As you are probably aware, the all-consuming “Holiday Season” is upon us, and for those of us struggling on the precipice of divorce, the pressure can be on to put on a happy face for the sake of the kids during what is supposed to be a time of joy. If all else fails, and divorce is an inevitability, is faking it for the holidays really the right way to go in order to preserve some sense of security for your soon to be broken home? Or is it better to be honest with your kids about the state of affairs, so that they can begin the new year with realistic idea about the future? The truth is there are no easy answers when it comes to the breakdown of familial relationships, and whether the news becomes before or after the holiday season, the kids are going to feel it the most. HOW you choose to break the news can be far more important than when you choose to do it.
First of all, give your kids some credit. Unless your children are very young, or otherwise impaired, they probably know something is up. If they have gone to a friend’s house where the parents are happy, they will know the difference between that situation and the relationship of their own parents. Also, if they have any friends at all that have experienced divorce, the idea is already floating around in their consciousness, because kids talk to each other. If mom and dad fight, or if one or both parents are seen trying to hide tears or signs of unhappiness, they wonder if divorce is being considered.
In these situations, it does the child no good to see their parents swallowing their unhappiness in favor of keeping the peace. This gives the negative impressions about marriage, relationships, and conflict resolution. Many experts agree that there are major psychological risks for children exposed to environments laden with anger, frustration, and pain. They see their parents making these poor relationship decisions and can be conditioned to repeat those choices in their own relationship dealings.
The other side effect of trying to preserve family unity for the sake of the children is that parents are often so consumed with their own inner turmoil that the very reason to do so is avoided and neglected, by which we mean those kids you love so much. If you are incapable of dealing with your soon to be ex in a way that is civil and/or respectful, your natural inclination will be to avoid situations where you will interact. If you are both avoiding those circumstances, who is addressing the physical and emotional needs of your children? Certainly not both of you at once, and maybe not either of you since you can’t communicate in a meaningful way. To your kids, this either indicates a problem with your relationship, or they will naturally infer that the problem is with THEM. That is one of the most common obstacles that impede healing and happiness for children after the divorce is final-their propensity to blame themselves for the breakdown of the primary adult relationships. Therefore, you must control the narrative by communicating ahead of time.
Get ahead of their inner dialogue, their doubts, and self-blame. Have that difficult conversation alone with your spouse in which hopefully you can agree that you want to make the separation as easy as possible on the children. Discuss what is appropriate to tell them and come up with some bullet points that you can agree on, such as that the kids are still loved, not at fault, and that both parents will still be a part of their lives. It is very important that you agree to these points before you meet with the kids, because they will look to you to make things ok. The more positive you are (or at least can sound), the better they will be able to handle the change.
When you finally do sit the kids down and tell them the news, make it as much in advance of the actual holidays as humanly possible, so as to disassociate that day from the memory of them finding out that their world is going to change forever. Be frank, be concise, be loving-stick to the talking points that were agreed upon by both of you, and if they ask a question you don’t feel comfortable answering honestly, be honest about the fact that you can’t answer because you too are sad…after all, you are losing the family you are accustomed to as well, and you are entitled to your own grief. This can give your children the message that it is ok to be sad, but that you are ALL feeling that way, and you will all weather the storm together.
One of the negative “side effects” of wanting to have a good holiday season is the pressure we put on ourselves to make those days live up to the idealized version we carry around in our heads from the past. Keeping a few things in mind when planning the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s can ensure a better holiday for you and for any loved ones you may be responsible for.
We all want to bake the cookies, decorate the house, buy the perfect gifts, wrap them, meet your friends for Yuletide cheer, and prepare that magazine worthy holiday meal while hosting the entire family in a fashionable outfit. Even with the usual amount of time between the holidays, this can be an impossible goal, but this year has almost a whole week less time to do it all! Something has to give, and the sooner you accept this fact, the sooner you can come to grips with what needs to be done.
Think about what your demeanor is like when you stress about making these times perfect. Can you possibly have fun or enjoy your time with loved ones if you are mentally calculating all the tasks you still must do before the clock runs out? How much do you really need to put those lights up on the outside of your house, if you already have a lit and decorated tree inside to enjoy while snuggling with your family? Honestly, if you think the kids would rather have the lights up than watch a holiday movie together with you, maybe you should pose the question directly to them! Chances are pretty good that family time-where you are present and in the moment with them- is far preferable to impressing neighbors and passersby with your yearly inflatable snow globe on the front lawn.
The fact of the matter is the holidays (no matter which you celebrate) are about spending quality time with loved ones. The cookies and eggnog are great, but they are just trappings of the season. If you truly want to make the best memories for you and your loved ones, don’t put so much pressure on yourself and all those seemingly important tasks. Instead of making ten different kinds of cookies because you always have before, pick a couple that are fun to make and decorate while listening to music of the season.
Better yet, buy those premade logs to slice and bake while doing something else fun with your spouse or the kids or mom and dad! Instead of wrapping everything the night before and making yourself (and everyone around you nuts), invite some friends over for a wine and wrapping party! This will fit in those drinks you have been meaning to have with people you might not have time to see during this shortened season and get a necessary holiday task tackled in the most fun way possible. In doing so, you get to relieve some tension, catch up, provide a venue for all invited to perform said task, and pool resources so you all aren’t forced to use the same old wrapping supplies for another year while not having to break the bank buying new stuff.
The holidays have a reputation for being stressful and exhausting for a reason, but they really don’t have to be either if you keep one goal in mind -- enjoy yourself and the people you love. Be present. Don’t sweat the small stuff and don’t feel you need to prove anything to anyone. The people that know and love you want you to be happy for Christmas, and while it is always nice to receive elegantly wrapped gifts or have a fancy meal prepared for you, gifts bags and take-out may allow you to take it a bit easier and give everyone what they want, including you.