I will never forget the time I asked about the holiday plans of a client who was working through her separation. She told me each of her children would be elsewhere and, when I asked about her other family that I knew of, she told me that she really just wanted to be alone as she could not “face being around happy people”. The season is not always “merry and bright”, particularly for those facing their first holidays after separation.
So, what can you do to ensure you don’t just survive but thrive during the holidays?
Give Yourself A Break – set realistic expectations about the holiday season and how you will feel. Don’t beat up on yourself because you may not achieve what you think is the picture-perfect Christmas holiday. Even people who aren’t separated could take this on board and relieve themselves from a world of pressure!
There may be less gifts under the tree. Your holiday dinner may be catered on a tighter budget or spent with different people. You may still be grieving. Your children may be away from you for the first time. But that is all OK if you set your expectations to fit where you are at and the bigger picture of Christmases past, present and future.
If we live on average to be, say, 75 years old – that is 75 Christmases we will each have. How impossible is it to expect that all 75 of them are going to be perfect, positive, happy experiences? Aren't we just setting ourselves up for failure on a few of them to expect them to all be the stuff of amazing and heart warming memories? Some in the past may have been great, some not so great. Some in the future will be fabulous, some not so fabulous. This present one is just one holiday in that tapestry of a lifetime of holidays.
Create New Traditions - On the road to giving yourself a break around the expectations and pressures of the holidays, it’s important to acknowledge it will be different (even tough) but in the difference lies some opportunities to create new traditions that will be meaningful to you.
Let me give you an example. My mother’s birthday was at Christmas. We used to enjoy planning and pulling off Christmas together, how the day would run and the menu of meals. It was a bitter twist that she died at Christmas. That’s a lot to contend with emotionally every Christmas but it also has left me with opportunities to create some new traditions, such as having rosemary on the dinner table for remembrance and her favourite flowers in the kitchen. It's also let me hold on to some traditions, such as her favourite holiday dessert, trifle. Do others in the family necessarily want trifle every year? No but, for now, it serves me as a way to get through what would otherwise be a tough day so for as long as it serves this purpose, we have trifle.
You don’t have to discard all that you have traditionally done in the past. If it is meaningful and serves you, keep it but if not, discard it. Whatever your new tradition is, make is something you want to do and give yourself a break from the expectations of others.
Plan Your Way Through The Tough Bits - If you know that these holidays, particularly certain events or moments, are going to be rough on you then plan your way through the tough stuff.
You may not be attending a certain event you never missed in previous holidays because it will be too emotionally raw for you or because you are no long invited. What is mission critical is that you plan to have something to replace it with so you don’t find yourself at home alone, feeling maudlin while thinking about how you are ‘missing out’.
Planning your way through the tough times may mean planning activities you can look forward to during those times when your children will be away from you. Perhaps it is time with friends or, doing what a friend of mine did, volunteering at the local mission's dinner.
Will this mean you have to be vulnerable and reach out to friends and family to let them know that you'd like to have some company to help you through? Absolutely. But that is ultimately going to make for you having a more positive time.
Use Your Free Time Effectively- if you have time from work and from children, lucky you! You may not feel that way but you have some amazing opportunities to use this time for yourself effectively.
How can you use the time to look after yourself? Getting in some exercise, some relaxing activities and some healthy meals or working on a project or goal (perhaps planning your 2022) will all give you a boost and help fill the time in positively.
Creating an advance list of possible activities for this time means when you find yourself with a free moment, you can quickly choose something to fill it.
The Season for Giving – the holidays go hand in hand with gift giving. This can spell pressure and stress, especially when faced with tightened post-separation finances.
It is very easy for parents to fall into competing in a gift-giving-Olympics, each feeling the need to keep up with the other when it comes to gifts for the children.
It is also the season of goodwill so can you agree on aspects of gift giving for your children? I mediated one agreement that included understandings between the parents about who will coordinate Santa each year and how they will liaise with the other parent about what to arrange with Santa in terms of the value and type of gifts delivered to their children. Perhaps you can agree to a set budget, do joint presents or agree on who will give what.
It’s All About The Kids – There is no way to deny it – the holidays are all about the kids and creating great memories for them. I wrote about coming to holiday arrangements for the children in a previous blog but critical to making the arrangements work is that holiday spirit of goodwill (even goodwill expressed through clenched teeth).
That spirit of goodwill may mean graciously agreeing to a care arrangement that isn’t your ideal arrangement but which avoids the children travelling for hours on the day between your home and your ex’s.
It may mean you forgo having your children on Christmas Day so that they can spend it with your ex’s aging and ill parents.
It may mean biting your tongue and replacing certain remarks with more positive ones when your children excitedly tell you about the great things they experienced at their other parent’s Christmas celebrations.
It may mean holding back from telling your children “I’m going to miss you so much” as they leave because, although you will miss them and think you are conveying to your child your love for them, it can make them anxious and feel responsible for your feelings.
You practice goodwill so your children have this day of the year unmarred by adult issues and their parents’ separation.
You do it because this is just one holiday of many more to come, one of many brighter ones to come.