“Holidays are notoriously tricky with blended families.” This is my ex-husband speaking. We're standing in the shade of a massive Coral tree on a brilliant morning in Santa Monica, the late-fall sunlight dappling the sidewalk. The holidays are tricky for all families. But in divorce, complicated logistics, hurt feelings, and even nostalgia for celebrations past can add to the typical stress.
In our case, "divvying up" the holidays has been pretty easy. We don’t alternate whose side our son goes to every year. I take my son to Texas for Thanksgiving and some Jewish holidays; Christmas he goes with his father to New York. While interfaith couples statistically have more conflicts, dividing religious holidays after divorce isn't one of them. At least not for us.
Actually, I celebrate Christmas with my ex-husband's family, too. The year before we split, I’d cooked the entire dinner for 17 alongside his then-teenage niece. This quickly became a new tradition, and we continued it even after my husband and I broke up in 2012.
She and I made the dinner the following year, and the one after that. Last year, after my divorced little family had relocated to California, we all flew in together for Christmas, and I made the dinner again.
This year? I wasn’t so sure I wanted to go.
I’d like to say my reluctance was due to having moved on, that I've created new traditions with a new spouse. The truth is that I’m still single and have nothing at all better to do on Christmas, nor anyone to do it with. I was hesitating because I’d felt unwelcome by a couple of his siblings last year, and not particularly welcome by my ex. This was not an experience I wanted to pay peak season airfare to repeat.
Had they actually shunned me, or merely been uncomfortable that I was still hanging around, three years post-separation? Had it all been in my head? Perhaps I'd felt that walking our son to school together in California was one thing, but flying across the country to pare potatoes and whip cream with the ex-in-laws something else? Also, my ex-husband has had a girlfriend for nearly as long as we've been apart. She doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but she does live in New York. Maybe it was time for me to bow out of this family celebration?
Standing on the sidewalk in Santa Monica, I realize that this question points to an important truth about divorce.
It isn’t as if you can create your good divorce (or hammer through your bad one), brush off your hands, and consider your work done, particularly if your have children. Circumstances change. New relationships arise. Divorce is not a one-time legal event.
Also, the rise of co-parenting, so positive in many ways, adds to the need for regular revisions. Co-parenting has actually led to more re-litigation because now two people alienated enough to divorce have a lifetime of decisions to make together.
We don't even have a blended family. My ex isn’t remarried. There are no step-children or multiple layers of in-laws with their own opinions and cranberry sauce and long-cherished gingerbread recipes to consider. I have no one begging me to come meet his family. (Oh sorry; did I mention already that I’m still single?!)
I love all the gratitude reminders that circulate on social media at this time of year. I appreciate the tips for getting through the holidays alone. But in divorce, many of us need to add another note to our mental to-do list: a reminder to check in with our ex—and ourselves—about how our needs and desires may have changed since this time last year.
As we enter The Holidays While Divorced, Season Four, I squint in the sun at my ex. “Well, how do you feel this year?” I say. “Do you feel like our relationship has changed to the point where I shouldn’t be coming along anymore? Is our son ready to 'brave' a long flight without his Mommy? Do you feel like your girlfriend is such a part of your family now that you really want her along for this holiday?”
My ex looks off toward the ocean, then back to me. “It feels pretty much the same to me as last year,” he says.
It feels pretty much the same to me as last year, too. I feel better in my own life, far more like myself, and far less like the tired, deflated complainer I’d often appeared as in marriage. But my relationship with my ex-husband doesn’t feel substantively different.
“Also, you and my mom have a lot of genuine shared interests,” my ex continues. “You have a lot in common. That's an important relationship. I think it’s important for our son to understand that you’re part of my family.”
“Well, what are you going to say to your siblings?” I say. “I’m not coming unless you talk to them.” I'd proposed that he have a conversational intervention long ago, but he'd brushed aside this suggestion.
“I’m going to say, ‘Since we have no experience with divorce in our family, I know this might seem kind of strange. But Wendy is part of my family and so she’s part of our holiday.”
That sounded good. That made sense. They really don't know what to expect. I come from a family with many divorces, plenty of ex-spouses. But no one has been divorced in my ex-husband's family.
Here’s the other thing we may need to remember this holiday season. While we can feel alienated and off-kilter, our friends and families also may be confused. They may genuinely not know what we need, or how to act. One way we can make this season warmer is by letting people in our lives know what to expect, and how we’d like them to treat our ex, speak before our children, and behave toward us.
I like this clip from Saturday Night Live of a right-wing in-law provoking her obviously liberal younger relation about immigration, ISIS and race over turkey—the pending family feud staved off by an Adele song on the boom box.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is involved in the family law reform movement in the United States. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.