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How to cope with Christmas between two parents

My parents had decided to separate months before. But when they physically, actually, really really separated, it was summer.

At the time, I felt this made everything much easier. My reasons for finding it easier, were mostly that it wasn’t cold when we were packing all of our things into a big van. (Yay for not being cold!) I got to put all of my big, winter-y coats and jumpers away and not worry about where they were.

And finally, it was the summer! My dad’s new place was in the village I grew up in where all of my friends were. But my mum’s new place was in the centre of town, nearer the shops and the park and the cinema and the beach and all of the other cool places I wanted to be in the summer. Looking back, I may have been running away from my feelings a bit. But to me at the time, this was a big win-win situation.

It felt that way for months. I was happy living with my mum, but would spend Sundays at my dad’s place. Simple. I began to wonder why the hell people thought this parents-separating-and-getting-divorced thing was so difficult?

Deciding where to spend your time

But then things started to get tricky when everyone around me was planning for Christmas.

Up until then, Christmas had always been spent with my dad’s family. We had a routine. We’d open our presents up on Christmas Day morning, get ready, pack our things into a car and drive what felt like ninety bazillion miles to my aunt’s house. All of my dad’s family would be there and we’d sit round the fire playing games and opening presents.

Obviously this year would be different. But I didn’t know how. Christmas decorations were being put up everywhere, but no one had mentioned what we’d actually be doing for Christmas. The pressure began to mount inside my head and I got more and more nervous.

Here were some of the thoughts I had…

Where would my brother and I be going? Would we just stay with mum? We lived with her after all. Would we go and see my dad in the afternoon? That would mean we couldn’t go to see his family, right? Did we want to see his family? Could we celebrate Christmas on another day? Would it be the same? What if no one even wanted me with them for Christmas? What if Christmas felt different? What if Christmas was RUINED forever?

I knew thinking about Christmas over and over was making me really sad. So I decided to take a big leap and ask both of my parents. Luckily, they were both so exhausted from the year that they wanted simple, at home Christmases and let my brother and I decide where we wanted to spend our time. It felt scary to make such a big decision. But we felt like Christmas Day with my mum and a “fake” Christmas Day with my dad on Boxing Day would be a great solution.

Tip 1: Just be really honest and speak openly with your family. This is much easier said then done. But it’s super easy to second guess and assume someone wants to do something, when really you’re not a mind reader. Be brave and ask your family what they want. Then you can have the space to voice your opinions too.

This turned out really well for my brother and I. Everything was unbelievably chilled and easy. But over the years, it hasn’t always been so simple. Some years my mum wanted us to travel to see her family. Other times my dad wanted to go away with his new girlfriend. Another year I wanted to spend the whole time with my boyfriend.

Tip 2: Remember that it won’t be the same every year. And that’s ok. They say humans are creatures of habit and always want things to be the same, but it’s also not realistic. When you’re splitting your time between two parents, that’s another set of people to think about. Plans will change, traditions won’t always be traditions – but variety can be the (cinnamon and nutmeg) spice of life.

Having some fun

It may feel like everything is out of the way once you’ve planned where you’ll be spending Christmas and who with. But you actually have to do Christmas now. And that can feel a bit weird when you’re used to spending it with both parents.

I remember finding it really strange to be doing two Christmases. Sure, that’s double the presents and double the turkey and double the crackers, but it felt like I was missing my dad when I was with my mum and my mum when I was with my dad.

Tip 3: It’s ok if it feels funny. That’s right. You don’t have to be happy and delighted and totally fine with everything. If you’re used to seeing both parents at the same time and now you only see one at a time, that’s bound to be a bit unfamiliar. Remember it’s okay to be sad about the past, but then do your best to focus on what’s going on right now rather than thinking lots about past Christmases instead.

Luckily both of my parents have been really good at talking between themselves and not getting my brother and I involved in their arguments. But when my aunt came to stay at Christmas once she started asking a lot of conversations about my mum, which left us with a funny taste in our mouths after Christmas dinner (although sure, that could have been the sprouts).

Tip 4: Remember your parents might be hurting. And so might their family. That’s understandable. But what’s going on with them isn’t to do with you—even though it can often really feel like it. If someone makes a nasty comment, try and remember it doesn’t mean anything about you. People do weird things when they’re sad.

Taking time out for you

One Christmas my mum had her family over and then my dad had his family over. This meant my brother and I had days and days of Christmases. It was fun. It was filling. We got lots of presents. And lots of love. But you know what else it was? Really, really tiring.

It was physically tiring, but emotionally tiring too. So many conversations and things to remember and people to please. I remember one Christmas just crying so, so much in my bedroom and not even knowing why. I’d tried so hard to make my dad’s family feel happy I had totally forgotten about the most important person: me.

Tip 5: Don’t forget about you. If you’re feeling a bit sad and stressed, that’s totally fine. But take some steps to make yourself feel a bit better. If one parent is mouthing off about the other and it just doesn’t feel nice, try and change the conversation. Or just go and watch some Christmas TV to stop thinking about it. Distract yourself with shiny things – and luckily, there are plenty around at Christmas.

That’s all from me. Good luck with your own post-divorce Christmases. Just remember that however drama-filled it might feel, you’ll have many more Christmases to come. Often the emotions run high for the first few years, but just keep remembering you’ll get double pigs in blankets. Nothing says ‘Christmas spirit’ like 90 pigs in blankets.

And hey, at least whatever happens in Eastenders will probably be worse…

I was keen to find out how best to deal with Christmas when your parents are separated beyond all of my personal experience. I spoke to Naomi Richards, a life coach for kids who wrote Being Me and Loving It and she gave me her top seven rules for coping with Christmas between two parents...
  • Enjoy the time you have with each parent and try your best to get involved in whatever activities they have planned.
  • Do not feel guilty about having to split your time between two homes on Christmas Day and don’t allow mum or dad to make you feel bad either.
  • Be kind and polite to each side of the family. Your aunties and uncles do not change – they are still family.
  • Discuss with each parent how you would like to spend the days you will have with them.
  • Allow your parents to decide how they are going to split the time they will spend with you. They will want it to be fairly equal.
  • Buy presents for each parent of a similar value and make sure when you receive yours that you are grateful for whatever they have given. Sometimes a parent does not have endless amounts of money for that present you really wanted.
  • If it all gets too much, excuse yourself from the meal or activity and have some time to yourself.

You can read more about Naomi and her work at The Kids Coach.


Image: Hailey Hamilton


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