While it always looks magical in the movies, in reality, Christmas can be a darned stressful time, particularly if you’re facing your first Christmas after a divorce. Knowing what to expect and how to prepare is key – especially if you have kids. We talk to one woman who is about to embark on her first solo Christmas and we get all the info, tips and help from expert Bridgette Jackson.
Growing up, Christmas was never really a huge event in Sandra’s family.
A few times they had a proper white Christmas – being in the UK – but, their family was very small, meaning get-togethers were low-key affairs, if they happened at all. Sandra’s father had a brother, who had no children and lived in Spain, while her mother was an only child, so at family events, she and her younger sister were the only children.
Some years, her parents took them on holiday around that time, other years they went to a sterile hotel restaurant for Christmas lunch.
“It never felt Christmassy, even though we lived in a town that looked like something out of a Christmas postcard,” says Sandra.
So, when she met Ken in London, who was on his OE, one of the things she loved about him, was how much he missed his family at Christmastime. Back home he had five siblings – one already had kids, and so many cousins, she’d lost count. And every Christmas, they ALL got together, in one big chaotic, explosion of fun and festivities.
Fast forward 15 years, and Christmas had gone from being a ho-hum time of year, to the time Sandra looked forward to most. Her two boys had nearly a dozen cousins to play with – as well as second cousins and third cousins.
But this year, Sandra is at a loss. She and Ken parted ways in January this year, and she’s now staring down the barrel of her first Christmas, alone.
“We’ve been great at splitting the time we have the boys,” she tells, “and – unfortunately – for me, Christmas was a no-brainer. They should be with their dad and all the other kids.”
“I’ve kept up our traditions – Elf on the Shelf, decorating the tree, watching a Christmas movie every Saturday – but now that everyone is asking what I’m doing on Christmas Day, it has suddenly hit me that I’ll be alone. Maybe I will wake up alone every Christmas now. I know I have friends who I could have lunch or dinner with, but I’m worried it will make me feel worse. What if other people are there and ask me about my kids? But, spending the day alone like Bridget Jones also does not appeal.”
Ken’s family are meeting up a three hour drive away this Christmas, so Sandra will say goodbye to her boys on the morning of Christmas Eve.
“That’s actually the bit I feel saddest about,” she says. “I loved the big family Christmas, but I love Christmas eve more – setting up for Santa, reading The Night Before Christmas, doing the last minute gift wrapping when the boys are in bed, and then hearing their excited giggles at 6am.”
Preparing for your first Christmas as a separated couple can be extraordinarily difficult – particularly when you have kids – and this year a lot of Kiwis will be going through it. Or, maybe they’ve been divorced for many years and still find it very difficult. Maybe they’ve only been separated for a couple of years, but this Christmas might feel particularly daunting after the chaos of the pandemic altering plans for the last two years.
Bridgette Jackson, a divorce coach from Equal Exes, agrees that it can be a devastating time for many as they navigate changing their family traditions and work out who will have the children, and when.
Feeling stressed, angry, disappointed, or sad is to be expected at this time of the year, says Bridgette.
“It is perfectly normal to feel emotional during this time!” she says. “But acknowledging those feelings and not letting them control you is important. The first Christmas and holiday period will be one of the many firsts, it’s important to plan ahead so you can be in control.”
Make plans as soon as you can
As Bridgette said, having some plans in place can give you more of a sense of control, which will help keep those stress levels down for everyone involved.
Here, Bridgette has 10 to-do’s to remember and tick off your list.
- Manage your expectations ahead of the silly season – your own and that of the kids so everyone is clear on what to expect.
- Children want to be with their parents at Christmas, so focus on them and remember to put them first.
- Focus on what is and what can be in your life not on what you do not have in your life. It’s a good idea to have someone close to you who can support you through this time.
- Make sure the holidays are planned in advance to avoid any anxiety from the kids or from family members. Communicate about how Christmas will be different and what will stay the same.
