Christmas is that time of year when everyone is supposed to have a wonderful time: every advert on the television portrays smiling happy families. But with 40 per cent of marriages ending in divorce, there are millions of parents trying to make Christmas a happy occasion for their children while there is an ex in the background. How do divorced or separated couples manage?
Louisa found herself slaving away over a hot stove last year making Christmas lunch for her second ex-husband, their 19-year-old son who lives with her, and her single brother. "I wanted Dan, my son to have a family Christmas, so my ex and I agreed to a truce for the day," says Louisa who, although she has been divorced for 10 years, says family tensions still exist.
But not so for Alice, who has four children: three with her former husband Ben, and a son aged 12 with her new partner Ed. Ever since Alice split from Ben he has been part of the extended family. At Christmas he spends the day with Alice, her partner, all four children and Alice's mum.
My mum still looks on Ben as her son-in-law. She simply thinks now that she has two sons-in-law!
"I'd had three children before I was 30, but Ben and I drifted apart in my mid thirties.
"There was no animosity and we decided we'd do whatever we could to make the split less painful for our children. Ben has a lot of contact with our children anyway- he usually comes over for Sunday lunch most weekends - so Christmas is no different."
This arrangement also works for Nicky. Now married for the second time, she and her husband have a two-year-old daughter. Nicky also has a nine-year-old son from her first marriage to Roy. Christmas Day is spent either at Nicky's home or Roy's. All four adults - Nicky and her husband, and Roy and his new partner - buy each other gifts. Both couples buy for the children.
Nicky says: "If it's Roy's turn to cook the lunch we arrive around 11 O'clock. The children open their presents, all the adults join in, I might help Roy with the cooking, then around six O'clock we go home when the kids are tired."
This may seem unbelievable to some divorced couples but Nicky is adamant.
We bury our differences for the sake of our son.
"Before Christmas we discuss what to buy him and make the day as good as we can. It's not easy because sometimes Roy wants to buy him things I don't agree with - mainly guns- but I try to balance that by giving him Lego and lots of books."
But not all couples can manufacture peaceful gatherings at Christmas. Jen still feels raw after she split from her husband two years ago. "We were divorced earlier this year and two months later my ex married another woman.
This year I will be spending Christmas with my two children, who are eight and four, and my ex-father-in-law.
"He's my ex's step father and has been really supportive so we still have a lot of contact. On Boxing Day the children will go to their dad's and I'll spend the day with my cousin. My parents are dead and I don't have any other close family.
"I don't like Christmas but will try to be civil to my ex and his wife for the sake of my children."
Tammy and her three children aged 14, 12 and seven rarely spend Christmas with their dad. "They did once, three years ago," says Tammy who has been separated for seven years. "But he didn't follow any of our Christmas traditions and they hated it. I spent the day as a volunteer for the Salvation Army."
Now her children go to their dad's home after Boxing Day, and all the in-laws send presents to Tammy for the children.
Jo has two children with two different fathers. Her daughter who is now 17 is spending Christmas day with her father for the first time ever. "While she is still a child!" is how Jo put it.
Jo's second child is now 10 and will not be spending any time with his father, with whom she has a tricky relationship. "I wouldn't want to give him the privilege. We shall have the day alone and enjoy it."
What advice would these parents give to other families?
Here's what the families suggested:
• Put your children first. Whatever grievances you have, try to bury them for one day.
• If they are older than toddler age, ask them what they would like to do. Don't make teenagers spend the day with a parent if they really don't want to.
• Discuss presents well in advance so you don't duplicate what you buy. Try to avoid getting into a competitive mode of who can spend the most.
• Don't have unrealistic expectations. Old grievances can easily surface, so avoid topics that are likely to cause arguments.
• Decide in advance how much time you will spend together. Everyone agreed that it's better to have a couple of hours that go well rather than a whole day ending badly.
• Try to be civil to your ex's new partner.
• If your children are with your ex and you are alone, think about volunteering or plan some kind of treat for yourself.
If you are separated with children, or remember Christmas with separated parents, what advice would you give?
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