This text came through from my son’s father in June: Christmas is mine this year. I want [our son] overnight on Christmas Eve and all-day Christmas.
My first thought was: Wow, isn’t it a little early for that kind of planning? Then I felt relieved and grateful. We haven’t always been this prepared.
My response was: No problem. Thanks for letting me know!
Like many families, my ex-husband and I share custody of our son. We share our parenting time evenly and it comes with inherent challenges. Our communication about the holidays hasn’t always been easy. In fact, I carry around a fair amount of residual dread this time of year. I find myself cringing when people start talking about holiday plans and feel anxious when the calendars emerge and scheduling begins. I can count too many miscommunications and disappointments past to get all warm and fuzzy about the impending festivities.
I wish I could say that we’ve always succeeded in sheltering our son from those contentious moments. I’m not proud that our overly emotional outbursts, born from years of resentment and hurt, led to arguments and hard feelings. Especially during a time that’s intended to merry and bright. But for several years we just couldn’t get it right. No matter how I tried to learn from past mistakes, the sadness about being away from my son and having a fractured family could easily get the best of me. By now we have grown, forgiven, and taken responsibility for not being skillful in our planning.
These days we follow a few simple rules around the holidays. Some of them we’ve discussed explicitly, while others have grown organically with maturity, respect, and the realization that peace matters more than our individual desires.
- Plan ahead and be specific. While it might seem ridiculous to plan six months in advance, we are reaping the benefits of communicating our plans and desires ahead of time. My son’s dad and I have had clear communication about Christmas since that first text. We’ve agreed to stick to a specific schedule so that no one is surprised by any last-minute changes. Knowing what to expect in advance also helps me emotionally plan for a celebration without my son.
- Compromise. Be open to not getting your way. Sometimes what we want is not what’s best for our child(ren) this time of year. And in the case of holidays, it’s important to make sure the kids have it as easy as possible. Be honest with yourself about the baggage you are bringing to the table when discussing holiday plans. That said, it can be difficult to get out of the way when negotiating a varied schedule with your ex-partner. The adults are in charge of the planning and logistics, after all. Do your best to communicate what works for you and ask your co-parent what they need. Asking questions and genuinely listening can soften any tense situation.
- Set intention, not expectation. When I only spend every other holiday with my child, it can feel SO important for everything to be “perfect.” Instead of focusing on making sure your celebration goes according to plan, laugh when the dog chews on the presents and let the pie burn – enjoy your time together, whatever the day may bring! When you’ve set an intention at the beginning of the day, it’s easier to weather unexpected events by coming back to your center. My intention this holiday season might be something like: Today I choose to be present in the experience of our celebration even when things don’t go according to plan; I will remember that the only thing I can control is my perspective. Our family intention could be: Today we will cooperate, laugh, and be thankful. Throughout the course of a celebration I might ask my son to recall our overall goal for the day. Keeping it simple helps the kids remember what you’ve intended.
- Be gracious. Every year my son’s “other mom” invites me over to join their holiday celebration – regardless of how ill-behaved her husband and I have been. It warms my heart to feel welcomed, even if I never take them up on the offer. Offer your co-parent a small gift or send them a card. Say “thank you” for the effort they put into raising and loving your child.
- Take responsibility. So you made a mistake. Despite planning ahead and setting intentions you were frustrated and said or did something you wish you hadn’t. It’s OK. You’re not alone. Make sure to take responsibility for your actions and apologize – to everyone involved, especially the kids. They will appreciate it, even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment. Taking responsibility for the fact that your actions may have harmed someone lets them know you care about them and their feelings. The vulnerability of apology eases the tension in your heart and in the hearts of others.
The anticipation of and expectation for holiday celebrations can be stressful for every kind of family. There are things you can do to be prepared for the emotional and mental disarray this time of year may bring. Remember to clearly communicate your needs and take into account those of others when making plans. Investing in a healthy split family dynamic is worth your time and effort, and spills over into every season of the year!
Photo Credit: Chris Benson