From the moment the turkey is carved on Thanksgiving to when the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, there is an endless succession of pageants, performances, services, and sit-down dinners. Navigating the holidays as a couple is difficult, but navigating them as divorcees raising children can sometimes be more than anyone can handle.
“The holidays bring out the worst in people,” says Lisa Helfend Meyer, a Certified Specialist in Family Law and founding partner of Los Angeles-based Meyer, Olson, Lowy and Meyers. “Everyone has such high expectations that are usually unrealistic and usually go unfulfilled.”
While it may sound like some sort of Hallmark-ian movie manipulation, the key to making it through the holidays is to put aside petty squabbles and make simple gestures that embrace the generous spirit of the season.
Tensions are likely running high in a divorce situation, Meyer notes, and the scheduling and familial needs can ratchet it up further. As such, both people are like exposed nerves and it will only take one snide remark to blow everything wide open. So, the first thing divorced parents need to keep in mind, says Meyer, is not to take the bait and allow themselves to get into an argument with their former partner.
“Try and use humor to diffuse the situation,” she says. “Or just apologize. Let’s say that one parent had a Sunday dinner scheduled, and the other parent forgot and took the child someplace else. Instead of engaging in combat over the situation, just apologize and offer another weekend or something else.”
In fact, Meyer says, even in the absence of such a mess up, offering up a day or weekend can go a long way to easing anxiety during the holidays.
“Usually people have legal documents that specify what holiday time is,” she says. “But it doesn’t hurt to offer the other person some time. ‘Would you like Christmas Eve?’ or ‘Would you like the first night of Hanukkah?’ Whatever the case may be.”
Now, this isn’t always the easiest thing to accomplish, as sometimes couples can’t see the bigger picture and are too focused on getting what they want in the moment. “I’ve had people fight over one year of a holiday, not recognizing that there’s going to be fifteen other holidays,” Meyer says. “Life is not going to be destroyed because you don’t have your child on one particular holiday.”
Given that separated parents have to miss out on certain holiday moments, Meyer suggests that finding ways to involve them can help a great deal. For example, if you’re taking your kids to the mall to meet Santa, send them a picture to let them know you’re thinking of them.
It’s also important to note that, if you’re having some kind of a get-together, give some thought to inviting the other parent — for the kids. “It’s a positive thing for the children,” Meyer says. “And, because it’s a group of people, you’re not stuck one-on-one with the person. You don’t have to sit next to them at the dinner table.”
Thoughtful gestures can also extend to things like buying the other parent a present or having the kids make them something for the holidays. If for no other reason, it’s important for the kids emotionally to see that the parents can still get along.
“It can show [the other parent] that you don’t have horrible feelings about them,” Meyer says. “Because the thing that screws kids up the worst is not that their parents get divorced, but that they’re placed in the middle of the battle and the hatred between two parents. And I think that kills kids.”
The other thing to take into account when the holidays arrive is the presence of a new significant other in one or the other parents’ lives. And, when there are pageants, school plays, menorah lightings, or midnight masses to attend, chances are that significant other will be in tow.
“It’s a reality of life,” Meyer says. “And if someone new is going to be a part of someone’s life, I don’t think it’s appropriate to exclude them from those kinds of events. It’s sending the wrong message to the child.”
That said, Meyers notes that there should be some boundaries in place. Parent/teacher conferences and therapy sessions might not be the best place to bring a new partner, for example. Additionally, she says, a heads up for the ex is always appreciated.
“You want to do it in a mindful, respectful way and give them advance warning,” she says. “And maybe you let the person come to the pageant, but not back to the classroom for punch and cookies afterward”
With every co-parenting situation during the holidays, there is always going to be a measure of give and take, says Meyer. The key is to remember that, for the times you feel you’re giving more than taking, it’s not going to go unrewarded. For every Christmas Eve you might have to sacrifice, you will get it back on another family holiday. Meyer says to try and think of it as though it were an investment. “You’re banking goodwill for the future,” she says.