#1: Make sure you know the plan ahead of time…and build cushions into your plans.
If you have children, this means insuring that you and your co-parent agree on the schedule. When will the kids be with you? When will they be with your Ex? If anyone is traveling, give yourself, and your co-parent some flexibility in pick-up and drop-off times because holiday traffic is nuts, and holiday gatherings can go long. Propose to your co-parent that transition times be built into “windows” of about an hour so no one will be stressed or angry if someone is 20, or even 30 minutes late on either end. Be sure to text one another if you are running more than 10 minutes behind.
#2: Make sure you and your co-parent have told the children what will be happening at least a few weeks in advance.
Kids get anxious not knowing what their special days will be like, and they get even more anxious wondering if their parents have worked out a plan that will keep both parents cheerful and cooperative. No child wants to worry about a sudden change to an old tradition, nor about parents who seem grumpy and resentful during celebrations that should be fun for all. When children are prepared in advance about plans, and both parents make peace with those plans well in advance of the holidays, the whole family is better able to relax when the holidays arrive.
#3: Try to build in to your family holidays some of your old rituals and traditions, but don’t be afraid of creating new ones.
Whether you have kids or not, holidays often bring on the memories of past times, good and bad. Facing the holidays and the memories they bring up, people often dread feeling the pain of their nostalgia for better times, or they find the holidays are bittersweet – combining pleasant new experiences with a yearning for what used to be. To cope with these feelings, trying to include even small rituals from previous years can be helpful. If the family used to bake Christmas cookies or Hannukah pancakes every winter, consider including that sort of cooking this year as well – in either home, or in both houses. On the other hand, if celebrations are likely to feel very different this year, because the family is not together, and/or because you are celebrating in a new home, work together with your children to think up some brand new rituals in your own house that can grow into traditions everyone will look forward to in years to come.
#4: Acknowledge to yourself, and to your children, that holidays bring a mix of feelings for everyone, and try to take care of one another – and yourself.
When we talk to ourselves, and to our children, about weathering ups and downs, coping with the downs become easier, and the ups are especially precious. Try not to build up the holiday season in your own mind as a time when things have to be “perfect” or 100% joyful. Life doesn’t tend to be 100% anything, even when we work hard at it. The most important experience for you, and your family during the holidays is to feel that you are connected to those you love and to those who love you. Let your children know, and remind yourself, that if anyone feels sad or lonely during the holidays, talking about the feelings and asking for a hug or some other form of support is the thing to do. If anyone is blue, or wishing the holiday felt different in some way, try to accept that pain as part of Life’s mix, and ask the person if there is anything you can do to help. Sometimes just that offer is enough to make someone feel better. A little time and space can also help, and chocolate never hurts.
#5: If you are spending part, or all of the holidays alone, or apart from your children, look ahead and punctuate your alone or apart time with activities that will bring you joy – or at least a measure of peace.
Take ten minutes and brainstorm ideas for things that might give you pleasure, or help you connect with other people. Write the ideas down without editing yourself or dismissing any of the ideas because they are “too expensive” or “too hard” or “too selfish”. Try to come up with activities that range from being easy and free, to being ambitious and more complex. Once you have a good, long list, consider which ones might be feasible given your time, your pocketbook, and your energy. Pick at least three ideas you will try to turn into reality, or can easily do. If some of the ideas have obstacles, see if you can think of ways to overcome those hurdles. Weave your planned pleasure-moments into your holiday time when you are alone, or apart from your children. Having these little bubbles of happy time built into the time when you might feel more lonely will help you look forward to the holidays, and come through them not only intact, but feeling proud of yourself for creating a good season for yourself.
For those of you who might need a jumpstart on ideas, here are a few from the lists I made for myself during the first holiday seasons I spent without my children after my own divorce:
- Buy more flowers than I would ever allow myself to buy normally and fill my house with flowers everywhere….even in the bathroom.
- Pick a restaurant I have never gone to, invite someone I have not seen in a long time, and take them to breakfast, brunch or lunch.
- Look at a list of The Best Movies Ever Made, pick a few to view, get the DVDs or Netflix and spend a whole afternoon and evening watching movies. Make popcorn to accompany.
- Take my dogs to a dog park I have never been to before, during an afternoon when it is likely to be filled with other dogs and people, and introduce myself to some new dog lovers.
- Tell my friends I will be home without my kids during the holidays, and fearlessly encourage them to invite me to join them to do things during the holidays. Pick and choose among their invitations and join them for events I feel will make me happy and comfortable.
- Find a recipe for cookies I think I can make without messing it up (I am no baker), spend all evening baking huge batches of cookies, while sipping wine and listening to great music; package the cookies the next day in pretty wrapping and bring a package to each neighbor on my street – even people I don’t know very well. This is a great way to get to know my neighbors better!
Finally – remember that as time passes, the holidays will transform for you and become, again, a time to enjoy.
Lisa Herrick, PhD is a Clinical Psychologist, Collaborative Divorce Coach and Mediator; She is also divorced, with two children. Eventually she remarried, and with a lot of work, redesigned her holiday traditions.