How To Cope With Your First Christmas As A Separated Parent
The number of separated and divorced people increased by 8.9 percent between 2011 and 2016 rising from 203,964 to 222,073. In Census 2016, 20 percent of separated or divorced men were living in households with children. That's compared to over 50 percent of women.
That's a lot of men and women reading this. Are you one of them?
Maybe you, like a lot of people, are facing into your first or second Christmas as a separated parent.
How can you be sparkly and happy when you feel like you're on the floor, struggling to find order in the debris of a broken relationship? Everything around us tells us that family is king, happiness rules and life is one big gift-wrapped bundle of glittery joy!
But that's torture if you're hurt, betrayed, lonely, angry, or ridden with guilt.
You might be wondering how to ignore your feelings and make Christmas as magical as possible for the kids. After all, Christmas was invented for kids, the Christmas we have here at least.
First the bad news: There is no magic formula, and we can't really "ignore" feelings.
But over the years I've helped (I hope!!) people come up with plans to make Christmas as easy as possible despite those feelings - maybe even enjoyable! Which might seem hard to believe, especially if fun is a distant memory... But here are some ideas:
If resentment is the king of your feelings right now, pick a number of days, mark them green on your calendar, and make a decision to put aside your resentment towards your ex-partner until the green ends. It's temporary, you can go back to hating later, if it still serves you.
Use this time to talk to your children, if they are old enough, about where they'd ideally like to be and with whom on Christmas morning and during their school holidays. Make it clear that you are simply asking where they'd like to be - you are not asking them to choose between you and your ex. Reassure them that both you and your ex will be OK with whatever they decide.
That might be a big huge lie at some level - or all levels! You might be devastated by their response, but this Christmas stuff is about them. If you are upset, please find someone to talk to about it. You needn't carry this pain by yourself.
Take time to negotiate this time-sharing with your ex-partner. Do this in person if possible, by phone/ FaceTime/ Skype if not. Because who here hasn't got into a truckload of nasty by having a "discussion" over text??
Make sure that all arrangements are then followed up in writing and are crystal clear - even if your separation is amicable. Amicable can go nuclear in milliseconds if there is a misunderstanding. This might seems overly cautious, but as you may have learned elsewhere the hard way - as I have - if it's not in writing, it never happened.
Make sure your kids have a copy of the arrangement, and that any changes no matter how small are communicated to them as soon as they're decided. Age appropriate of course - and you are the best of judge of that.
Make an effort (it might be a huge effort) not to criticise your ex (and/or their new partner if there is one) in front of your children. This is a general tip but I'm super aware that this time of year it's extremely challenging not to sigh, roll the eyes, or worse... Especially if notice your ex being financially mean or controlling, or wanting more than their fair share of child time, or indeed wanting less.
Then there's the whole 'competing-with-gifts' weapon. There are so many 'maybes' here that are Christmas specific - it might be hard to keep your mouth shut. I get it.
Remember that everything you say and do is made into a little memory by a bunch of neurons in your children's brains. And you are (both) in the beautiful and privileged position of influencing what shape they take.
Know that traditions change. Give yourself some time to think about what you'd like Christmas to look like from now on. You don't have to keep everything the same for the children - change is OK! If you think about it it's already happened - so why not control some of this change by, well, rebranding? Maybe put the tree somewhere else in the house, maybe have something instead of a tree!
Surround yourself with people who you trust so that you don't feel too isolated or lonely. You will likely feel isolated and lonely, there's no preventing it, and there's no shame in it. And this time of year is trigger city - you're not immune, so please give yourself permission to feel sad, to feel grief. It's normal, you're normal. AND, you deserve some fun!
Do your best not to interrogate your kids about what they did with your ex. If they want to tell you they will. Your next challenge might be to not to take things personally if had they fun there. They may be afraid of hurting your feelings by telling you they loved the AWESOME gift that Daddy's girlfriend gave them.
They're not saying that they prefer your ex or their new partner to you - they're telling you they like the object that was given to them. And if they do like daddy's new girlfriend, isn't that better for them than being in a place where they are afraid or uncomfortable? They love you - that is not at risk here.
It isn't a competition and never will be. That can be hard to remember when we are feeling sad and vulnerable. Especially if we've been betrayed.
Remember that your children are children, not messengers. Tempting as it may be...
There is no need to buy them better or more gifts than usual to 'make up for' the separation. Their pain is normal, like yours. Toys won't disappear pain. Children need to learn that these feelings are hard but manageable, and the healthy way to deal with them is to express them and get support.
This will mean witnessing your children's pain, but no better witness than you. Just be there. That's enough. That's parenting aced. And it's Christmas aced.
These ideas may or may not fly with you - that's OK. There's no 'right' way to do this. Either way, there are important exceptions: if your ex was or is abusive to you or your kids, then a lot of these ideas won't be appropriate or wise. Prioritise safety for you and your kids. The Christmas period offers no respite from domestic violence in all its forms. Some evidence suggests that in fact, it worsens. If you need to stay away, then please, stay away.
For further help or advice, you can contact Womens' Aid Helpline: 1800 341 900 or Samaritans: 116123
Sally O’Reilly is the Family Psychology Experthere at FamilyFriendlyHQ. She's a Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor in private practice in East Cork with twenty years’ fulltime experience. She has a special interest in working with teenagers. For more info contact her through her site sallyoreilly.comor on Twitter @psychosalor Facebook at Sally O'Reilly Psychology & Psychotherapy.
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