11/01/2012 04:31 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Handling the Holidays: For Adults Who Grew Up in Divorced Homes

Every year I have to make a decision. Should I spend Christmas morning at dad's and Christmas afternoon at mom's? Thanksgiving day I make it to both my mom's and dad's, sitting down to a dinner at each house and being careful not to get too stuffed so I still have time for my mom's apple pie at the end of the night. If I'm honest with myself, at the end of each holiday, I feel much like I did when I was kid -- split between two houses and trying to make both sides of my family happy.

For adults who grew up in divorced homes, the holidays can be an especially challenging time. It can make adults feel like children again -- torn between two parents, not wanting to disappoint or hurt either one's feelings. Although adults who grew up in divorced homes know they are allowed to choose how they spend their time, they may feel a sense of obligation to spend adequate time with all members of their families, which in many cases is impractical or impossible. In the end, if members of a divorced family feel anxious, let down, or upset about how they spend their holidays, nobody wins.

Even though my parents divorced close to eighteen years ago, the holidays are a reminder that my family is not the way my heart would have wanted or imagined it. I've come a long way from the eight-year-old girl who felt such deep sadness opening presents on Christmas morning on the eve of her parents' divorce. As an adult, I know I can control my thoughts and actions, and I am not the same person I was when my parents first split up. Thankfully, neither are they.

When I start feeling anxious about Thanksgiving and Christmas rolling around, it gives me strange comfort to realize that divorced families haven't cornered the market on dysfunction. There are plenty of people who haven't been touched by divorce, but are dealing with equally, if not harder, realities. Families can be affected by death, disease, addiction, poverty and a number of other problems. Remembering that I am not alone, and that others face challenges far worse than mine, helps change my perspective.

Hallmark cards and television commercials tell me that I should feel a sense of warmth, togetherness, and gratitude on the holidays. I'm always happy to have a day off work, and I enjoy the slower pace a holiday provides. But the truth is, the holidays often leave me feeling let me down. I know that countless of others feel the same as I do.

It's amazing how even when a divorce is many years behind you, it is an event that never ends. Dealing with divorced parents and stepparents as an adult never really becomes "easy." After a while, it just feels like the new normal. When you make a decision to let go of past hurt and resentment, and when you realize your parents should not be in debt to you for any bad decisions they may have made, it can be incredibly freeing. The holidays provide an opportunity to put this mindset into practice.

In learning to handle the holidays, I've found the most helpful approach is to manage my expectations. Although my family is no longer intact, I still have a family in a different form. I accept the limitations of my divorced family, and I accept that I cannot ask them to be something they are not. I maintain hope in my life and know that my parents' choices do not need to be my choices, and I can create a new story for my life.