Divorced or not for the holidays: Check your expectations

BlogHer Original Post

I am a divorced female with one adult child and one minor child. I have stories I could share about my first holiday without my minor child, my fears about what the ex's family might say to our child that might ruin his holiday experience, the questions he might have to answer that would make him uncomfortable. What do these worries illustrate except my family was dysfunctional before its legal break? Divorce didn't mess us up; we were already in trouble, and that's what I'm thinking about this holiday season: How much time do we spend during the holidays trying to manufacture Hallmark card moments when we know that our families are not Hallmark cards, that children sense desperation, and the best gift for the holidays is a peaceful spirit comfortable with itself?

Undoubtedly some of us draw unnecessary stress into our lives because we have unrealistic hopes for family experiences that we project onto our children:

"Parents should start with their own expectations," advises Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychology professor at Rutgers University in News Brunswick, NJ, and author of Make Your Children Feel Special Everyday, tells WebMD. "Some parents want to be sure their children get everything they want so there will be no tears. This is an unrealistic goal. Parents, especially with younger kids get lost in the hype."

Wouldn't it be better for us to find joy in the genuine family moments we have, right where we are, right where our families are rather than to cultivate guilt about how our family doesn't represent what Madison Avenue or a 50s sitcom told us a family should be?

Shelley Hendrix Reynolds has a stellar post at The Huffington Post that shows what a big mistake we make attempting to create an idealistic family image rather than living in a loving family moment:

By the time the next Thanksgiving rolled around, I realized that while my divorce had put me on a path that I didn't plan on, it did present a new opportunity to develop new traditions for my revised little family of three. As the pain started to subside, we began all kinds of new holiday rituals around our house.

My one goal that year was to be mistaken by the neighbors for Martha Stewart on my block. Perfect house, perfect meal, the perfect holiday experience. Forget this single mother thing, I had my act together. I could do this!

That year, I was determined that we wouldn't miss a beat and even though there were only three of us, we would invite people over and with a home teaming with activity have the best possible Southern Living-esque Thanksgiving dinner ever served. I was a frazzled mess. I burned almost everything and when my four year old finally asked if she could make Cocoa Pebbles for dinner, I sat down on the couch and put my head in my hands.

That was the last time I attempted a large holiday dinner.

In my efforts to maintain the status quo, I had lost the meaning of the day. Time to regroup. Develop a new plan. All of that led to The Teeny Tiny Thanksgiving.

Two days before the next Thanksgiving with the kids, I prepared the list of ingredients we would need. Everything that I purchased was small. Baby carrots, tiny squash and zucchini, miniature apples, baby peas, ... (from The Huffington Post, "The Teeny Tiny Thanksgiving")

By no means is Reynolds saying that now her little family, reduced in size by divorce, will live small or think small. If you read the post you'll see that. What I got is that she will teach her children to live in the moment, celebrate real blessings, and create new traditions.

Amidst the many web posts telling us how to cope with holiday stress related to divorce, helping children through holidays after divorce, or how we should never get divorced in the first place because our holidays will be miserable, you will also find posts about building new traditions after divorce or within families blended after divorce. Here are three articles or posts about building new traditions: "Ex Etiquette™: Creating Holiday Traditions in a Blended Family" at IVillage.com, Creating New Holiday Traditions from a child of divorce's perspective at Divine Caroline, and "Family holiday stress: ease into traditions" from TheStepfamilyLife - The Blended Family Blog.

A thread that seems to connect most pieces about facing the holidays while divorced is we should learn to let go of old concepts of family, relax, and embrace the new family we are now. Even the divorce attorney in this YouTube video from a FOX affiliate gives the advice that "It's more important that we be flexible than right."

In my opinion, stressing ourselves out to fit other people's opinions of what we should be is never helpful, which is something Reynolds seems to have learned as discussed in her Huffington Post piece. I like that the piece examines the adjustment from a family of four to a family of three. My family had to make this adjustment. We had to to deal with a sense of loss, of missing that figure that made us a family of four--mom, dad, and two kids--so nuclear.

A repeated issue of my younger child that came up during those early holiday experiences following the divorce and actually comes up more than I'd like outside the holidays is what he's missed or lost. I don't want him to focus on loss. Like Reynolds, I want to teach both my children, the teen and the adult, to face life with grace and take strife as it comes as strong, emotionally healthy humans. I agree with her saying that, "Our attitude is what makes us move forward or drown in bitterness and despair."

This is a mental mindset that I've discussed before in posts like Post-divorce mommy guilt or Mothers, Moving, and Madness. Whatever we do as parents, our goal should be to build stronger children who can thrive and be successful adults without us one day. Holiday or not, divorced or married, we want our children to be whole.

Nordette Adams is a Contributing Editor at BlogHer.com.

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