your child is exquisitely aware; do your utmost to convey that your kid doesn’t have to worry about adulting for you.
Instead of reacting out of fear and loss, you can do the work required to present your best self. Simply put, that is the greatest gift you can offer.
Truth No. 3: As a divorced or divorcing parent, your mantra is flexibility. The first holiday without both parents is usually the hardest. Do not be blindsided if your child is sad, angry, confused, or moody. Listen to your child’s concerns and validate his or her feelings. Do not take it personally; it’s not about you. Your kids should feel safe communicating difficult emotions—even though it’s no fun to hear in the moment, it will pay dividends for the relationship you will have moving forward. Regarding schedule, communicate with your ex. Whether following a Standard Possession Order or creating a modified holiday schedule, talk sooner rather than later. Avoid surprises. That said, remember that children thrive when spending time with all of their family, especially during the holidays. If your ex’s kid sister, for example, wants to take your kids to the movies one day she’s home and it happens to fall on your scheduled day, make an exception. This season, after all, is allegedly about generosity.
Truth No. 4: As a divorced or divorcing parent, remember that comparison is the thief of joy. You and your family can only do you. Some divorced parents are able to celebrate holidays together with their children. For those who can — and indeed some can and do — it takes an extraordinary amount of emotional intelligence. The gift they give their children in this instance comes through the modeling of social/emotional intelligence— grace under fire, love over self-pity— what more can we hope to pass on to our children? That said, celebrating the holiday together is a tall order that requires almost total child-focus. This arrangement is unlikely to work long-term as new relationships form and only succeeds in families where divorced spouses are high functioning co-parents. So, while this aspiration is laudable, know thyself. If you think even a minute chance exists that you may throw the mashed potatoes or talk in your shrill voice, opt for a different holiday arrangement. It is okay, insightful, positive even, to understand our limits. Do not get pulled into the picture-perfect holiday cards and annual updates. Do not compare your family’s insides to another family’s outsides. First, because it’s wildly unfair and inaccurate and will do zip but make you miserable, but more because no family is perfect. A picture is just that— a snapshot in a world that isn’t real, just a flash of one orchestrated moment.
Holidays are, at the end of the day, about taking time out of our normal schedules to spend time with family. Do that. Create new traditions while you’re at it. Get creative: what could be a new, happy experience with room to grow with your kids? You can project confidence that your child will stay true to the values you have espoused as a family. Instead of reacting out of fear and loss, you can do the work required to present your best self. Simply put, that is the greatest gift you can offer. Whether your kids know it now, ultimately, they will.
With a mission to provide enlightened counsel and effective solutions that promote healing, growth and dignity, Calabrese Budner is the go-to family law firm for clients who demand better than the costly, impersonal, and often damaging courthouse experience.
Carla Calabrese was a founding member of the collaborative movement in Texas and is one of only five Dallas lawyers to earn the Master Credential in collaborative divorce. When litigation can’t be avoided, Dawn Budner brings knowledge and experience as a former litigation partner with an elite civil firm. In every case, the Calabrese Budner team applies the sophisticated tools that make collaborative divorce the better approach for families. Because compelling leadership means more than a loud voice.