I have worked with many divorced families on schedules over the holidays. There are as many different ways to celebrate the holidays as there are families and there are as many conflicts about how to "divide" the holidays as well. The most meaningful gift you can give your children is to support their having a wonderful holiday with each parent. Why is this so difficult?
For one, there is the loss of that special picture we all have about the holidays. Every family has rituals and pictures of holidays past -- from favorite cookies to traditional religious services and seeing extended family and friends. We keep on reaching for what was rather than dealing with what is, which is very natural to do but harmful to adults and children.
Another factor that impacts how holidays are celebrated is the degree of conflict between parents. I have heard clients say, "Why should I do this for you when two years ago, I asked to celebrate the holiday with my family for an extra day and you adamantly refused?" I call this the negative tit-for-tat syndrome. When there is conflict, the focus is not on what would make children happy but rather on "winning" the children as if they were a possession. When parents dislike each other more than they love their children, the focus is on the battle, not the children.
Finances also impede families' ability to enjoy holidays. There is either a competition between parents about who can outspend the other or accusations about "buying" the children's love through material objects. Many parents cannot afford what they used to; they fear the holidays will be horrible because they won't be able to fulfill their children's expectations nor measure up to their children's friends' gifts.
We all have an ideal picture in our mind of how things "should be." Some feel that the holiday "should be" shared by each parent equally, regardless of the logistics of distance and time, regardless of what the children are leaving at one parent's home in order to go to the other. How can families enjoy the holiday when there is more concern about the time during that one and only day rather than what would truly work for both the children and the parents?
Here are some of my suggestions for getting through the holidays unscathed:
• Grieve and mourn the loss of holidays past -- it's natural. In fact, it is healthy for your children to be able to share their feelings of loss as well. The key is not to dwell on the past and behave as if you and they can never enjoy your holiday again. If you can incorporate some treasures from your past celebrations that made you and your children happy, you can certainly integrate the past with the present.
• Develop new rituals. Children of all ages love rituals. The key is to include them in age-appropriate ways. Think out of the box, sit down and brainstorm all the new ways that you can celebrate. Have each family member contribute their ideas, then vote or reach consensus or hopefully, have one suggestion from each family member implemented. Accept when one of your children may not be ready to participate. Acknowledge that you understand and that how they are feeling is totally okay.
• Be honest with yourself. Think about how you would feel if you had to split up all the holidays. Is there some flexibility that you can utilize to make it happier and easier for your children? For example, could the holiday be celebrated before or after the actual day? Could a new ritual be a surprise day that keeps younger children in suspense? Can you acknowledge your anger triggers that set you off and make you play the tit-for-tat game? One thought that helps is to put the past away. Both you and your former partners were perhaps at different points when the tit-for-tat game started. It takes two to keep it going. When there is a parent who is totally uncooperative, it takes extra courage and strength to realize and accept that and do the best you can in focusing on what will make your child happy.
• Embrace the spirit of giving. I strongly believe that giving to others in need helps children and teens as well as their parents. It helps everybody gain a broader perspective of humanity. Certainly, children will be disappointed if they cannot get what they have been dreaming about. However, there is another kind of gift that is longer lasting -- the gift of mutual caring and reaching out. I have had the privilege of working with families who, at one time, couldn't afford holiday gifts. The families reached out to other families in need, whether it was serving dinner at a soup kitchen, volunteering at a senior citizen center or writing letters to soldiers. The intrinsic feeling of giving to others cannot be measured and may defuse some the anger between parents. It stops the whirlwind of focusing only on oneself.
• Keep the holidays in perspective. Remember that what you do for your holiday is not for your children's other parent but rather, for your children. How do you want them to remember their holidays and how you were with them?
• Join with other families. As a very diverse society, we are all scattered and sometimes away from our own families. It is alright to respectfully ask another family if you could join them for a particular holiday. Both families will gain by the experience.
Children lose their picture of family when their parents divorce or otherwise disengage. How your children will cope depends upon how you handle the change with them. Yes, it isn't easy. I hear children begging for plain and simple times with their parents. You can give them that gift.