5 tips for celebrating the holidays with a blended family

Managing the holidays post-divorce is no easy feat. 'Tis the season for tricky schedules and heightened emotions. Here's how to cope.

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I love Christmas. Yup, I’m one of those people: belting out schlocky tunes in the car, searching for the perfect ceiling-scraper of a tree, bawling my way through It’s a Wonderful Life. But the emotional and logistical strain wrapped up with the holidays at our house — courtesy of my husband’s four kids from two exes, in addition to our own two little ones — can bring out the Scrooge in me.

There was the time my husband’s then-five-year-old son called to tell us excitedly about the Pokémon toy Santa had delivered — the exact same one waiting for him under our tree. Or the year a tipsy ex-number-one called in the middle of our Christmas Eve party to shout that there was no way she was driving downtown to pick up the kids the next day. You get the picture.

Even for the most happily married couples, the holidays can be fraught with conflict and compromise. It can be exponentially more complicated for the approximately 776,000 Canadian parents who are divorced or separated and raising kids without a new partner. Then there are the blended families — almost 13 percent of Canada’s 3.7 million two-parent families are stepfamilies, like mine. Negotiating how to share the kids is never easy, but this is a time of year when it can be hardest to let go. “Christmas is a tough time because there is a lot of tradition and ritual around how the holidays are managed,” says Deborah Moskovitch, author of The Smart Divorce, a book she was inspired to write after her own acrimonious split. “But you have to share it. That’s how you have to look at effective co-parenting.”

Here’s how to ensure your festive season is filled with merriment—not resentment — this year.

1. Make a plan
If you haven’t set a holiday schedule by the time you read this, do it now. “You don’t want the kids to have any angst about what they’re going to be doing at Christmas,” says Moskovitch, who also founded a divorce coaching service. Sit down with your ex and bring a calendar (and, if necessary, a neutral third party, like a professional mediator or trusted mutual friend) to figure out exactly how you’re going to divvy up the holiday break, right down to whether the kids are being picked up or dropped off, at what time, and the things they’ll need to pack. “It can be fluid and change, but it gets rid of any miscommunication,” says Moskovitch.

Trevor Pereira and his ex-wife made their Christmas schedule part of the separation agreement they drew up seven years ago. In even years, he has their two kids for Christmas Eve and morning, then hands them off at noon. In odd years, he picks them up from their mom’s house, still in their pyjamas, and takes them home for brunch and more presents. (To help avoid the aforementioned Pokémon scenario, Pereira and his ex go over the kids’ wish lists together each year to decide who’s going to buy what and how much they’ll spend.) “It’s sad either way,” admits Pereira, an IT specialist from Brantford, Ont. “Either you don’t have them in the morning or you don’t have them in the evening. But at least we both still see them on Christmas Day.”

Luckily for Pereira and his ex, they live in the same town. For co-parents who live in different cities, or even different provinces, it’s not so simple. If you have to kiss your kids goodbye for the entire holiday, says Moskovitch, “make sure you can call and talk to them. They’ll want to know you’re OK.”

2. Focus on the kids
Eileen Ailon, a psychologist and mediator in Calgary, specializes in helping high-conflict couples resolve parenting and custody issues. To keep her clients focused on what’s best for the kids, she sometimes places a picture of the little ones on the table during a session and asks: “What do you think they would really enjoy? What would work for them?”

That can be as simple as letting the kids call mom on Christmas eve or attend a special holiday event with Dad. For mom Maureen Palmer, the answer was more extreme. When she and her husband split up, their daughters, then aged 15 and 10, stayed behind in Edmonton with their dad while palmer took a job as a TV producer in Vancouver. She’d do homework with them every night over the phone and fly back to Alberta for four or five days twice a month (a schedule she kept up for a decade).

“Christmas was very, very big in our family,” she says, and her girls weren’t ready to let that go. So for two weeks every Christmas, she would camp out in her ex-husband’s basement—once even with her boyfriend in tow. “I sort of took over and did Christmas the same way we did when we were married,” says palmer, who went on to make the documentary How to Divorce and Not Wreck the Kids. It wasn’t easy being a guest in her former home, and her need to impose her version of “order” on her ex’s household created tension. “But Christmas morning was so kid-centred, and we both enjoyed their joy so much, that how we felt about each other barely registered,” says Palmer. “We didn’t want them to feel any of the tension kids who are pulled between two households feel.”

