(Pixabay photo)

How to navigate the holidays when parents are divorced

Over the holidays, the feelings of loss and resentment over being separated can be especially pronounced

Greg Cope White’s parents divorced when he was four, creating a fracture that lasted 25 years before he realized that he needed to move on.

“My mother remarried two years later. And that shifted all Christmases.”

White really missed his father.

Over the December holidays, the feelings of loss and resentment over being separated from his father became especially pronounced. “We were fractured. Nothing would ever be the same.”

White, 59, an author, Hollywood screenwriter and producer who lives in Montreal part-time, has seen his dad only once since the divorce. He has travelled the world and now creates literary and on-screen fairy tales and for book lovers and movie-goers.

His mom remarried three times. Three stepdads did little to fill the void of his absent father. The visions of Christmas that dance in his head float back to the innocence of early childhood — before divorce, separation and loss.

“My early Christmases were pretty magical,” said White in a recent phone interview from California. “It was fantastic.”

He speaks of days of anticipation, seeing presents under the tree, wondering what was inside. “My parents laughing.”

But once his mother remarried, “There was never any authenticity in that holiday.”

This may indeed be the most wonderful time of the year, as the Christmas carol says. But for some children of divorced parents, it can be a season of stress, guilt and heartbreak.

“There’s not much that’s happy and sunny about the holidays in the world of family law,” says Calgary family lawyer John-Paul Boyd.

Recurring themes for children with divorced parents, he says, include: Fighting over an extra half-hour on December 24, 25 or 26; blocking children from contacting the other parent; and hiding presents from the other parent, because they are angry at or jealous of each other.

One December, Vancouver family lawyer Johanna Stein had to run to court in the middle of the month to get a court order allowing a father to spend two overnights with his two children, aged three and six. This three-day “staycation” cost him several thousands of dollars.

Quinn McRae, 33, resident of Vancouver, was one of these struggling children. Her parents divorced when she was almost four years old. Christmas was a competition for her parents, to see who could “one up” the other with their presents, she says. This was an annoying experience for her: “I accommodated their competition by telling them that I don’t need that many presents.”

For young adults who have jobs, friends and significant others, many still feel the need to adhere to the parenting schedule programmed into them since they were children. Some say that they feel particularly guilty about leaving a parent who does not have a new family. The end result is that they take extra leave from work, forgo activities with their peers and sacrifice time with their partners.

McRae shares some of these frustrations. She continued to follow her childhood holiday schedule, splitting her time between her parents, even though she preferred to spend her holidays differently. She did not want to disappoint either of her parents by not spending equal time with them.

Since she moved from Ontario to B.C. nine years ago, she has not gone home for the December holidays. “I can’t please everyone, so I avoid it altogether.”

For late teens and young adults who find themselves struggling to balance their parents’ needs and their own, Vancouver registered psychologist Lisa Ferrari suggests they let their parents know ahead of time what they have in mind for the holidays, so that their family can work within those parameters.

“Young adults may find it helpful to create new family experiences or new holiday rituals that are personally meaningful to them.”

While maintaining relationships with parents is important, Toronto social worker Jordan Topp says some people may also have their own responsibilities and different priorities.

She recommends having kind, constructive conversations with family members about feelings and needs.

“It is okay to enjoy the holidays for themselves,” says Topp.

When he was stepping into his 30s, White started his own Christmas traditions. “I just tried to do it through decoration and cooking, and just making my own memories.” His cooking recipes are from both of his grandmothers.

When White established his first home, he bought a vintage 1970s aluminum Christmas tree — the same type of tree that he had when his father was still in his life. “Because I kind of wanted a bit of nostalgia from my childhood when those trees were popular, and so to this day, that’s still the tree that comes out every year.”

White remembers a stark contrast in the family’s financial means post-divorce. One year, he says his mother told him there was no money for Christmas presents.

“I can’t imagine how difficult that was. No parents are going to tell their child that with joy.”

Surprisingly, he said that Christmas was fun. He did not expect presents in the morning, but he woke up to “brown paper grocery sacks.” His mother organized a white elephant Christmas, a party game where amusing and inexpensive gifts are exchanged. “It was just an emotional moment because you know, here was a present that probably cost her $1 yet she made it so fun.”

One year, White learned of an opportunity with the post office to respond to letters written by children to Santa. “I felt that excitement again… hoping it helps children feel happy on Christmas morning.”

He would respond to the letters and deliver gifts to the children. He speaks of this as a humbling experience that has strengthened his resolve to live with gratitude, thankful for his life with his partner.

“Deep down, I do wish that I had all of those memories. I do wish that I had those family traditions. I do wish that they continued. But I can’t live a life in regret. I can only make progress in living the life I want to manifest. So I make the effort for my tiny family now.”

—Josephine Wong is a lawyer practising in Vancouver, with a concentrated practice in family law and personal injury law. She is currently a fellow in global journalism at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

Josephine Wong , The Canadian Press

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