Photo courtesy of LenDog64/Flickr Credits: Photo courtesy of LenDog64/Flickr
Our annual holiday trip to Arizona went forward, but that year was different. Trip preparations suddenly included negotiating how much time we would each have with our two boys and arranging for the right travel consent letters to be signed by the right lawyers. Carrying my kids through an airport and dragging all the luggage by myself became poignant. I cried at the gate, relieved that I'd made it and suddenly aware that nothing would ever be the same again.
Simone Finkelstein's first holiday without her boys was emotional, too. "The anxiety and anticipation of not seeing them for an extended period over the holidays was really rough," says the mom of two. "As a parent, you have to be excited for your kids without breaking down, but it was really hard. I wasn't used to not seeing them. I cried when they left."
According to Andrea Share, a Thornhill, Ont., social worker who specializes in family counselling and trauma, the first holiday season alone can feel like a period of grieving. "It will be difficult, different, lonely, but you've got to cut yourself some slack," she says. "It's OK to have a rough day, to cry or to be in a bad mood. Things aren't normal and it's OK if your feelings aren't festive."
She says that the holidays are filled with intense emotions as it is, but change is good. "It's how you slant it. Often, it's all about your attitude." Share recommends some strategies for turning around your thinking and making the best of the holidays post-separation or divorce.
Communication is key. Set plans with your ex in stone so you know your schedule. If you are able to talk to one another, you can also coordinate trips and gifts to avoid duplication.
Plan ahead. The first of everything is the hardest, and while it won't be easy, planning ahead of time helps. Prepare yourself for what the holiday schedule looks like, and figure out what you will do when you're with the kids and what you will do when you're apart so that you'll feel more in control.
Listen to your kids. Make sure you take the time to talk to them about their feelings. Some kids will be able to express themselves, while others will internalize. Make sure you're available for them and involve them in decision-making. Validate how they are feeling and assure them that they are still special, and so are the holidays.
Start new family traditions. Your kids might pine for what was and miss old traditions, such as decorating the Christmas tree together or going for a family skate, but this can be a time to do something new. Ask your kids—maybe they'd like to make volunteering part of the holiday season. This is a good opportunity to remind yourself how thankful you are for what you have.
Keep busy. Visit family and friends and attend holiday parties. Being around people helps ease loneliness and provides a welcome distraction.
Don't compete. Your kids will remember the holiday experience, not which parent gave the bigger or more expensive gift. Adhering to this will also help you avoid going over your budget.
Watch out for warning signals. When the holidays fall short of expectations, we turn to unhealthy coping strategies, like excessive drinking, overeating and overspending. You want to nip that behaviour in the bud. It's only masking your feelings. This is the time to reach out to your support network—family, friends or a professional.
Let go of the guilt. You may feel bad about how different this year is than previous years. You may think that everyone else's family is more successful and functional than yours, but it's not always the case.
Simone incorporated many of these strategies into her postmarital holiday regimen—and still does to this day. "When I don't have my kids, I make plans with friends and keep busy. I do all the projects around the house that I've been putting off throughout the year," she says. "I will never be happy about extended periods away from my kids during the holidays, but I always know that next year will be easier."
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