This time of year, everyone seems to be dusting off old family traditions as they prepare for the merriment on the horizon. At some point during this month, you’ll probably dress up for an ugly-sweater party, exchange white-elephant presents, and watch “A Christmas Story” at least 10 times. Alongside these joyous holiday customs, for a lot of divorced parents, there is an underlying, darker feeling: guilt. When most people think about the holidays, guilt isn’t the emotion most often associated, but for many, guilt can be at the forefront of their minds.
Why might a parent feel guilty during the holiday season? The short answer is they feel bad that their child has to have two Christmas celebrations. Yes, the idea that a child has to spend Christmas with Mom at her house and Dad at his house could be problematic, but it doesn’t have to be. Societal depictions of the holidays try to dictate what the ideal celebration should look like: two loving parents wearing Santa hats and sneaking down the stairs to leave presents under the tree. Because divorced parents live in separate households, they can’t participate in this prototypical version of Christmas. They might feel like they aren’t making the experience all it can be for their kids or that they have shattered the image of the holiday, which leaves them feeling nothing but guilt.
Caught up in their own emotional turmoil, parents neglect to ask their children how they feel about the situation. Do they feel like they aren’t getting the full Christmas experience? Do they feel like they are missing out? Or are they actually excited about the prospect of having two Christmas celebrations instead of one? While no one on our team is a family therapist, we can draw from our own experiences for guidance.
One team member explains: “My parents divorced when I was 3 years old. Up until this year — over two decades later — I’ve spent Christmas morning with my mom and the afternoon with my dad. I can’t remember a single Christmas where I felt that I missed out on the happiness that surrounds this holiday. Yes, outside factors, such as those made-for-TV Christmas specials that depict a perfectly happy couple, made me feel that my holiday celebrations were different than others. But still, I never felt like my experience was second-rate. In fact, in my formative (and perhaps more greedy) years, I was just thrilled that I got to have two present-opening experiences with twice the amount of presents. As an adult, I recognize that none of this would have been possible had my parents let the negative feelings they had for one another permeate my own experience. My Christmas traditions are what they are because of their positive and selfless approach.”
Regardless of whether this upcoming Christmas signals your first holiday as a divorcee or you have been navigating a holiday custodial agreement for years, take some time this year to ascertain your kids’ true feelings about Christmas. Children are intuitive, so if you are suffering from guilt or sadness, chances are, they know. And they’ll often take responsibility for it too. Kids want their parents to be happy, so even if you are struggling to stay positive this year, try to put a smile on your face for your kids’ sakes. Don’t make your kid feel guilty; help them feel excited about having two Christmases instead of just one.