While you should always keep the kids’ preferences in mind, Ailon cautions parents against giving them too much input into how they spend the holidays. Kids don’t want the burden of choice “because they know it’s going to make one of the parents really unhappy,” she says. “They’ll tell each parent whatever they feel he or she wants to hear. For most children, that’s a nightmare.” What most kids crave is a predictable schedule that both parents seem happy with, even if that means putting on a brave face. Practise emotional restraint, maturity and leadership. “The most important thing is to continue to be loving parents, and to keep the conflict away from the kids,” says Ailon.

3. Create new traditions
Your holiday celebrations may have changed post-divorce, but it doesn’t mean they can’t continue to be magical. My husband’s first three children were five, three and one when they came to live with him full-time after the split. He didn’t have a ton of money, but he wanted to give them something new and special. Stockings belonged at their mom’s house (either on Christmas morning or afternoon, depending on the year). At their dad’s, a new tradition was born: The kids would tear apart the tree before present time, searching for their very own magic wand, which, when waved, would make packages from Santa appear in front of them. (I’ll never forget the first time I watched this ritual—how adorably frazzled he got trying to place the right gift in front of the right kid before they opened their eyes.) Though his children are grown now —the eldest is 25—come Christmas morning, the four of them still hunker down with their little sister and brother and wave their wands in the air, eyes shut tight.

Building new rituals is an important part of moving on—for you and your kids, says Moskovitch. “Regroup and think about how you want to celebrate the holidays together. Your kids’ traditions are changing, too, so get them happy with what you’re creating.” And though it will be painful, be prepared to let go of some of the activities you used to do before the divorce. In the early years after Moskovitch’s split, when her children were with their dad for the Jewish high holidays, “I’d sit at home saying, ‘Oh, they’re not doing this or that—they’re not celebrating the way I want them to,” she says. “But you can only control what happens when they’re in your environment. Don’t make them feel bad that they missed out on something when they come home.”

And no matter how sad or angry you are, never badmouth your ex in front of the kids. Save the rants for someone with no vested interest in your personal situation, like a therapist or support group. Similarly, Palmer recommends pinpointing what she calls your “negative advocate”—the well-meaning friend or family member who is constantly reminding you of what a jerk your ex is—and asking them to bite their tongue. “Your people love you and they want to be in your corner, but you don’t want to have those conversations,” says Palmer. “They just feed the animosity.”

4. Stay busy
If you’re going to be on your own for the holidays, be prepared. “Plan for it. Don’t think, ‘I’ll be OK,’” advises Pereira. “Because when you’re sitting there, watching those movies you’d typically watch with the kids, it hits you.” On his first childless Christmas Eve, Pereira was grateful to celeberate with other family and friends. These days, he indulges in a quiet evening at home: “I treat myself to something I love to eat and take some effort to pair wines.” Then he watches a favourite Christmas movie before climbing into bed early. Another tactic is to venture out: Volunteer at a homeless shelter, go on a trip or do something special for yourself.

5. Stay hopeful
As a kid, Precious Chong knew the meaning of “amicable divorce.” She spent holidays with her mom, dad, her dad’s first wife, and his older daughters. But Chong’s own split, when her son, Jack, was still a baby, was anything but amicable. Never in a million years did she think she and her ex would get to a good place.

Fast-forward six years, and Chong considers her ex, his new partner and their baby daughter part of the family. She now blogs about her co-parenting adventures and is circumspect about the situation. “My ex and I have a more meaningful relationship now that we’re not together than when were married,” she says.

Though they share Jack 50/50 and have regular family dinners together in Toronto, Christmas is still tricky. They’re supposed to alternate years, but Chong usually takes Jack, now seven, to visit her folks in Vancouver for two weeks over the holidays. “My parents are losing out on spending time with Jack, and my ex understands that,” she says. Sometimes she wishes they could just celebrate Christmas with Jack’s dad and his new family, “and no one would have to sacrifice anything.”

It isn’t perfect—no family is. Chong and her ex still squabble, and emotions can run high. (She was a wreck when Jack’s dad had a new baby, and cried when Jack gave his stepmom a nicer present for Mothers’ Day than he gave her.) But for parents bracing for their first holidays post divorce, Chong’s story is a hopeful one. “It sucks, it really sucks,” she says, describing those difficult early days. “Remember that just because things are hard now, it doesn’t mean it has to be that way forever.”

Somehow, I don’t think we’ll be clinking glasses with either of my husband’s exes this Christmas; that would take a Scrooge-sized miracle. But since having my own kids—and trying to imagine how hard it would be to spend the season without them—I’ve learned to be a bit more patient. Though maybe you should check back in after New Year’s.

A version of this article appeared in our December 2012 issue with the headline “Christmas in Splitsville,” pp. 107-9.

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