Spending the holidays with in-laws and extended family can already feel overwhelming. When I was married, my internal monologue always sounded a little like, “how many cookies has my toddler been given?” and “Is that my child driving a golf cart by himself into the lake?!” But when divorce and co-parenting enter the family bubble, there can be another level of anxiety.
This is my first holiday season as a divorced mom. My kids are 7 and 4 and are extremely close to my former partner’s parents and extended family. We’ve spent almost every holiday with them, so I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions this year, like “Am I supposed to sit this one out?” Here are some other questions I’ve been exploring as I navigate my first holiday season as a co-parent.
What are my actual legal rights to my children for the holidays?
Of course, this has to be the first question to consider. Typically, co-parents will have alternating rights to Thanksgiving and Christmas each year. Sometimes it can be easiest to just defer to the legal documents, but sometimes you might want to navigate things differently. During my divorce, we set the legal documents this way, but verbally decided we never wanted the other parent to feel deprived of celebrating with our kids—maybe that was a crazy decision, but neither of us could imagine having a Christmas without them. After reviewing the legal side of things, you and your co-parent can more deeply consider holiday plans that are the best fit for your new family dynamic.
What do my kids love about our holidays?
If they are old enough to have big opinions about this sort of thing, involve them in the discussion. Sometimes, we try to shield kids from the sadness or changes that come with divorce, but letting them have a voice in the decisions can be empowering and connecting. I have been casually asking them what they love most about celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas and what they hope it will be like this year.
Depending on their age, it can be fun to make a list together of things that add to their holiday joy and connection like baking and singing together. We can prioritize these things all holiday season, regardless of where they will be spending Thanksgiving or Christmas day. Consider also asking them if they want to try something different? A trip? Or do they want everyone to be together? Their opinion matters and everyone has a say, but ultimately, I have been asking myself …
What do I actually want?
What would feel good for me this year? What parts of the holidays might make me feel lonely? Or interrogated? Sometimes parents (especially mothers) defer to what is best for the kids, but we have to consider our wellbeing as a priority here too.
If, ultimately, we have to spend a special holiday away from our kids, lean into your support. Do you have a sibling or friend who would like to do a Christmas Day hike, swim, or self-care day? Rather than focusing on what you might be missing, make the day special for yourself with plans you might not be able to do otherwise.
What I’m NOT asking myself
To be clear, one question I am not asking myself: will everyone else feel uncomfortable with this decision? Of course, you have to consider your own unique circumstance, but for me, I refuse to let my former great aunt in-law’s opinion of me stop me from spending a holiday the way that works best for me and my kids. If someone else feels uncomfortable, that is their burden to carry, not mine!
How to support a loved one navigating co-parenting during the holidays
If you are on the other side of the holiday table—maybe you have a sibling getting a divorce and are wondering how to support them and their children—here are my tips:
- Don’t let the fear of awkwardness stop you from reaching out and ask what would feel good for them this year.
- Be willing to let things feel different. Instead of the traditional extended family meal, consider alternatives like volunteering together, ice-skating, hiking, or some other activity you haven’t done before.
This new dynamic is an incredible opportunity to try new things and decide what the holidays should be about for our family. And what we decide this year does not have to set the precedent for every year—we can try something new and learn as we go.
Read More: How to Have Hard Conversations With Your In-Laws