The holidays are stressful in general, and they may present special challenges for blended families, especially newly blended families. The good news is, you can have a happy holiday! And it is possible to successfully navigate the holidays as a divorced co-parent, even if it’s your first major holiday apart from your children.
I am living proof! I spent five years between marriages and I am a relatively successful co-parent of our two daughters. I have gained some insights about what does and doesn’t work about navigating the holidays as the mom of a blended family.
1) Be responsible for your own grieving. It is vital that you put your children’s needs first; do your grief work about the former marriage or your struggles with their other parent away from your relationship with your children. Adult grief should not taint the parent-child relationship.
My children sensed my emotional trouble, and I wanted to be honest without burdening them. I found it helpful to admit I was sad that the whole family wasn’t together in the beginning of our process. Then we moved on quickly to a positive activity like our holiday baking, gift wrapping or decorating.
2) Be as positive about time together as you can be. If you have a divorce decree, the time designated with each parent over the holidays has already been specified. The courts try to make it as equitable as possible.
The second year after I divorced, it snowed on Christmas Day. My daughters had never seen snow and were mesmerized. I did not want to share them with their dad or grandparents, and I certainly didn’t want to drive three hours on Christmas morning to deliver them to their dad at his parents’ house.
Nevertheless, I did. And we ended up having a wonderful experience: We stopped at a roadside park halfway there and played in the snow and took pictures. There were a lot of trees, so the icicles made a kind of ice castle around us. To this day, the girls speak of that Christmas with reverence, not only because of the snow and ice but because their dad and I proved we were willing to go to any length to honor them and the importance of family at Christmas.
Be as positive about your holiday time with your children as you can be without pretending.
3) Maintain family traditions as much as possible without rigidity. Family rituals help define the holidays. My daughters are nine years apart, so it’s hard to find activities they both enjoy, but they both love trimming our Christmas tree. In the past, no matter how tired we were after the Thanksgiving meal, we would get the decorations out, put on Christmas music and decorate till we dropped. The living room was transformed by bedtime.
The first year my ex-husband and I spent the holidays apart, I was shocked when the girls came from a three hour drive—after a full day of Thanksgiving eats and cousin chaos with their extended family—and they insisted on decorating our tree until midnight. I was glad because it began to feel like the holidays when we did. The small living room in my new apartment was transformed. It looked like “home” with our familiar decorations.
The next day we made some new ornaments to replace others that were at their dad’s house. I was surprised at how much my girls relied on our family traditions, but I was grateful.
4) Make a plan for your time without your children. Work your plan regardless of how you feel about it. Even if you are still grieving the divorce, cherish alone time.
The best kept secret of single parenting if you have a cooperative co-parent is that you actually get time to yourself. Prior to my divorce, like many moms, I considered going to the grocery store by myself a vacation! I planned a writing project while my kids were away with their dad, and I actually got some of it done when they were gone. The seeds of my blossoming freelance writing career can be traced back to those bittersweet, lonely holidays. Creativity can come from the divorce recovery and co-parenting process.
Have realistic expectations. There is not a perfect holiday meal. There is no perfect gift that will heal divorce. There is not a perfect holiday family activity that will make everyone suddenly feel closer. There are only opportunities to connect. Children may choose to connect or they may not, depending on where they are in the process of accepting and feeling a part of the blended family. Wherever they are in the process is valid.
My husband invited our daughters to his parents’ Christmas Eve dinner but did not push them to do so. They had their own traditions established with me as their biological parent prior to my new marriage, so my girls chose to go to dinner with his parents but did not want to stay for the gift giving extravaganza since they really didn’t know all the extended family members.
Tweens and teens in particular may need to take their time embracing an extended family.
Many experts believe it takes approximately five years to blend a stepfamily. Family therapist David L. Brasher states, "If you decide to be a stepparent, be sure to attend to the needs of your own children also. Above all, be patient with yourself, your spouse and all the children."
The following list has suggestions that may lay the foundation for new family traditions:
- Watch a holiday DVD and string popcorn for the tree.
- See a holiday movie in a theater together.
- Go Christmas caroling in your neighborhood.
- Attend religious services together.
- Volunteer at the charity of your choice.
- Bake holiday cookies together.
- Make New Year cards for military service personnel.
- Trim the Christmas tree as a family.
I grew up with “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” Mr. Rogers was fond of saying, “I like you just the way you are.” A family should be a place of that unconditional love where we are comfortable to be ourselves. Blended families must be the place where we practice this level of acceptance.
Creative suggestions for holiday time without your kids:
- Go to holiday parties.
- Play Secret Santa at work.
- Look for a lonely neighbor who may feel worse than you and do a good deed for them.
- Journal, paint, draw or take pictures, even if it’s just with your cell phone.
- Go to the movies without worrying about paying for a sitter.
- Take your partner or friend to a leisurely adult dinner without worrying about child care. If expenses are tight, enjoy dinner together at home.
- Participate in a volunteer project at a local non-profit or charity.
- Babysit for a young mother so she can have time to herself.
Laura Reagan-Porras is a parenting journalist and sociologist. She and her husband have blended their family with two daughters and enjoy the holidays together and apart.