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Christmas: 1. Me: 0.

I wish I could tell you that I have not posted anything new because I have been so busy decking the hall, trimming the tree, choosing the perfect presents and mailing them in a timely fashion, all while humming a happy medley of holiday tunes. Instead here I sit, wild-eyed and panicked, surrounded by squalor. This is coming too late to be of use to anyone this year (just like all my other Christmas presents! Merry Christmas, dear readers!) but may be worth filing away for future reference. Anyway. In the spirit of holiday cheer, I give you:

My Official Holiday Gift-Giving Guide for Divorced Families

1. The Kids.

Kids from divorced families clean up. In the early years post-separation, their parents’ guilt will ensure they’re buried in loot; later on, the addition of step parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts and so forth will multiply their holiday take exponentially. Therefore, don’t worry too much. I’ve tried hard to stick with basically the same scrooge-like Xmas philosophy I held pre-divorce (my kids, as second-generation-victims-of-broken-homes, get way too many presents from way too many relatives as it is.) In ye olden married days, my kids got stockings from Santa, and one or two (generally utilitarian) presents from their father and me. I don’t go overboard, and they seem to do just fine.

One sad thing: I used to make a point of giving handmade presents–once I painted an old wooden desk for my older son, once I knit an amateurish couple of scarves, once I made a diary that I decorated with cut-out photos of poisonous snakes, spiders, scorpions (the better to repel intruders!). Alas, in recent years I’ve been too busy destroying their home and ruining their childhoods to be as crafty as I once was, but I’m determined to get back to it next year.

I did notice that some of this year’s gifts have a decidedly divorce-y theme, like big LL Bean bags with their names embroidered on them. These will go by the front door (and travel with them) as catch-alls for all the assorted crap that goes back and forth between their father’s house and mine. They’re also getting keyrings with keys for each house–keys come in all kinds of funky metal colors these days, which makes a kind of lame gift (keys?) seem more festive than utilitarian. (We’ll see if they buy it.)

Though it’s not worth duplicating things like hats and gloves (they’ll all end up at one house no matter what you do), it IS worth duplicating any kind of charger (computer, phone, Nintendo DS) so that only the appliances in question need to travel. And if you give your kids photos in frames? Give two copies, identical, one for your house and one for your ex’s.

Basically, anything that aids organization and helps with missing one or the other parent is great. My kids have a cactus collection here–this year, I’m giving them each a couple of cacti specifically meant to start a collection at their dad’s too. You could give them another “copy” of the blanket you snuggle under to read or watch television. Listen, this is good for the soul. Any brief resentment (but that’s OUR special thing, snuggling under a blanket like that!) should be immediately squelched. You want your kids to be happy and secure in both houses, with both parents, right? Good, because anything less would be horrifically petty of you. Take the high road. You won’t regret it.

2. The Ex-Spouse

Speaking of the high road, it goes without saying that you’ve got to get your kids to get something for your ex, and that you should indulge their generosity as much as is possible. But if he’s an X-box, and you’re more an Atari, fret not. Gently nudge their impulses toward the affordable. The important part is that they think of the present themselves, come along with you on the expedition to purchase it, contribute some fraction of its cost according to their ability, wrap it themselves (or stand beside offering small, sticky-fingered assistance) and so on. As much as possible, the present should come from THEM, not from you–you’re just the gift mule.

So far, I’ve urged my kids to give their dad a combination of homemade and boughten presents, small but personal, and it seems to have pleased both the givers and the recipient. They like picking out a candy bar to go along with the more “significant” presents, which always goes over well. I have them each write him a Christmas card, too. I don’t ask to see what they write, of course, but they always want me to read it over and murmur my approval. Which, of course, I do.

This year, my kids are getting my ex-husband a hat. I am secretly thrilled with this present on every level–it was their idea, it was easy to track down online and even easier to buy (and shipping was free), and it’s going to look very dopey on him. I know, because he wore one just like it last winter, to my great and neverending glee, until he lost it. But now it’ll be back! Hallelujah!

However, I also believe the ex parents should give one another something. From each other, not from the kids–from each other specifically. Ideally, the gift will perfectly convey the new tone of your relationship–for instance, the first year after our separation, my ex-husband gave me The Collected Works of Edgar Allen Poe! (“Hey, at least it’s not Anna Karenina,” I told my incredulous best friend.) Last year, on the other hand, he gave me…nothing. Which the kids noticed and commented on, and let that be a lesson to all of us.

This very brand of cluelessness is one of the reasons my ex-husband and I are no longer married–but I still plan to get him something this year, and every year, for as long as the kids are around. The first year we were apart, I gave him a subscription to The New Yorker, since moving out had deprived him of mine. (Though my intentions at the time were pure, it occurs to me as I type this that being reminded of his ex-wife every week might not have been ideal.) Last year, because he was scheduled for a big long trip to a foreign country, courtesy of his job, I gave him that country’s Lonely Planet guide. This year? Well, a book, of course–always the fallback. Of course, one’s disinclination to choose a book with unpleasant marital themes does limit one’s selection quite considerably. (Note to novelists–For crying out loud. Can’t you people write about anything else?)

If I were handier with a camera–if, in fact, I OWNED a camera–I would send my ex-husband a digital compilation of cute photos of the kids taken over the year. That’s a perfect ex-spouse gift, if you ask me–costs nothing, illustrates good will, gives them access to parts of the kids’ lives they missed out on–and makes you feel kind and warm and holy.

3. The Ex-In-Laws

Take it on a case-by-case basis. I give my mother-out-law exactly the sort of present (usually a book–we have similar literary tastes, so it’s easy) I did when I was still married to her son, because I like her, and she’s been quite good to me since the divorce. I no longer supervise the presents TO her FROM the kids (that, I figure, is her own son’s purview these days–and I confess I do not know whether he has stepped up to the plate.) My ex-brother-in-law and family? I sent something to my nephews two years in a row–nothing big, just a game or some sporty thing I thought they’d both like–and signed it from the kids and me, but never got a thank-you or acknowledgment of any kind. This year, then, I’ll leave it to my ex to work things out with his brother et al. No hard feelings, but you’ve got to cut your losses every once in a while. And god knows I’ve got plenty of my own relations to cope with.

This ends things on a bit of a sad note–fact is, I’ve lost touch with my nephews, but I try not to worry too much about it. I will make an effort to stay in touch (god, email and facebook make it almost too easy, don’t they?) as they grow up, and who knows? Perhaps we’ll have more to say to one another as time goes on. For now, they’re still close to my kids, and that’s all that matters. Divorce means staying in touch with people you might not want to stay close to, but it also, sometimes, means knowing when to give a polite bow and graciously exit the scene.

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