Ten Lessons I've Learned About Christmas As A Divorced Parent

Trying to out-gift each other has never been an issue for us, but I see it time and again in other families
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Most divorced or separated parents are fearful of the lasting impacts for their kids. They want to do the best for their children and minimise the effects that parting will have on the kids’ lives in the short and longer term.

I was 30-years-old with two daughters aged six and two when I divorced from their mother. We managed to part amicably but I still feared becoming distant from the girls. I felt heightened pressure around the holiday season, not least because Christmas is a time that’s dominated by the ideals of harmonious family life.

We’ve co-parented our kids for most of the 12+ years since parting, each raising them for around half the time. We’ve both also remarried and I now have two step-kids as well. With over 10 Christmases having passed, I want to share some of the many things we’ve tried and the lessons we’ve learned in trying to keep Christmas special for the kids (and for us!).

Divorce doesn’t have to signal the end of Christmas cheer!

Joint celebrations; a nice idea but not sustainable

The first Christmas after we parted, my ex graciously invited me to join her family for festive celebrations. While I got to spend time around the kids, it felt uncomfortable and in the aftermath of parting I would probably rather have been surrounded by my own extended family. I’m sure she’d rather have been able to enjoy time with hers without me being there, too. The kids benefited of course which was the primary objective, but we only did this once before vowing to have the girls for alternate Christmases going forwards. While the kids’ happiness should be the primary objective, there needs to be pragmatic consideration of how to make this work in reality, for the kids and the adults.

Out-gifting each other achieves nothing

This has never been a factor between me and my ex, but I see it time and again in divorced families; one or other parent feels that they’ll achieve something by giving a bigger or better gift than the other but it achieves nothing. The kids become spoiled and will likely see through it. The parents will end up resenting each other. The financial burdens of competing with each other will likely hinder one (or both) of the parents and this expense will ultimately impact on the kids too. Competitive gifting is best avoided!

Giving gifts jointly is also hard to maintain

This seemed like a good option for us to keep the kids grounded and maintain a semblance of continuity for them. It also helped to ensure that as parents we didn’t try and ‘Out-Santa’ each other. It also meant that unless we were willing to visit with the kids and each other on Christmas morning then we didn’t have the opportunity to be part of giving them their gifts. This arrangement also only endured for a couple of years before running its course. We now co-ordinate gifts between us to ensure that we don’t duplicate what we’re getting, and more importantly, to make sure that we don’t spoil the girls.

Jealousy can be heightened at Christmas

I have learned that no matter the lengths I go to to make my kids feel part of things, to treat them and their step-siblings equally and with consideration for their feelings, jealousy inevitably comes up at times after divorce. Whether it’s between the kids for gifts or time spent with me, or in regard to gifts I may buy for my wife, there will always be times when one of the kids feels hard done by. All I can do is to continue to act in a way that feels fair and equitable to everyone, and trust that they’ll see and understand this deep down.

Alternating years seems fair and sustainable

This has now become our standard way of keeping things equitable. Our custodial schedule of alternate weeks, is flexed at Christmas so that if she has them for Christmas one year, I have them the next. With this schedule agreed for years ahead we’re able to make long-range plans with grandparents and other family for large-scale family Christmases! We also usually switch the kids between us at some point between Christmas and New Year so that the other parent can enjoy a belated Christmas, exchange gifts with them and carry on the over-eating and drinking!

Preserving old traditions is important

The continuity of Christmas is maintained for the kids by observing some of the same traditions in either home; the reading of ‘The Night Before Christmas’ and the watching of certain festive movies are two such traditions observed no matter where they are. It helps the kids to recognise that while their family structure is non-traditional, traditions of their past can be remembered and observed.

Making new traditions is essential too

As time has passed and our family units have evolved, new traditions have emerged. My second wife and I host a big family ‘Pre-Christmas’ celebration with our extended families and all our collective brood of kids, and they’ve all fully embraced that. We’ve also established traditions that blend the preferences of both her kids and mine, to ensure that our blended family Christmas meets everyone’s needs.

Accept that as the kids grow older, things will change

My daughters are now in their teens (the eldest has gone to University) and I know that the nature of family Christmases will change just as they would in a non-separated family. The elder kids are less keen to switch between us over the festive period and they want time to celebrate with their friends as well. We have all learned the need to flex a little to accommodate each other, and not just stick to a schedule to suit the parents!

Christmas reinforces just how flexible and adaptable kids are after divorce

It has repeatedly amazed me just how flexible the kids have been throughout divorce and in the years since. They’ve taken every change in circumstance in their stride and I’d like to think this has been enabled in part by being measured and considered in changing things that could affect them. They have adapted to the way that we spend our family Christmases and while theirs may be different to some of their friends, I know that they love the time spent with me and our blended family, as well as the time spent with their Mum and hers. Kids adapt and over time, even the most radical of changes in life will become embedded provided everyone is patient and consistent.

The parents deserve to enjoy themselves too

I used to feel guilty and selfish about this, but I now recognise the enormous benefit that the change of circumstances has brought about. Christmas is a time for family, but it’s also a time for recharging the batteries, resting, reflecting and celebrating with gratitude the many blessings in our lives. I’ve enjoyed great Christmases with the kids, but I’ve also enjoyed many Christmases apart from them, spending quality time with my parents, my new wife, friends and wider family. We eat, drink and make merry without having to focus on being up at 6am to watch the kids tear open their presents, and it is done without guilt or regret. I know that wherever they are they’re having a good time, and I know that next year it will be my turn to enjoy Christmas with them.

Whatever Christmas holds in store for you and your kids, I hope that when it comes around it’s a happy and peaceful one.