Children of Divorce & the Holidays

It was the first time that I’d ever seen my father cry. It was the moment my parents explained to my sister and I that their marriage was over, that our family life would never be the same and that for the rest of our lives their divorce would color many of our family experiences and expectations.

It happened in my freshman year of high school, nearly 30 years ago. Yet, every year during the holidays their divorce remains as fresh and relevant as if it happened yesterday.

I’ve long ago dealt with the “hows” and “whys” that led to that sad moment. There’s no bitterness on my part, only melancholy. That’s because for the children of divorce there’s no finality to it. No matter how hard we try, the pain and effect of divorce lingers and it weighs most heavily on most of us during the holidays.

For Christmas, my wife and I load up the kids and travel to visit one of our family’s. Mine lives in the northeast; hers lives in Florida. Both of our parents are divorced so that means our holidays are even busier than normal as we have large families with lots of people to see and spend time with. We are blessed that our families love us, our children and are determined to squeeze every ounce out of our journey home. But that demand on our time is exhausting, persistent and, on rare occasions, selfish.

For a child of divorce whose parents are still in the picture, there is a constant and unrelenting tug of war that occurs. Sometimes it’s spoken and sometimes it’s implied. “You spent last Christmas with your mother, so it’s my turn this year.” “I’m putting in dibs on your birthday this year.”  “We want you to come spend vacation with us.” I completely understand where these feelings emanate from, because as a parent I, too, feel the desire to spend as much quality time with my children as possible. It’s human nature.

However, it’s my contention that the one thing our parents seem to forget about their divorce is that this wasn’t a choice that we made. We didn’t decide — rightly or wrongly — to move on from our marriage. Therefore, we shouldn’t continue to pay the price for decades to come by being split in two for every holiday, birthday or special family event. We shouldn’t be made to feel that we are “choosing” to be with one side of the family over the other. This is the fallout of a decision made long ago and long before we were able to comprehend the complexities of the dissolution of a once-loving union.

I’m not saying that couples should stay together for the sake of their children. That’s unrealistic and unhealthy for many parents and children who, in some cases, might suffer abuse — emotional, physical or sexual — in a dysfunctional or violent relationship. Clearly, the correct course of action is for the children and injured spouse to get out of that scenario and heal.

Plus, there is a silver lining. If my parents hadn’t gotten divorced my wife, children and I would never have experienced the overwhelming love and affection from my stepmother. She has been a bright, shining light in our lives.

What I’m advocating for is greater understanding of the burden placed on the children of divorce. Sure, we grow up, become adults, struggle with interpersonal relationships and, hopefully, become fully-formed spouses and parents. We strive to make sure that our children grow up in a more stable, permanent relationship than we had. But that doesn’t mean that we ever stop dealing with the ramifications of a divorce that occurred decades ago.

The pain of the end of our parents’ marriage is always heightened during special occasions because it’s a reminder of how our family split apart. We are not whole in these moments, as infrequent as they are and when there are demands placed on us to play favorites or decide who to spend time with and how often, it refreshes the agony of one of the worst moments of our lives.


The Beginning
About Happiest Daddy

Two boys, one wife and a ton of material. I live for family and I'm one of the most blessed people you will ever meet.

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  1. Powerful stuff. I know this must have been hard to share and appreciate you doing so because perspective is so important. Divorce is a part of a life and friends and family within my circles are no exception. Maybe I’ll reach out to somebody I know who went through this during the holidays, now knowing better about such feelings.

    “However, it’s my contention that the one thing our parents seem to forget about their divorce is that this wasn’t a choice that we made.”

    This stuck out for me and how could this not be 100% correct? Do the (your) parents understand this or still caught up in their own woes and games of tug of war to recognize?

    “What I’m advocating for is greater understanding of the burden placed on the children of divorce.”

    Bravo. You brought understanding to this side of the keyboard, for what it’s worth.

    • Happiest Daddy says:

      I believe that my parents did the best they could and, as far as I can remember, the acrimony was minimal — at least as far as what we saw. By this point in our lives the tug of war is more subtle. The struggle lies with the kids as we have to juggle seeing multiple families for the holiday and each side doesn’t always understand why we’re spending more time with the other.

      It was surprisingly easy to write — and like the best writing it was cathartic.

  2. Shawn says:

    Great post.

    My parents divorced when I was young, and I too went through divorce. I have 3 kids (now 12, 8, 5) and our divorce occurred in 2011. We were separated during the holidays in 2010.

    I knew from conversations with my mom that Christmas was hard for her for many years. That year got tough for her again because of what I was going through. I just resolved in 2010, ahead of the holidays, that I wasn’t going to let it bug me, or bug my kids. The kids being at 2 different homes had to be our new normal. It was established in the decree that Christmas Eve the kids are always with me until 8p, then with their mom after 8p and Christmas Day. We have split custody during the week (her: mon-Tues, Me Thurs Fri and we trade Wednesday), so we have worked the rest of the week and adjusted the schedules the last couple years to accommodate those days and prevent a lot of extra back/forth and allow for time to relax, get to family homes if desired, etc.

    I became one of those people that goes to the movie theater on Christmas Day. I have found things to do, enjoyed the quiet. Don’t take that to mean I don’t miss my kids! I miss them to pieces. I’m not trying to be some unemotional animal. I’m just not going to allow myself to get depressed about this. I have different family dynamics than many people; my brothers have their own family situations, a sister living a state away, another in Norway; so our family gathering is usually days-weeks away from Christmas. We just accept that is how it is and move on. It seems to be working for us. I just am working to keep Christmas a slow, simple time for me and the kids.

    Blessings to you and your family this season!

    • Happiest Daddy says:

      Shawn…thanks so much for writing. Your interest and comment is one of the reasons that I write because I hope to connect with others dealing with similar issues. We are all in this together and our shared experiences might lead to breakthroughs. I’m sorry to hear about your situation and I can only imagine how difficult it is to be separated from your kids on Christmas. It sounds like you have a positive outlook and a way to keep busy.

      I have found that even though my parents divorced and even though the holidays are difficult, I never once felt that my parents didn’t love me or didn’t want me in their lives. It certainly sounds the same for you and your kids. That is worth a lot and will serve you and your kids well.

This is what I think...