It’s that time of year again—the Christmas season is upon us. I don’t know about you, but no matter how old I get I always have this romanticized notion of exactly what this time of year is supposed to be—time off from work, sipping hot chocolate around a roaring fire, snuggled under a blanket with my loved ones around me, Christmas tree lights twinkling and beautiful music playing in the background.
If that sounds like some sappy Hallmark Channel movie, that’s because it really is. I don’t know anyone—even my parents’ retired friends— that get to have that kind of relaxing holiday season. For me, Christmas can be a pretty stressful time. It has gotten better over the seven years since my divorce, but I remember that first difficult year with almost perfect clarity.
I was a practicing Catholic when my husband left and I wish I could say that I handled things with grace and charity, but that would not be the truth. My girls were 11 and 8 that first Christmas. The good news is that we had always celebrated Christmas Eve with my family and Christmas Day with his. We agreed to keep those traditions intact to keep the disruption for the girls to a minimum. I was thankful we did not agree to the every-other-year tradition that most divorced families experience. We were lucky to live near enough that our system would continue to work.
I remember that first Christmas morning we were apart; the girls were in their room getting ready to go with their father. I was sitting on my couch amidst a mess of wrapping paper. I remember at the time thinking it was a pretty good analogy—I myself was coming undone. There was a knock on the door. I let him in without a word and busied myself cleaning counters.
“Merry Christmas,” he said to me, after a few minutes of stony silence. I didn’t respond, I couldn’t.
Finally I turned around and looked him straight in the eyes and said an expletive that I couldn’t share here. Like I said—absolutely no grace and charity from this Catholic. Rather, it was my husband who had the grace to look abashed. “There will be nothing merry about this Christmas for me, thank you.” I reminded him.
He did not reply—what could he say? And thankfully, the girls came out ready to leave. They were upset, but I was able to keep it together enough to encourage them to have a good time with their grandparents and cousins. I did not cry at all while saying good-bye. I did cry for a long time after they left. I didn’t think I would ever enjoy a holiday again.
I have thought for a long time about how to make this post more positive. I honestly don’t know how to do that. The reality of the pain of those first holidays apart is something that each person will need to figure out how to navigate on their own. The reality of divorce is painful but every day is a new day to heal.
In the end, on that first Christmas, after I cried myself out and took a nap, I went to my friend’s house up the street. The good thing was that I didn’t have to pretend to be okay when I wasn’t. Michele met me at the door and cried with me before leading me inside and feeding me some dinner.
Looking back, I now see a number of things that I did to try to keep the holidays on track.
1. No matter what the cost, do not fight in front of your children. Recently, my girls, now 19 and 16, told me how much they appreciated the fact that their father and I were always civil in their presence. That might not be exactly how I remember things, but I do remember trying not to be negative in their presence when it was time for them to leave.
2. Give yourself permission to grieve. Since the divorce, I have chosen not to spend Christmas day with my extended family because the pressure I feel to try to be normal is just too much and I don’t want to be responsible for crying all over anyone else’s day. It’s okay to choose how you want to spend this day for yourself. There really are options—be with friends, work at a soup kitchen, attend Mass and stay for some time of prayer. Don’t be pushed into doing something strictly out of obligation. You need to be good to yourself as well as others, so only do what you can handle.
3. Things change with time. I feel like I say this in every one of my posts on divorce but it bears repeating again. It’s been seven years for me and even though I have shed a tear every year since my girls have had to leave on Christmas, it’s nothing like that first year. I have to remind myself, and I’ll remind you too—if you have children, you need to encourage them to enjoy the time they spend with the other side of their family. It’s all their family—don’t make them choose.
Let’s pray for one another this Christmas season and remember that God sees our sufferings. Let’s try to use them all to build up the body of Christ.
May you be blessed this season and always.