When I was 27 years old, my family went on a trip to the mountains for Christmas. While we drove in a snow storm late at night from the airport to the cabin we rented, it somehow came out that my dad would not be joining us. In fact, my parents would be getting a divorce. Next, imagine the family shit show that ensued while driving through that snow storm. No one was happy that Christmas despite being in a beautiful winter wonderland. While my brothers and cousins went skiing on Christmas Day, I was so sad I couldn't get out of bed. My aunt and uncle comforted me and eventually managed to coax me out of bed. I tried to be grateful for my many blessings that Christmas, but I just felt so sad. For my brothers and me, our parents' marriage and the façade of having a "perfect" family dissolved on Christmas 2008.
I'll never forget the first Christmas after that fateful one. At that next Christmas gathering of extended family, no one asked about my parent that wasn't present or even acknowledged that they still existed on this earth despite the fact that they had been an active member of the family for 30 years. I was hurt. I felt that I had to pretend that everything was normal even though I was so sad and frustrated inside. I ended up in tears with my sweet Grandmother comforting me.
Now 6 years later, things are better. In fact, things are better than they were before my parents split, but there are always dynamics to navigate through. When your parents divorce when you are an adult, you may be relied upon by your parents for emotional support, to be a messenger from one parent to the other, and you may feel guilt ridden if one parent is alone on a holiday. Sometimes you have to parent your own parents. And that can be uncomfortable.
The holidays are still somewhat stressful and anxiety provoking for my brothers and me because of figuring out what holiday will be spent with whom and how not to hurt our parents' feelings. This year, I decided to do something different. For the first time, I will not be going "home" for Christmas. Instead, I decided to do exactly what I want and not be driven by the desire to please my family. While I love them dearly and will miss them, I am also happy about creating my own Christmas this year.
Here is my advice for the holidays to all the other adult children of recently divorced parents out there:
1) Be authentically you and stop pretending everything is ok. Pretending is more painful. You don't need to announce to the entire holiday gathering of extended family that you are sad and feeling uneasy over your parents recent split. Try and confide in someone empathetic at your family gathering--perhaps your favorite cousin or an uncle with whom you are close. You will most likely find comfort in expressing your feelings to someone outside of your immediate family.
2) Create boundaries. If you are going to your hometown, stay at a hotel or a friend's home instead of with your family. You may need your space. Sometimes staying in your childhood home amidst your parents recent divorce can make the wounds worse.
3) If you have siblings, rely on each other for emotional support. If you don't have siblings, ask for support from a friend who has had a similar experience. I am so thankful for my brothers, especially over the last 6 years.
4) Host one of the holidays at your own home. Ask your family to your home for the holidays and start creating a new way of doing the holidays. Planning and preparing to host might just be the distraction you need.
5) Humor! If you can make light of the challenging situation with managing your parents recent divorce, you can diffuse (at least temporarily) the sadness and anxiety.
6) Do what you want to do for the holidays and not what you are "expected" to do. Don't try to please your family by being the "good daughter" or "good son" by joining the family gathering if you are not up for it this year. Do your own thing and let go of the guilt.
7) Remember you are not responsible for your parents' happiness. While of course grown children can enhance a parent's feelings of happiness and joy, your parents should not derive the bulk of their inner happiness from you.
8) Excuse your family members. If you are at a family gathering and your extended family members don't ask about your other parent not present or don't acknowledge the difficult situation you are going through, know that they love you dearly but are limited in their ability to expresses their feelings. They simply just don't know how to do it. Excuse them for this.
9) You are not alone. Remember almost everyone--those that have divorced parents and those with married parents--deal with some level of challenging family dynamics during the holidays. There are plenty of other family- shit-show-holiday-showdowns going on out there too!
10) If a family member of an adult child whose parents recently split is reading this, express your empathy in whatever way to can. Ask about the other parent not present. It goes along way and provides comfort for your loved one.