“As a child of divorce, I fretted about how our family would weather the changes or if we even still counted as a family. Our new Christmas rituals offered both reassurance and revelation: that traditions can evolve and that families can, too. What matters is what you make in the moment together.”
~Madeline Miller (in Real Simple magazine)
When a couple gets divorced, there are the obvious transitions that stick out as the doozies. One or both parties move out. Marital possessions are divided. Co-parenting plans and schedules are created. Holidays are assigned.
I conquered the moving out and division of possessions awhile ago, and the co-parenting plans are a constant work in progress. Today I conquered Part II of the holiday split.
Last month I had my children for Thanksgiving. But even with the security of having them close for the first major holiday after the divorce, it was still quite a transition to completely remove a member of the family from the holiday equation. And as I put Thanksgiving behind me and looked toward Christmas – my first Christmas ever spent away from my children -- I knew my strength was about to be tested.
The part of me that felt defeated and content with curling up in a ball in bed so that I could sleep through the pain of a Christmas alone tried to sweet talk me into ignoring the festive decorations I had just retrieved from my ex’s house the first week in December.
“No one would blame you if you totally ignored Christmas,” that part of me said. “The kids won’t notice because they won’t be here for Christmas.”
But then there was the other part of me, the part of me that somehow manages to find its voice during tough times.
“You WILL do Christmas,” the voice said. “The kids WILL notice if you don’t put up a Christmas tree or decorations. The kids WILL notice if Ernie the Elf on the Shelf isn’t magically hopping from room to room every morning or if Christmas tunes aren’t playing while you cook dinner. The kids WILL notice if you don’t read them ‘Olive the Other Reindeer’ or let them watch ‘The Grinch.’
“You WILL do Christmas,” the voiced insisted. “If not for yourself, then for your kids. Because they’ve had enough change and uncertainty this year.”
So I did Christmas. With a few new twists.
Because, in many ways, I’m trying to start over, the kids helped me pick out a new fake Christmas tree. (Yes, I did fake. A real one was just way too ambitious for my first single mom Christmas.) But then the old traditions kicked in, the traditions that I always loved, the traditions that weren't always acknowledged or appreciated in my household in the past.
The kids and I unpacked the ornaments and placed them on the tree while Christmas music played in the background. We paused to take pictures. We paused to eat cookies. We paused to reminisce about who gave us a particular ornament or why another ornament deserved to be front and center on the tree. And I chose to smile at the ornaments that filled our new tree instead of dwelling on those I knew were missing from my collection because they now belonged to my ex.
I thanked that inner voice of strength for pushing me to carry on with Christmas every morning when my daughter woke up and squealed in delight after locating our Elf on the Shelf. I thanked that voice when the three of us cuddled and gazed at the lights on our Christmas tree. I thanked that voice when the kids talked about buying each other presents, something they had no interest in doing before. I even thanked that voice when my son figured out how to find SpongeBob’s Christmas album on Spotify and played it over and over and over again.
Our family may have looked different than the last time we carried out these traditions, but the three of us WERE a family. We ARE a family.
Because I was passing the children off to their father on the Friday before Christmas, I wanted to have our own holiday celebration the day before they left. I explained to the kids that, after emailing Santa about our circumstances, I learned he was sending helper elves with a special delivery just for them. As I watched them arrange their plates of cookies and leftover Halloween candy (because “candy is healthy for elves”) and carrots (“just in case Santa lets them borrow a reindeer”), it really felt like Christmas Eve.
That homegrown Christmas Eve was far from easy though. As I hid in my bedroom and wrapped all the presents and placed them under the beautiful new tree, I realized I had never done this alone before. This was always a special time for the parents with a glass of wine and laughter about how the kids would react to each gift that we wrapped. There are some moments when I truly miss being one half of a marriage. That night was one of them.
But the next morning I watched the joy on my children’s faces as they read the note from the elf who delivered their presents, as they tossed wrapping paper in the air during their frenzy of excitement, as they showed each other their loot. And I felt a sense of peace.
Our family will never look the same again. Many things have and will continue to change. But many things will also remain the same. As time goes on, I know I will come to terms with that. After all, isn’t a balanced mix of old and new a normal part of life?
Saying good-bye to my children the following day was gut-wrenching. It tested my limits of strength and positivity. But as I hope to do throughout all the transitions coming my way as a newly divorced mother, I decided to acknowledge the challenge by facing it head on, learning from it, and moving on.
Within a couple hours, I had completely disassembled Christmas. The next day I was on a flight to a sunny place where I would be blanketed in the warmth of family. My parents and I celebrated the real Christmas Eve and Christmas day in our own way, building new traditions we can look back on and both laugh about and treasure.
Now, as I close out my second major post-divorce holiday, I again feel the same sense of peace I felt on that special early Christmas. I know that voice of strength will always guide me in the right direction. It will always remind me that tough days pass. And I can always rely on that voice that is a part of me because I am stronger than I think I am.