‘Tis the season to be jolly and merry, the time for goodwill, charity and renewed hope, but as families reunite to celebrate together the festive season, Christmas can often turn out to be a tense and challenging time. Our impossible expectations of the picture-perfect Christmas can lead to disaster. Regardless of our collective best intentions, the sibling we always manage to rub the wrong way, the in-law whose seemingly only goal in life is to make our life hell, are still the same people they were in January, February,March… November. Still the same overbearing people with the same hang-ups,vinegary repartee, etc, etc. However, this being Christmas, hope forever springs eternal and perhaps just for this December, a miracle happens, wherein everybody gets along with everybody else, politics are not on the menu and peace reigns on earth or at least at our dinner table.
Even the most nuclear of families can turn nuclear,but throw in a recent separation or divorce and it’s Armageddon in the making.But away from adult vanities, how do you handle Christmas after a divorce? More importantly, how to ensure that it is as painless as possible for the children involved? A friend, who is now fast approaching middle-age and whose parents had separated when she was still quite young, has recently confessed that as a child she used to dread the first Christmas songs on the radio and spent most December nights crying herself to sleep. When she confessed this to her mother,the latter was staggered, because she had always believed that theirs was quite an amicable separation.
But no matter how ‘civilised’, (and if truth be told,these are rare and far between) the feelings of hurt and rejection run much deeper than what children might let on. No matter if still very young or on the cusp of adulthood, regardless of the tension between their parents, or the unhealthy atmosphere at home, children believe that bar horrific circumstances,mum and dad should forever be together. This feeling of ‘abandonment’ is horribly magnified at Christmas when everyone and his dog is intent on playing‘happy families’.
It is a given that Christmas, especially the first one after the breakdown of a marriage or partnership is never going to be idyllic when emotions are still running high. However, with a little planning and not a little goodwill and communication, we can still offer children a great, if not perfect festive season. First and foremost, more than at any other time of the year, we need to make the children’s needs our number one priority. Psychologists believe that it’s probably best, to leave children in their ‘usual’ home, at least for the first Christmas, even if this is heart-breaking for the absent parent. It is a terrible time for them at any time of the year but taking children away from the Christmas ‘rituals’ they have known all their life only amplifies this. They need ‘their’ Christmas tree, ‘their’ crib, ‘their’ very own Baby Jesus, the one they have watched their parents decorate, year after year. Uprooting them to a new and alien ambience, especially on their first Christmas as children of separated or divorced parents only adds to the poignancy of what is already a harrowing time.
A support network is key during these distressing times. Thankfully, we are blessed with extended families who can step in and distract from what can be a lonely time for children. Agreement in advance between exes as to access times during this period goes a long way in fostering a smooth experience. Last minute quibbles should be avoided at all costs during this raw emotional time. Inviting your ex over for the festivities might sound like a good idea, but most psychologists believe that especially for pre-teen children,this would send the wrong message, raising false hopes that mummy and daddy can be together again. It would be cruel to pretend that all is normal, especially in the first few years. Perhaps, celebrating together is something that separated parents can look forward to further down the line, when children have accepted the split, and everyone has moved on.
Christmas is all about tradition, but when a family breaks up, it is no use pretending that all is normal. It is a fine juggling act for parents who have their children’s wellbeing at heart; it is striving to accept that it will be different and difficult while helping the children understand these new circumstances, while also striving to make it good for them. Creating new traditions as a family with new dynamics, will help outline that their parents’ separation need not be the end of the world, albeit a different one to the one they were used to. Minimising the sense of loss for these children is what should be our first priority, whether they’re our own,or children of relatives/friends who are going through a separation at this time of the year. If we all chip in, and make these children realise that despite the traditional notion of ‘happy families’, as long as they are loved and cherished, there can be many, many configurations of what family is all about, whether at Christmas or any other time of the year…