By Len Stauffenger
Hanukkah, Christmas—the holidays are coming. You love those little rascals and you want to be with them; you want to share all the wonderful experiences the holidays promise.
But you’re a divorced dad — or you are getting a divorce — and you don’t want to share them with your ex. What to do?
Here are three rules that will help get you through the holidays:
RULE #1: THE KIDS COME FIRST
The holidays are for the kids, not you. This does not mean you have to give in and do everything that your ex wants. Remember, the most important objective for you to remember is that you are raising children who are going to become adults; you’re not raising children to remain children. They are only going to be little for a few years and even though it is hard to imagine, most of their lives is going to be spent as adults. What you and your ex do now will have impact upon them when they are 30, 40, 50 and for the rest of their lives. Every decision you make should be to promote your goal of raising happy, well-adjusted, emotionally stable, young men and women. Now with that in mind, how do you handle the holidays?
Start with a couple of simple guidelines:
1) Accept what is so. . . .or as I like to say, “done is done.” It is a simple concept but we all struggle with it. You are divorced. You live in separate households. You may or may not be happy about that, but it is what it is, so now what? Usually it means you are not going to have the kids for every holiday. That’s the way it is. For some people that is a painful thought, but you can’t change it, so getting upset about it will only make matters worse.
2) Accept that you are going to have to divide up the holidays in some fashion. It may be Christmas Eve with you and Christmas Day with the ex or vice versa. If you live in separate towns it may mean that this year the kids will spend the holidays with you and next year they will be with their other parent. Always keep in mind what is best for your children.
3) Recall your fondest memories of the holidays when you were growing up. What did your parents do for you that you still cherish? Why not recreate some of those memories for your children? Perhaps you don’t have the best memories of the holidays. If that is the case, then don’t do what your parents did. Instead, do what you wish they had done.
Let me show you how I applied these guidelines to my situation. When my kids were little we simply alternated Christmas Day. I got the kids on the even years and their Mom got them during the odd years. It would have been easy to be discouraged on those odd years when I didn’t see the kids on Christmas Day, but that was the agreement and based on the situation, it was fair, so there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Instead of being in a bad mood, we simply celebrated our Christmas on Christmas Eve. What does that mean? On the morning of Christmas Eve at my house, when the kids woke up it was just like Christmas morning: They opened their presents, we had Christmas breakfast, and we celebrated just as if it was Christmas day. Then to make things really special, my girlfriend arranged her custody schedule so that it matched mine. In other words, her kids stayed with her the same years mine were with me so that we all celebrated as a family together. It worked beautifully for all of us.
Don’t try and match up your family life with the fantasy of “the perfect family.” It’s never perfect, so enjoy the time you spend together and make the absolute most of it. For your kids, they get to celebrate Christmas twice! They are happy and isn’t that what you want for them? Remember, some day they are going to be 20 years old and looking at you as an adult. Wouldn’t it be nice if you can look back and remember how you arranged it so that their holidays could be pleasant and joyous? You don’t want them growing up needing therapy.
RULE #2: START SOME TRADITIONS WITH YOUR KIDS
Start a tradition with your kids; they will look forward to it year after year. It could be something really easy. For example, we have a silly little ritual in my family that on Father’s Day we make hamburgers with brown sugar in them. Now, that may not appeal to everyone, but we’ve been doing it for years and the day would not be the same without it. Granted, it’s not fantastic or expensive like going to New York City to see the Macy’s Parade: it’s very simple. Truly, it’s the little things that make your kids feel special and secure.
Whatever you decide on, whether it’s cooking something unique or something else, make sure to have the kids help you that they participate in the process. It could be as simple as stuffing the turkey. My kids thought that it was “gross,” but on the other hand, they had fun doing it. The key here is to do something with them and be totally 100% with them. Turn off the cell phone, turn off the computer, don’t worry about your boss or your responsibilities at work, or the bills, or anything else. Just spend time completely devoted to interacting with them. See if you can find out something about them that you never knew before. Let them see a side of you that they didn’t know before. Tell them stories about you growing up. You can make it fun and meaningful, by having a meaningful interaction with them.
If you have the energy, I highly recommend a tradition of doing something to recognize how lucky you are. You want your kids to develop an attitude of gratitude. This is one of the most important things you can do to develop a sense of wellbeing and happiness in a young person. Have you ever noticed how happy people tend to be grateful, for just about everything and unhappy people always feel like they have been “cheated” out of something? The holidays are a wonderful time to gently remind the kids that they are better off then many other people.
So here are some ideas:
1) Find out what local charities give out free meals on Thanksgiving or Christmas. Plan for all of you to volunteer as servers on Thanksgiving morning. You will be amazed at the positive impact it would have on your 12-year-old son when he is passing out mashed potatoes to “the poor people.” You just need to make a couple of phone calls in September or October and find out where these events will be held and make the arrangements with the appropriate charity to be there.
2) You and the kids help a family in your town that’s in need. Maybe the kids can contribute part of their allowance. What’s more important is that they participate. They have to know who it is you’re doing this for. Maybe put the money in a jar. Set a goal that you are going to buy certain things for that family. Just about every city in the Country has an organization that collects money and gifts for under-privileged folks during the holidays. Talk to the people who run that, and find out how you can be a part of it. It doesn’t take any time at all; you just want to set it up in advance so your kids know how they are helping. It makes your kids feel grateful for what they have and teaches them some very valuable lessons.
3) Recruit your entire extended family into the process. I have a big family. A long time ago we decided we had way too many presents under the tree. We now do something different. On Thanksgiving we draw names out of a hat. We each buy one present and one present only (for whoever’s name we drew out of the hat). The rest of the money goes to a needy family or a charitable cause.
RULE #3: BE AT PEACE
Ok, this one’s kind of a cliché, but think about it. The holidays get really hectic. This is a warning before the holidays engulf and overwhelm you, to set things up ahead of time so that you and your children actually enjoy the holidays. Figure out the schedule of where your kids are going to be, when they are going to be there, and who they are going to be with. Do this well in advance for the holidays. Are you going to have the kids on Christmas Day? Plan what you want to do, plan your little traditions or your big traditions. Make the day a memory that your kids will always cherish. Most importantly, if you are spending the day with them, spend it with them. Don’t let your thoughts go elsewhere. Don’t be distracted by other things in life.
If you don’t have the kids on Christmas Day, celebrate it with them on a different day, and then do something special for yourself on the actual holiday. This will help you to feel OK about the situation. You are never going to get to do this particular holiday season over, so commit yourself to enjoying it. Whatever your particular religious affiliation is I am pretty sure that your “good book” did not emphasize “shopping at Macy’s.” Don’t let the world tell you what to do. If there is a certain gift that you want to buy and it’s important to you, great! Even the shopping experience itself should be enjoyable, not frantic. Just remember, it is not things that make people happy, it is relationships.
Make the holidays what you want them to be. Yes, there are restrictions, you may not have the kids as much as you want, you may not have as much money as you want, but that’s simply what is so. Don’t fight the things you have no control over.
Remember the Serenity Prayer, which goes like this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” In other words, if you can’t change it, accept it, and make the best of everything else.
About the Author: Len Stauffenger’s parents taught him life’s simple wisdom. As a divorced dad, he wanted to share that simple wisdom with his girls. His book, Getting Over It: Wisdom for Divorced Parents is the solution. Len is an author, success Coach and an Attorney. Visit him online at www.wisdomfordivorcedparents.com and www.wisdomfordivorcedparents.com/blog.