Expecting Christmas: Navigating the Highs and Lows of the Holidays Post-Divorce

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My first Christmas as a divorced, single mother was an emotional one. I’d spent the last nearly-twenty years making memories with someone who was no longer there to make memories with. As the season approached, I made plans to fly to California on Christmas day and spend a week with my brother and his family; it would be my first Christmas without my kids.

Holidays in general can be tenuous. Add to that the emotional weight of broken or strained relationships, disappointments with how the year has gone, and overly high expectations of your capacity to “deck the hall with boughs of holly,” and it can be tough to find the fa-la-la. I can think, however, of a few ways I have coped through Christmas and other seasons in the years following my divorce when my expectations have needed adjusting. Here are a few tidbits to tuck away that I hope are helpful to you:

Expect Adjustments: A quick read of the Christmas story, and one might surmise that the birth of Jesus required adjusting some expectations. I can’t speak for Mary, but if I had been told that I would be giving birth to the Son of God, I would definitely have some ideas about how that was going to go down. I’d be thinking Jesus was more fit to be born on a bed of roses than a bed of hay, but it just wasn’t so. Instead, Jesus was born in a stable, the air rife with the smell of livestock, after being told there was no room in the inn. I would have had a first world meltdown.

Filtering this story through my own lens leads me to this conclusion: Christmas is a season in which we should expect adjustments. Things might not go according to plan. Approach it, expecting to make some adjustments to your perspective and attitude.

Each year, the relationships we have will include some new, some old, and some over. Instead of holding on to everything that had been just how it was and in the order I remembered it, I had to let go. I had to acknowledge outwardly (even say it to myself) that holidays, namely Christmas, were difficult. It was ok to admit that. I could expect to need some emotional space to adjust to the new reality. Christmas felt different, albeit sad and a little lonelier than I’d ever experienced it. I could expect some sadness and tears. I could also still expect some joy.

Make New Memories: My whole adult life had been spent with a person who was no longer my partner. I wondered which traditions to keep and which to let go of; making rum balls felt like a trigger, so I steered clear of that one. Instead, I threw a Christmas Open House and served homemade empanadas. I bought an artificial tree, instead of a live one, to ease the task of getting it home and decorated, and I purchased an Elf-On-the-Shelf whom my kids lovingly named Umpa. Although I may not have entirely realized it at the time, I was reclaiming Christmas in my own way. I needed to decide what and how to celebrate and with whom. I needed to make new memories.

The challenge of Christmas post-divorce is to simultaneously grieve and celebrate. You can’t change your memories, but you can make new ones. Make a new tradition: follow an Advent calendar, throw a party, or decorate your yard with a slew of inflatable snowmen. Whatever you do, make it your own and relish the joy of making some new memories.

Delay Big Decisions: If you’re fresh off of a divorce or grieving a significant loss, Christmas is going to take some push to get through. Acknowledge that it will be difficult, and give yourself plenty of room to get through it. This past Thanksgiving, I got remarried and am in a new stage of my healing process. I can promise you, it does get better.

Instead of making big life decisions, use that energy to thoughtfully consider what the best way for you to celebrate is going to be. Surround yourself with people who love and care about you, and give yourself permission to delay making significant life decisions.

If you’re recently divorced, your optimism has likely taken a hit, and your resources are stretched. As you think about the Christmas season and the year ahead, consider the kind of person you want to be, rather than what you want to do or accomplish. You and your children, if you have them, have to live with that person. Set goals that help you become the person you want to be given the circumstances you’re actually in, rather than the things you hope to have done by this time next year. Focus on things that feed your core needs–faith, values, and relationships.

You can come out stronger on the other end, but you have to bear the weight of enduring the ups and downs. Take care of yourself. Take one day at a time. Give yourself room to be both happy and sad. This is the heavy-lifting of the healing process that will bulk you up, making each year easier. In the meantime, fortify yourself with the things that bring beauty and joy to the season and remember, you are going to be ok.

Love and peace to you, my friend.

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