Christmas is complicated; you don’t need me telling you this. But the reasons are more meaningful than navigating traffic, fighting malls, and dreading credit card bills. Things get complicated during the holiday season because whatever seems wrong about our lives, our families, children, or relationships becomes quickened, concentrated, and inescapable. Dad’s drinking, mom’s anxiety, crushing finances, the wayward son or daughter, a flailing career, unbearable relationship, or lack of one, and any host of other disappointments fall under an existential microscope, placed there by everything from old family traditions, we must spend time with our alcoholic dad. To television advertisements, we’re reminded of what we want but may never have. To Christmas music, dysfunction isn’t a recurring theme in most holiday favorites. Beginning at Thanksgiving through to New Years every day seems predestined to remind us of how bad things are around us.
Is it any surprise then depression spikes during this time of year, or more precisely that January is to Divorce Attorneys what April is to Accountants? There’s nothing like the yuletide season to underscore one’s marital problems, and Christmas regularly becomes the litmus test if a marriage survives to summer vacation.
But while the holidays force us to look at what’s happening, it also compels us to remember what happened. That may be no truer than for divorced parents.
The holidays aren’t fashioned for broken families. They aren’t meant to be shared courtesy of visitation agreements. Christmas and Thanksgiving each consists of one day. There isn’t a Mom’s Thanksgiving and Dad’s Thanksgiving. There are only one Christmas morning and one Thanksgiving dinner. Hallmark wouldn’t sell many cards celebrating the realities of divorce and the holidays. “Merry Christmas, for the 6 hours you see your kids!”; “Happy Thanksgiving, next year, they’re with dad this year!”. Commercials wouldn’t be very heartfelt depicting divorced parents swapping kids on Christmas Day in a dreary abandoned parking. For divorced parents, Christmas is complicated.
The holiday season underscores the underlying circumstances leading to divorce. It reminds us of problems we can’t solve, people we won’t change, expectations we’ll never meet, and dreams never to happen. For me, the holidays are a reminder that my children will never have a childhood anywhere similar to my own. My story will in no way be their story. Theirs will be disconnected and will always be so. I can never understand the frustration and exasperation of being pulled in opposite directions. I will never grasp the stress of balancing the happiness of two antagonistic divorced parents. I don’t know the helplessness of being pawns as two adults may use them to inflict pain and sorrow on each other. I can’t know what it’s like to have a distorted idea of ‘home.’
That first holiday season following a marital breakup is likely the worst time in the person’s life. I should know. Waking up alone Christmas morning can feel as if Minos, the reptilian judge from Dante’s epic poem, just passed sentence on old sins and sent us to the lowest circle of the Inferno. Doubt and remorse may wash over in waves. We even begin looking at yesterday in a new and different light, questioning past decisions and wondering if it was really worth it all. A belief once held with the conviction of a Baptist Minister may start getting second guessed.
That first Christmas morning without my children remains seared in my memory. The emptiness of my home was only matched by the desolation in my heart. I was utterly lost. Through the summer, reveling in my newfound freedom, I never once considered the impending holidays or how that sweet freedom might become a poison pill. I never imagined how a decision to destroy a family would show up in so desperate a way. Things became complicated that morning. I was caught, as many divorced parents find themselves, between the reality of what is and the memory of what was.
If advocates want to prevent divorce I suggest highway billboard signs showing side-by-side images; one is a heartbroken father sitting alone Christmas morning. The other is his children opening presents celebrating the day with their mother, and another man.
This will be the tenth holiday since that first Christmas. In that time, I survived an emotional winter finally arriving at spring where I found myself and a Queen. Yet even as I look to all these wonderful blessings bestowed since and give thanks for what’s happening this year, I still can’t forget, after all that time, what happened. Christmas remains, and will continue to be, complicated.
Many divorced parents will taste that same bitter reality for the first time this holiday season. They will meet face to face with new consequences of old decisions. Feelings of regret and remorse may overtake them. They may find themselves lost with nowhere to turn. To those parents, I would only say mourn what’s gone. Weep for the passing of what once was. Allow that sorrow to run its course. Fighting back against the tide is useless and unhealthy. It keeps you from getting to where you need to go. Look closely at what’s happening, because of what happened and learn from it. Use it to grow into better person with bigger plans.
Plant new dreams in the ashes of old ones and begin nurturing them with your tears, because in the midst of the what was there is also what can be. Lean into the possibilities of tomorrow. As you cut the old cords of yesterday, start weaving the new threads that will lead to a new dawn. Old traditions and memories are easiest forgotten by may making new ones.
Divorce can allow us to write a new script creating a better and more fulfilling story. This holiday season will conclude another chapter in my own. 2015 has been a year of celebration, of a new family and a magnificent bride. But as I write the words of thanks for all of Providence’s bounty, in the margins will be an enduring footnote. The reminder of what should have been, written in the hand of long felt sorry and remorse, words that will be affixed to the end of all my chapters to come – “Christmas is complicated”.