There are few other events which punctuate the sting of divorce more savagely than the holiday season. No matter when the marriage ended be it last month, last year, or in the last decade the force and weight of marital separation rushes back during this time like a tidal wave against the shores of the soul. Feelings of sentimentality are rather easy to shelve for the other eleven months of the year, but during the holiday season when every blurb, commercial, and advertisement speaks to the significance of family it’s almost impossible for divorced parents not to remember what’s now missing and ultimately slide into a stupor of loneliness and longing.
I should know; I’ve fought this battle for almost a decade. This Christmas will mark my eighth as a divorced father and the fourth where I wake up Christmas morning without my children’s faces (8 and 10) as the first things I see. This Christmas they will be with their mother and stepfather while I wake Christmas morning, alone. There will be no pictures or videos, no Christmas morning ritual to follow, no customs to continue. This Tuesday morning will be just like any other, and it’s the knowledge of that reality which makes it all so painful.
Growing up our family like most had certain holiday customs. Every year my sister and I knew exactly what would happen on Christmas day; we would open our presents – as a family, sit down to a breakfast prepared by my father – as a family, and then spend the remainder of the afternoon with our grandparents – as a family. It was ordinary almost to the point of mundane, but there was a comfort in the expected and from the beginning I thoroughly enjoyed every minute.
I keep those childhood memories close, but no sooner have those thoughts started warming my soul then they begin darkening my spirit as I’m reminded that my children will never have a similar chance. They will never have a holiday tradition to reflect upon; in fact they’ll never have the same Christmas morning for two years in a row, in other words they will never have the Christmas memories their father has been blessed with. Instead, when they think back to their childhood Christmases it will be of wondering which parent they would be at and figuring out how mom and dad coaxed Santa Claus into delivering presents a day early to the other’s house.
There may be no more tangible expression of the pain of divorce than waking up Christmas morning to the knowledge that your children are celebrating the holiday without you. That as they are rubbing the sleep from their eyes drearily making their way down the stairs to the surprises that await you are missing every minute of it. You are missing out on their reactions, the smile on their faces and the gleam in their eyes. It’s coming to grips with the realization that any memories they are making are being done without you.
Loneliness is a battle every divorced parent will come face to face with eventually. For some the fighting begins even before the divorce is finalized as old routines suddenly disappear and weekends once filled with kids, running here and there, and afternoons in the yard together are replaced by weekends of nothing to do and nights alone on the couch. While for others, much like myself, those feelings only emerge when the partying and the candle burning lose their appeal because we’ve grown tired of using both to cover up the pain.
A funny thing happened however when I arrived at the point where I began suffering this loneliness – I tried desperately to swallow them because I mistakenly took it as a latent desire to have my old life back. I actually thought that because I was lonely I somehow wanted to get back with my ex wife, as strange as that sounds. But what I finally came to understand was that my desire for the past wasn’t the manifestation to reconcile with her, far from it; instead the loneliness was then, as it still is today, a consequence of the annual reminder of what has been lost for my children and I. It serves us as a natural, almost subconscious, coping mechanism.
I wish I could say it’s gotten easier in all this time. Sure the feelings aren’t as intense but they find their way to the surface anyhow, especially during the holiday season, and I don’t foresee that going away anytime soon. I’ve learned that the battle with loneliness is arguably the most drawn out and lasting of the seven and it’s unlikely I will able to defeat it, at least not until my children are able make their own decisions about who, when, and where to spend their time as opposed to it being made for them and forced upon me by a settlement agreement with a judge’s approval.
But during the last eight years I’ve relied upon several steps to help me through those seasons of loneliness and this holiday season in particular.
– As a newly divorced parent choosing to spend the holiday alone is one of the unhealthiest decisions you can make. Without support and companionship to keep your attention and provide a shoulder to cry on the silence that remains gives you the necessary room to contemplate, brood, and eventually wallow in your loneliness. If you’re like I was and there isn’t family close, choose to spend time with friends or even take a holiday getaway. For several years I would take a dive trip the week immediately after Christmas for that very reason. My goal was to take the focus away from what’s missing and put it towards something to anticipate.
– If you don’t have your kids this Christmas, see if your ex will allow you time with your children before, during, or immediately after Christmas. This year I will get my kids on Christmas Eve for a few hours so we can exchange gifts plus I will stop by to see them at her home on Christmas Day. Next year she will be given the same courtesy. While any temporary change in schedules will not entirely make up for having all your future holidays turned upside down it can go along way to helping make the holidays happy for you and your kids.
– Prepare in advance that these feelings of loneliness will appear. Often the surprise is what makes the feelings all the more intense and painful. If this happens to be your first year as a divorced parent then prepare for a difficult time if for no other reason than the newness in it all. Believing that everything will be fine is a common albeit unhealthy mistake. It’s impossible not to experience loneliness in the vacuum caused by divorce and attempting to ignore or dismiss them only serves to make things that much worse.
But on a final point, take assurance in the knowledge that as time goes on, as you become more accustomed to this new reality – things do get better. The sage wisdom is true, time does begin to heal all wounds and with enough time the feelings of loneliness, while not disappearing entirely, do soften and the holiday season that today may feel sad and depressing can become joyful once again.
This is the 5th in a series of posts by the same name, to read the others go to Seven Battles.