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“It’s the most wonderful time of the year” — the chorus plays on repeat in my head while I’m sorting through ornaments taken out of the closet. Christmas has always been a special time for me. It brings me back to my childhood and to the many memorable family gatherings we had. It was a tradition to wait for Thanksgiving day to put our Christmas tree, and, as neighbours, we all scheduled a time to decorate our yards and get together and party. 

an image of a decorated Christmas tree

Sounds cheesy, I know! Those were the good old days. When I got married, I continued the tradition in my new home, now with bigger family gatherings, with my kid and friends. We had a mission as parents to make this time of the year as magical as it could be.  And then, my relationship went to shit.

I won’t go into the upsetting details of what happened: why my husband left, the aftermath, the anger, and disappointment….

But that first year after the separation, we were forced to come up with a plan to prevent more confusion and hurt to a child that was already struggling through sadness, fear, and anxieties due to our breakup. I had to put my anger aside, and put my son’s wellbeing first. In this case, my son wanted his dad included in our Christmas festivities. That first Christmas, just a few months after we ended our 20-year marriage, I had to create a plan. Thankfully, my ex got on board and let me take the lead. First, we had a heart-to-heart conversation where I expressed my concerns — how uncomfortable this was for me, and, surprisingly, I felt heard and understood. I didn’t want to ruin the holiday for my son just because the adults fell out of love. 

Would you be able keep the peace at a family holiday event for your child?

Our son wanted to stay home with me, but have his dad over to be part of our family gatherings. My ex and I decided to purchase his gifts separately (something new for us) but agreed the gifts will come from Santa so there was no disagreements or confusion for our son. It was important for us to not be petty and turn the holidays into a competition of who bought the most expensive gifts. We never make it about the gifts, but we had to make sure that the topic was clear. Susan Guthrie said it best when she said: “Divorce can bring out the worst side of an individual.” We made sure to spend time doing the things we loved and alternated spending time with him. . I even swallowed my pride and helped my son create a homemade card for his dad, and even helped him make his dad’s favorite cookies. (And yes, the cookies were tasty and safe to eat!) As co-parents, we made sure to have a conversation with our son to let him know that even though his dad was going to be part of the celebration, that didn’t mean we were getting back together. It just meant that we love him so much that we were willing to be friends. 

Believe it or not, the hardest part of this process was having the talk with my family to let them know my ex was welcomed to our celebrations — especially for my dad, who was still processing the shocking news. I explained how important it was not to make him feel awkward and unwelcome. My family, of course, understood, and that first Christmas went on without a hitch. It was actually fun, and for me, rewarding to see my son happy and comfortable. 

I can’t foresee what the future will bring, but for now, this is how we are making it work. I know that maybe what works for me won’t work for you, but at least taking the time to strategize while going through a difficult process, as a separation or divorce, could be the best option. It was a struggle for me, so I can’t imagine how painful this process was for our child. It’s because of him we try to keep our emotions in check and make rational decisions.

Spoiler Alert… every year our Christmas celebrations have gone smoothly and I don’t want to admit it, but it has been fun as well. This will be our fourth year, and it does get better. We had to adjust to our new way of living, making the changes in a way that instead of causing more hurt and stress, made space for us to innovate and create new traditions. It amazes me how well we’ve adapted. 

I’m not an expert, and this is just my way of coping and making it work for our family. But as someone going through it, just like many other parents, I suggest conversation and planning. Planning is a major factor now because we have created separate lives around and finding the middle ground takes time. I’ve learned to suggest; I suggest an activity and a time, and from there, we make time to schedule and rearrange our other activities. 

Since the topic of gifts can create so much friction among divorced parents, every gift is presented as coming from Mom and Dad. I’ve heard horror stories of one parent competing with their ex-spouse on who bought the best gift and then prohibiting the child from taking that gift to his other home. An unnecessary act of anger directed to the ex-spouse but inflicted on the child. 

an image of a black family with mom, dad, big brother and baby sister decorating the Christmas tree

And last but not least, clarity and consistency. We, as co-parents made it very clear that because my ex is part of some of the festivities, that doesn’t mean that we are working on reconciling. NOT THE CASE! We treat each other with respect, making sure we don’t confuse our son with the idea of him coming back. 
I hope that all of you going through a separation or divorce take the time to heal and move forward. A great resource coming soon is a podcast episode Talia had with a divorce lawyer and mediator of thirty years, Susan Guthrie, where these topics are discussed and tips are given on how to come to a resolution as quickly as possible. If you want to be notified of when the podcast with Susan Guthrie launches, get on our email list so you won’t miss these resources. For now, have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year… with or without your ex.