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How NOT to Do Christmas: Lessons from My Divorced Parents

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Actress Kate Hudson and her rocker beau Matt Bellamy announced this week that they’ve separated after a four-year relationship. The couple have a 3-year-old son Bing, and Hudson also has a 10-year-old son from her marriage to Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson. According to their reps, the split was mutual, and although they separated “some time ago,” they are still great friends. And looking at recent photos of the couple attending various red carpet events together, they do look like great pals. In this festive time, it’s great to see this because the last thing kids need is warring parents fighting over who gets custody on the all important Christmas day.

I should know: My parents split up when my mom was pregnant with me, divorced when I was 3, and then reunited for a few fight-strewn years. My mom then moved in with her boyfriend of a year when I was 11 until I was 15. Meanwhile, my father remarried when I was 14. Suffice to say, instead of Christmas being a time of great joy, I always found it über stressful.

Between the ages of 7 and 10, my mom would want me to have Christmas with her and my grandmother; our family was small (I had no siblings), so if I wasn’t around, it would have been particularly quiet. I felt duty bound to be with them, but equally I wanted to spend time with my dad, grandpa, and my aunts and uncles. They were a more rowdy bunch and there was more festive cheer going on. My grandpa celebrated his birthday on Boxing Day, so my mom used to argue that my dad should take me then. Never having much interest in how I spent my free time out of school, suddenly they were beyond concerned. It seemed to be less about what I wanted and more about what they wanted.

The feeling of being torn ruined every Christmas. As I entered my teenage years, I assumed that things would change. But no, they got worse. My dad and would-be step-father didn’t get along (mainly because my step-father dared to call my dad out on his lack of parental responsibility), so who got me for “Christmas lunch” was a war. In the end, to keep the peace, I ate two lunches. I felt sick and bloated, but hey, anything to keep the peace.

I remember escaping to my neighbor’s house every Christmas Eve where I would sit in her room and weep. I worried about not having time for my grandmother because we didn’t live with her anymore; I worried my dad was upset I wasn’t getting to his house until 4pm; I worried that I didn’t have enough pocket money to buy gifts for all of my different families. Instead of feeling excited and loved, I just felt stressed and unhappy. Like I could never make everyone happy. Funny enough, no one ever asked me what I wanted. They just used me in their own battles. I remember hating Christmas; willing it to be over so everything could just be normal again.

So, to parents getting all angsty about wanting to have their children all of Christmas when they’re divorced or separated, I have one thing to say: Think of your kids. No, not about what you want, but about what they want and how they feel. Chances are they feel pretty darn torn, a little bit sad, and a whole lot guilty — like they’re ruining your Christmas if they don’t do what you want.

Let’s all take a step back and have a new perspective on the holidays: It is one day. Of course we’d all love to spend the whole day as a family, but relationships break down and people remarry and circumstances change. So be a grown up. Ask your kid what they want. Don’t make them feel guilty. And always, no matter if your heart is breaking, act like whatever time you get with them is enough. Cry alone, never in front of them. If possible, talk to your ex and try to work out a system of alternative years with the kids, spend it together, or split up the day. Don’t make the kids feel like they have to see all the grandparents and in-laws, or else you’ll be pissed at your ex. Try and make your kids feel secure and happy in the plans, even if you feel your ex is being unreasonable. If in doubt, be the bigger person. It will make your kids feel great.

Most importantly, remember what Christmas is really about: love, family, friendship, and remembering how lucky we are. (We don’t have Thanksgiving in the UK, so our Christmas is a mix of that as well.) It’s not about winning the battle with your ex and being the parent who gives the best gifts or spends the most money or takes the kids to the best adventure wonderland park. Kids can tell when there is a competition at stake, and it makes them feel bad.

As a kid who went through many teary Christmases (one time I ate my lunch alone, crying, as one parent was busy partying and yet had stopped me from being with the other), I wish my parents had been a bit more mature about the whole thing and made life easier for us all. Ironically, they now get along fine, and when I visit them with my own family, we all get together in the evening for drinks and all is well with the world. Why couldn’t they have done that 25 years ago?! My experience has made me determined that no matter what happens in my marriage, I will always put my kids’ needs first at Christmas.

So grab the egg nog, toast your ex, and wish them well. Don’t sweat the small stuff and no matter where your kids are, just make sure they know you’re fine and happy and will celebrate with them some other time/later that day/next holiday. Then they can have the Christmas they deserve.

Image credit: Thinkstock

Article Posted 4 years Ago
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