Strategies for a happy Christmas post-separation

I was chatting to my hairdresser the other day about our Christmas plans. We are both separated mothers and we shared our stories as only those who have walked the same path can do. She explained that she would be spending Christmas Day alone this year.

In the most selfless act of mothering, she had asked her only daughter where she would like to spend the day this time – with her, or with her father and half-siblings. Her daughter had chosen to wake up on Christmas morning with a house filled with children and excitement, so her mother would be waking up on her own to silence and loss. I felt it like a punch to the gut.

“I totally get it”, the mum said to me. “And I know it doesn’t mean she loves me any less, but it still hurts.”

I can only imagine.

My own arrangement has been an easier one to deal with. Since separating six years ago with three children under nine, my ex-husband and I have managed to find a ‘new normal’ at Christmas, with neither of us spending it alone. The first year was raw and full of fear – could we get through it without negatively impacting the children or each other too much?

I couldn’t bear the thought of spending Christmas apart from them, but likewise I knew how much of a gap it would leave in their celebrations if their dad wasn’t there with them. Neither of us wanted to miss waking up to Santa’s arrival on Christmas morning, so we decided that we would spend Christmas Eve together in my house, and the next day we would follow the usual routine of presents and lunch at my mother’s house, where all the cousins, aunts, uncles and relations would be.

The children would get as close to their usual Christmas as possible, and neither of us would have to go through the ordeal of being alone and missing them. That first year was a little tense and a little strange, but since then we’ve refined the process so that it works as best it can for everyone involved.

These are some of the lessons I’ve learned from the past six years – from my own experience and from talking to others.

1 Better together?

If it’s possible for you both to spend Christmas together without World War Three erupting, then this could be the best solution for everyone. The children get to spend the special day with both parents, and everyone gets to witness the magic.

Of course, for many this simply won’t work – and if it’s not going to, then it’s worse to force the issue. Instead, having dad drop in for an hour, meeting up for a family walk together, or even splitting the day between both homes can still work well. Failing that, there’s always Facetime. Not the same, but infinitely better than no contact at all.

2 Family truce

Christmas often involves wider family gatherings, which can be very difficult after a separation when emotions are running high. Your family will always be your greatest supporters so it might be difficult for them to be civil, let alone welcoming to your ex. Add in the over-abundance of alcohol, and situations can easily combust. It’s a good idea to have a chat to family members before any gatherings, explaining your decision to spend Christmas together, why it’s important to you, and how you want your children to have a calm and happy Christmas. If you can bite your tongue to make that happen, then so can they!

3 Comparison is the thief of joy

All the perfect families, with their perfect lives, and their perfect homes, and their perfect relationships… don’t believe a word of it! Three thousand couples apply for divorce every year in Ireland (and that’s just the ones that got married). That’s a lot of ‘modern’ families surrounding us, dealing with their own individual situations in their own individual ways. There are also many more families who may look happy on the outside but behind the scenes is a very different story. Everyone has their own issues, challenges and problems – so try not to focus on the Instagram version of a family Christmas, just focus on making your version the best you possibly can.

4 New traditions

Mourning the loss of your usual Christmas traditions can be hard. But traditions are just rituals that you have built up over time. Why not create some new ones? They might even turn out to be better. Christmas Eve could become about visiting friends instead of settling down to watch a family movie. Christmas morning might become a celebratory breakfast for the children at their grandparents’ house. St Stephen’s Day might be about lying in bed all day watching Netflix with a tin of celebrations and no sugar-crash kids to deal with. Once you do the same thing every year, it becomes a tradition – so build some brilliant new ones.

5 Long-term thinking

The first Christmas is hard, but it gets easier. The emotional strain lessens, the rawness reduces, the kids become accustomed to the new situation, and everything becomes easier to manage. Ticking that first Christmas off your list is a big deal, so celebrate the fact that you will be on the other side of it very soon.

6 Gift-giving

Competitive gift-giving doesn’t help anyone – not even the over-indulged child. The financial impact of separation is unavoidable, so adding to it is only going to cause strain and resentment down the line. Why not have the best of both worlds by giving a combined present ‘from mum and dad’? The children will see you as a united team – still their parents despite all the changes, plus the cost of Christmas is split between you both. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Navigating Christmas as separated parents isn’t always easy – but finding a new Christmas that works for everyone is the gift that keeps on giving year after year.

Expert advice

Dr Sara O’Byrne, senior clinical psychologist at Treehouse Practice

■ How to manage children’s feelings of loss at not having their ‘normal’ Christmas: Christmas can be a joyful time for many but also a time when experiences of loss are to the fore. Rather than trying to push your children to be OK when they are not, try to acknowledge these feelings and let him/her know that it is OK to feel sad, angry, or confused. This idea of simply “being with” your child and helping him/her make sense of feelings will strengthen the existing connection with you.

■ If possible, work out a plan with your ex-partner that puts your children at the centre. Children respond best when they know what to expect and are prepared for change. This will invariably involve some difficult conversations and negotiations with your ex-partner. It might help to ask yourself in these conversations, “what does my child need?” rather than get drawn in to old wounds.

■ Let them know where Santa will visit and ensure there is no duplication of presents. With this in mind, be aware of your possible desire to make it better for your child by spoiling him/her at Christmas. Your child needs consistency in their relationship with you and this is at the core of what will ultimately help them adjust to the changing landscape of family dynamics.

■ Looking after your own mental well-being: Just like it’s important to validate your children’s emotional experiences, the same is true for parents. Feeling sad about the loss of previous family experiences and shared traditions is to be expected. If you anticipate being on your own for part of Christmas, plan for this. Reach out to family and friends and create new traditions. Why not tackle a sea swim or brisk walk with friends whilst your child is spending time with your ex-partner? Figure out what brings you joy and this might look a little different to Christmas day in the past.

■ It can be tempting to buy in to the idea of the ‘perfect Christmas’ and try to create something unattainable. This naturally creates unnecessary pressure. Remember there is no such thing as one perfect way to spend Christmas day. What matters are the little moments of shared connection and these can be achieved without significant cost; playing board games together, watching a movie or going to the park. However you navigate Christmas, keep in mind that what matters most is giving your children the sense of security that comes from knowing that their parents love them just the same, even if they don’t live together any more.

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