Christmas brings extra challenges for fractured families and, as the kids get older, things get even more complicated. Once kids can vote with their feet, even the most civilised time-sharing arrangements – Christmas Day with mum one year, dad the next – start to fall apart.
If the offspring have left home, they may well choose not to divide the Christmas period between the two of you, particularly if it means being hauled out of bed before lunchtime on Boxing Day for a gruelling drive followed by yet another plate of turkey with their overexcited step-siblings.
Ruby’s parents divorced when she was 16. She is now 23, and says, “Since my parents split, I have to spend twice as much time with my family over Christmas, because I can never see them together.
If kids get a last-minute party invitation they can’t resist, let them go
“It was easier when I was a teenager and I didn’t care whether I upset them, but now I feel guilty if I don’t give them equal time.
“Last year it got quite fraught because my dad’s got young kids with his new wife, and that’s fun until they get totally hysterical. Sometimes I wish I could just spend Christmas with my friends, although I know it wouldn’t be the same.”
It’s crucial to see Christmas from your children’s point of view. Forget the seductive notion that what you want will make everyone else happy too.
Christmas is an emotional trigger
Suzie Hayman, agony aunt and author of Stepfamilies: Surviving and Thriving in a New Family, explains: “The reason why Christmas is so difficult for separated families is because everyone is thinking that ‘once upon a time, it was different’.
As a parent, you might be pleased that it’s different, but for your child, disturbing old family rituals can trigger a whole range of negative emotions – loss, regret, perhaps anger and guilt.
“Sometimes children don’t realise where these feelings are coming from, and it makes a tremendous difference if parents can acknowledge that it is tough, and that you understand how they might be feeling. Forewarned is forearmed: if you recognise what’s going on and why, you’re in a far better position to deal with it.”
It’s also important to plan ahead practically. Find out where the kids want to be without piling on the pressure or resorting to emotional blackmail. Having said that, it’s hard to pin teenagers down, but you can focus negotiations on segments of time or meals.
Children should be sensitive to their grandparents’ feelings about Christmas, but the older generation should be equally understanding about the difficulties of the situation.
The bottom line is that everyone needs to be flexible and prepared to compromise. If kids get a last-minute party invitation they can’t resist, let them go. This can seem hurtful to parents who don’t usually live with their kids and understandably see Christmas as incredibly precious. But everyone will have a nicer time if they’re not expected to spend every minute together.
Suzie Hayman advises: “Parents have to remember that the focus of young people’s lives is friends, not family, whether their parents are separated or not. If you let them go they’ll come back, but if you make an issue of it, or argue, you’re likely to set up resentments that won’t be resolved.
“It’s important to let them make their own decisions. And sometimes they will make choices that they later regret.”
‘Now there’s no pressure’
Linda Franklin has spent the past few Christmases on her own with her two boys, now 21 and 24. She says: “We eat and do what we want. They contribute so it’s not all down to me, and if the boys spend time with their girlfriends or on the computer, that’s fine. I still remember the weight of expectations when my husband was around; now there’s no pressure and no tension.
“What’s important to me is that our Christmas is not a pale version of how it used to be, or of how other families do things. It’s a liberation.”
Linda, author of How to be Happy After Divorce, acknowledges that it was much harder in the early post-divorce years when she and her ex spent alternate Christmases with their sons. At first she felt the boys might be missing out by being with her only, and tried spending the day with other families. But it wasn’t a success.
Her advice to parents facing their first Christmas apart is straightforward: “Make an effort, even if you don’t feel like it. Get a grip and tell yourself you’re going to get through it.
“Don’t start drinking too early, pace yourself, have plenty of treats throughout the day, go for a walk before dinner.
“And if you want to weep, save it until bedtime. With any luck you’ll have had such a nice time that you won’t want to any more.”
Seven steps for survival
1 Plan ahead. Ask the kids what they want and work out a compromise together.
2 Negotiate with your ex and be flexible without letting anyone walk over you.
3 Don’t waste time mourning the way things used to be, or envying non-divorced families. Families who say they have totally fun-packed Christmases are lying.
4 Remember, Christmas changes as the kids get older, anyway. See this as an opportunity to do exactly what you – and they – want.
5 Establish new traditions with food and music. You may be surprised by how keen your kids are on creating new rituals as well as maintaining old ones.
6 If you end up on your own, make the most of it. Go on holiday with a friend, do something worthy or just get your favourite grub in. Anticipate the triggers that might make you feel bad and work out how you’ll deal with them.
7 If you’ve got the kids, encourage them to text or phone the other parent.