- Share details of the gifts you are potentially buying for your children with your ex. It would be good if you both agree to spend roughly the same amount or better still buy presents together for the kids, if appropriate. This sends a message to the kids about the joy of giving regardless of their living scenario. It’s not a competition.
- Put yourself in your children’s shoes – view Christmas from their point of view. Encourage them to spend time with the other parent – time, attention and support is more valuable to them that any present.
- Never disparage your ex to your children. They should not be asked to take sides.
- Accept that there will be difficult moments over the holiday period. Managing your emotions is imperative to you being empowered.
- Don’t hibernate at Christmas – connect with people and try new things!
- Look after yourself – exercise, sleep and eat well. Go and see a counsellor/psychologist/therapist regularly if you need this.
Above all, be kind to yourself, it’s been a rough time of late for you. Cut yourself some slack when it comes to managing your emotions, after all you are only human!
Overcome the loneliness
Like Sandra, many Kiwis will be spending the day without family, which, if it’s a day you’ve normally spent surrounded by relatives, can be particularly jarring.
“But you can overcome potential loneliness,” says Bridgette. If you are going to be spending time alone around Christmas and the holiday season, it is normal to have feelings of sadness and loneliness and there are things you can do.
She suggests organising to spend time with other family (if possible), or friends. “If you are not able to see those special to you, organise to talk or connect over a video call.”
Another great way to spend the day and lift your spirits, is to spend it helping others. “Offering to donate your time on Christmas Day, or leading up to the day, is a great way to feel valued,” says Bridgette. “There are many organisations who help those who would otherwise go without and they reply on the support of volunteers. It is a great way to give back and feel valued.”
It’s also important to remember that this is likely as bad as it gets. “When it comes to children and contact arrangements, the first Christmas post-separation will be the hardest,” says Bridgette. “Any traditions that had been built up within the family unit may feel like they have been taken away.”
With this in mind, it’s important to accept that this first year will look and feel different, and if there’s anything you can do to emotionally – or physically – prepare yourself for this, do it!
“It is inevitable that both parents will find themselves without their children at some time over the holidays,” says Bridgette. “It is good to acknowledge this and organise to keep busy when the children are not with you.”
“Practically it can be a struggle and logistical nightmare when it comes to children spending quality time with both families and grandparents. Splitting the day between parents while navigating own family traditions requires some planning and flexibility on both sides. It will feel confusing and difficult.”
It will also likely feel confusing and difficult for your children, so ensure the focus is on them. “When they are with you, really focus on spending quality time with them,” says Bridgette. “Creating new traditions is part of moving forward.”
“Children just want to celebrate Christmas. Mutually agreeing to put the children first should be foremost.”
But don’t let any feelings of guilt that bubble up about your separation overwhelm you. Children are resilient – with your love, care and attention, they will get through this.
“Whether they celebrate Christmas in both homes, children can adapt quickly and are flexible,” says Bridgette. “It is important to be honest with them in how the arrangements affect them. By focusing on them and prioritising time with them, you will be able to make new traditions and create special memories for them and you.”
For Sandra, this Christmas will likely be a tough one (and our hearts are with her and any of you who are about to embark on a similar Christmas). But not every Christmas has to be like this – there will be joy in future Christmas Days and Eves, and, there will be days and moments this festive season where she does see joy.
Since we first spoke to Sandra, and passed on Bridgette’s advice, she’s already rethinking future Christmas Days.
“This year it would have been too much driving for the boys, but in future years, we are going to change things so that I have the boys on Christmas Eve (my favourite bit) and then their dad picks them up on Christmas morning to spend the day and night with their cousins,” she tells.
“I’ll miss them terribly this Christmas, but knowing we have a plan for future years makes it easier. Now I’m toying with the idea of checking into a hotel for Christmas instead. Yes, I will do some moping, but being in a different location might take the edge off!”
If you have trouble coping over the holiday period or need someone else to talk to, there is always someone who is there to help you.
Women’s Refuge: 0800 733 843
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 Free text: 4357
Samaritans: 0800 726 666
Free call or text 1737