Driving to school last week, I asked my 11-year-old whether she had thought about getting Christmas gifts for her dad and stepmom. As usual, no, she hadn’t (because she is 11 and more concerned about spending her limited funds on stuff for her friends). So, like I do every year, I said I’d give her some money to make sure my ex and his wife get something from her under the tree.
After I dropped her off, I started to feel resentful. Why do I do this? My ex and I split soon after I became pregnant and we are definitely not on friendly terms by any means. I’m fortunate that my daughter loves flying across the country from our house in Nova Scotia for her thrice-yearly custody visits to her dad’s in Vancouver, and I trust that he’s a good parent when she’s with him. (Although I still don’t think I really should be buying him a participation prize.) But there’s never any thanks or acknowledgement, and they sure as hell never buy me a gift from her. Yet every year, I try and pick out something nice for her to pack along in her suitcase.
This is yet more emotional labour that falls onto my plate, for two people with whom I do not have an easy relationship.
I’ve voiced my frustration to friends, and a common response from those without a custody sharing ex is that I should just stop with the gifts—this isn’t my responsibility. Or they suggest that I get her to make him something instead. Um, no, that’s even more work for me, because she is 11 and the process of getting her to do this is stressful and hard. My daughter is a wonderful and creative kid who takes 12 dance classes a week (seriously, no crafting time), but she isn’t going to just sit down and create a gift. Besides, I’d need to buy the materials for whatever she makes. I’m already tied up with trying to create a magical Christmas for her and her two little brothers, age three and six, so my list of holiday tasks is long enough, thank you very much. (And my patience for adding more crap to the list is short.)
When I think about the lack of reciprocity—the fact that my ex doesn’t buy a gift for my daughter to give me—it would be easy to think that it’s simply because he dislikes me so much. But it’s equally likely that it has just never crossed his mind to do so. I’m betting that’s the case with many ex-husbands. They never did the work of managing Christmas shopping lists when we were together, so why would it occur to them to take this on after we split up?
I surveyed my mom friends who share custody, and I found that pretty much all of them do exactly the same thing, and they feel just as resentful as I do. So why do we do it?
“I was always Santa in the family,” says Alice,* who admits to buying gifts for her ex, ostensibly from the kids, for the first few years after her divorce. “But it was never appreciated or reciprocated, so I stopped.”
Another mom I know does it out of guilt, and has even bought decorations and stockings for the kids to bring to their dad’s house. She’s the one who left the marriage, so she feels the urge to over-compensate for what she realizes may well feel like a crappy Christmas at her ex’s house.
Interestingly, all of my guy friends who share custody don’t bother with buying gifts for their exes—except for one. The reasons range from, “It just never occurred to me that I should,” to “I don’t see that as my job.” The one standout guy who still buys something for his ex-partner says that he does it because his ex has remained single, while he remarried and has more kids, and he knows how much joy his son gets from choosing and giving his mom a gift. He happily takes him shopping and pays for the present.
Then there’s my friend Maia,* whose ex came to expect a gift from their child.
“If she didn’t get him a present he would sulk, and she didn’t need that ruining her Christmas. What grown adult sulks over not getting a gift from their kid—a kid who obviously doesn’t have the money to actually buy something?” she says. “Where did he think it came from? I hated doing it every single year, but I wanted to grease the wheels for my daughter.”
At the heart of it, I guess my motivation is similar: I want my daughter to enjoy every moment of the holidays, and I try to prevent any potential snags or awkwardness. Even if, in the lead-up to Christmas, she isn’t thinking about buying her dad and her stepmom anything, I’m guessing she’ll feel good handing gifts out on the day and will bask in their gratitude. I’m trying to teach her that Christmas is about giving, not getting (despite the two-foot long Christmas list she stuck to our fridge door).
Fortunately, my current husband understands my conundrum. After all my griping about repeatedly buying for my ex and his wife, he has offered to take it on going forward, as a way to help our daughter, and to ease my annual annoyance.
Teaching our kids lessons is hard, and they usually come at a cost to ourselves. (Like when you insist they complete a five-minute chore, but it takes them half an hour and 40 reminders from you, for example.) But now I know that I’m not really buying gifts for my ex and his wife, I’m buying the experience—and happy memories—for my daughter.
*Some names have been changed.
This article was originally published online in December 2018.