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O, Come All ye Newly Single Parents: How to Get Through the Holidays Without Singing The Blues

In the immediate wake of a divorce, it's hard enough to just get through each day. The extra pressure to conjure up a warm and fuzzy holiday season for your kids is enough to turn even the fairest of us all into a wicked witch.
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A mother and her daughter looking at Halloween sweets and candy
A mother and her daughter looking at Halloween sweets and candy

October is well underway. For many, that means the scary season has officially begun. I'm not referring to kids who can't wait for Halloween with all of its spooky excitement. I'm talking about newly separated grown-ups who dread facing their first set of holidays as a single parent.

In the immediate wake of a divorce, it's hard enough to just get through each day. The extra pressure to conjure up a warm and fuzzy holiday season for your kids is enough to turn even the fairest of us all into a wicked witch. In fact, having anything close to resembling happy holidays in your current emotional state seems as impossible as getting a good night's sleep. (If only your kid's Harry Potter costume came with some magic potions.)

And it's not like getting through Halloween is all you have to worry about. The one-two punch of Thanksgiving and Christmas will clobber you faster than you can gobble up all of the good candy out of your kids' Halloween haul. (Hey -- with all of the pounds you've dropped on the Divorce Diet, you can eat bags of bite sized Snickers and still go as a skeleton for Halloween.)

As much as you may want to, you can't hide behind an invisibility cloak until the holiday season disappears. And now might be a good time to point out that there is something even more depressing than trying to figure out how to create happy memories for your kids when you've never been more miserable -- and that's facing your first holidays without them.

But don't worry. I've been exactly where you are now. And I have some tips to help you get through this.

1. They're the reason for the season. As scary and unsettling as your divorce is to you, it is even more so to your kids. You at least have some say in steering the direction of the crazy train. Your kids, on the other hand, are completely powerless over the decisions being made by you and your ex -- decisions that have a very real impact on their lives. Simply put, they are riding shotgun on the most terrifying trip of their lives.

Because you're the parent, it's up to you to do your best to protect your kids' childhood and to provide a stable and loving home for them while they are with you. So, in case you're trying to figure out how you can get a hall pass on this holiday season, forget about it. Your kids need you to pull it together for them. Getting the holidays off the ground will help them understand that life goes on after divorce and send them the signal that a new sense of normal will emerge. And that's a message they really need right now.

2. You get a present, too! The primary reason you're going to do your best to have a decent holiday season is for your kids. But you'll get something for your efforts in return. Having a project to dig into right now can be therapeutic. It will help pass the time in a constructive way and give you something to focus on other than your divorce. By showing your kids that things will eventually be okay, you'll also be internalizing that message yourself.

3. Keep it Simple, Santa. There's a difference between celebrating and competing. The idea is to maintain the practice of celebrating holidays, not to outdo your ex. When you make the holidays into a competition, you reduce it to a popularity pageant where you and your ex compete for the kids' votes. And nothing feels more hollow than that.

By keeping things simple, you'll avoid biting off more than you can chew. Plus, you'll demonstrate respect for the fact that the family is working through a major transition rather than trying to fake that things have never been better.Things will get better -- but that comes with time.

4. Think through your holiday rituals. Sort through your family's traditions and decide which ones to keep, which ones to modify and which ones to scrap.For example, say your home is the "go-to" spot in the neighborhood each year on Halloween because of the Camp Carnage haunted house you hold in a tent in your front yard. If you're the one with the camping gear and enthusiasm for the project, chances are you and your kids can continue this tradition, no problem.

But if your ex was the one that starred in the crucial and terrifying role of the Angry Hunter who accosts the tent when everyone least expects it (a role that came a little too naturally, now that you look back on everything), you'll need to decide whether to modify the tradition or scrap it all together. If you have an awesome sibling (and note that I said sibling, not new love interest) who's game to help out, Camp Carnage might continue to terrify trick or treaters without missing a beat. But if you think that the project will remind everyone that your ex is gone rather than reassure everyone that life goes on, you might want to skip the whole thing and instead go to the haunted house at your church's Halloween carnival.

Then, next year you can decide if you want to reprise the tradition with some modifications. Maybe instead of the Angry Hunter, your haunted house could feature an equally terrifying Bitter Divorced Person brandishing a stack of unpaid bills and a bottle of gin. (But playing that role would require real acting ability since you will never ever let yourself become that character in real life. Do you hear me?)

By thinking through and reworking your holiday customs, you will minimize the chances that your holiday season will be a long and painful reminder of your divorce, and instead create a blend of traditions that pay homage to your family's past as well as light a path to your future.

5. For the holidays, your sleigh is flying solo. Once I became a parent, with the possible exception of New Year's Eve, every holiday became defined by kid-centric activities. So there was nothing quite as gruesome as trying to get through my first Halloween without my little monster.

But divorce requires dividing up the holidays so that kids can have time with each parent, and that means spending some holidays without them. There's no one to blame for this; it's just the way the math works out. But that doesn't make it hurt any less.

If you and your ex are on decent terms, you might be able to work it out so that each parent has some time with the kids on the big day. And some grown-ups with superpowers are able to actually celebrate together.

But for the rest of us mere mortals, here are some tips for making it through the holidays when you don't have your kids. First, just because your kids aren't with you on the actual day doesn't mean you can't celebrate.The trick is to make it more about the entire season and less about one single day.

So, go ahead and get the box out of the attic and decorate your house. Then, in the weeks leading up to the holiday, get busy with holiday activities at home. Carve a Jack-o'-lantern. Bake Christmas cookies. Make homemade ornaments. Go caroling.

Next, take advantage of events in your community that are scheduled for days that your kids are with you. Go to the fall festival at your kids' school. Volunteer together at your local food bank's Thanksgiving food drive. Sign everyone up for the Jingle Bell 5K fun run. Visit your church's live nativity. When all is said and done, you and your kids will come away with a horn of plenty of seasonal memories even if you aren't together on the day itself.

And when the day does roll around, don't sit around your empty house surrounded by everything that reminds you of the fact that your kids are gone and you're all alone. Go to a Halloween party -- and I'm talking about one for grown-ups, not one for kids. Book a spa weekend over Thanksgiving. Go spend Christmas with a friend who lives out of town. In other words, do something different from what you would normally do. The first holidays you spend without your kids will pass more quickly and with fewer tears if you spend it doing something completely out of the ordinary.

And in future years, don't be surprised if you find that it's kind of nice to get a little breather now and then. The holidays that you spend without your kids can provide an opportunity for you to rest and recharge. That way, when you do have your kids for the holidays, you'll be refreshed and ready to make their spirits bright again.

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