12/20/2010 01:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Joint Custody and the Holidays: A Side of Sadness With My Cheer

All of the season's greetings begin with "Merry" or "Happy," but the holidays sure have a way of highlighting the misery in our lives, too. Even when I'm not feeling particularly sad in the moment, December has a way of prompting me to dwell on what has been sad in my life. I guess there's something about seasonal traditions that unearth memories, and something about memories that conjure up darker times in my life: unhappy Christmases during my first marriage; those years I did my best as a single mom; and how I still get to spend only every other Christmas with my two daughters.

This is an "off" year for me. My girls will be spending a week with their dad over Christmas and then joining me and my husband for New Year's. I should be used to it by now -- it will be my fourth Christmas without them. But it's still hard.

I try cheering myself up by focusing on the nice perks that go along with a shared custody lifestyle. Several of our friends like to say how lucky my husband and I are to have regular "built in childcare" (aka ex-spouses). One of our friends often jokes that he and his wife need to figure out how to get themselves an ex-spouse they can regularly send their kids to.

Divorce isn't something I like joking about, really, but I see what he means. Every other week Jason and I have four kid-free days together. We cook expensive food and eat at about the time we'd otherwise be herding the kids up to bed. We drive up to Chicago and spend the weekend going to hear bands and eating burritos at 2 a.m. In general, we have time to refuel, strengthening our bond as a couple. We are lucky to have that time, and to know that our kids are happy and safe, with people who love them as much as we do.

But there's another side to that coin, of course. We don't get to choose when we see the girls and when we don't. Sometimes we miss important moments with them, and fairly often we just plain miss them, in general. And then there are the holidays. Christmas morning without your children, asking for hot cocoa and digging into their stockings, hardly seems worth getting out of bed to celebrate.

I know that Christmas is worth celebrating, though, so all I can do is pause and wonder how to approach this aspect of my life. Living a divided existence is not at all what I wanted for myself or my children, but it's something I can't ignore or change. So how do I deal with it, and be a wise and loving mom in the face of it? What can I learn, and how can I grow (even though I usually just want to feel sorry for myself)?

One thing I can learn from the sadness is compassion. Being sad helps me be a bit more in tune with others who might be missing someone they love over the holidays, or who might not even have someone to love. I get a taste of the emptiness that can accompany a person's heart, especially this time of year.

Along those lines, missing my girls at Christmas makes me grateful for what I do have. I'm a mother. I birthed two amazing children who are a joy to be around (well, most of the time), and I've experienced the joy of incorporating a stepdaughter into my family. Sure, I endured a difficult first marriage and survived a divorce, but I emerged on the other side, better in many ways for the whole experience. And even when my daughters are away, I'm not alone. I have a wonderful new husband in my life.

Finally, if I really want to be philosophical about my sadness, I can see an important spiritual lesson to be learned. I think the sadness can help me better understand what God's love and redemption really look like, in relation to our own messes and mistakes. "Redemption" is the kind of word that makes a lot of people squirm. It just sounds all old-school and evangelical -- even bloody, sacrificial and downright unpleasant. But since my divorce (and my turning away from God and ultimate return), I've become rather fond of the word.

What I'm learning is that being redeemed isn't about magically "recovering" and walking away from the messes you make, with a clean slate. It isn't about everything being shiny and perfect (no, not even Christmas). Redemption, from what I can tell, is about gathering the pile of mess to you and offering it up, to see what beautiful new thing can be made from the wreckage.

It's like crafting a delicious meal out of an assortment of whatever you can find in the fridge, or creating a beautiful work of art from objects found at the dump or in a recycling bin. It's reclaiming what you might at first want to throw away, and embracing it -- looking at it in a new light, using new tools to fashion it into something stunning.

That is, after all, what Christmas is all about -- even more fully, I suppose, when some sadness is involved.