When the Holidays Hurt
Whether you can't be bothered to deck the halls or you're a junior Martha Stewart like I am, going through a divorce around the holidays is not as easy as (pumpkin) pie.
X and I moved into a rental house in June of 2014, just a temporary stop until the home we were about to build was finished. Temporary status notwithstanding, I made sure as we moved that the holiday ornaments would be easy to get to. The rental was huge, with high ceilings and I was envisioning some big holiday celebrations.
We had lots of traditions around the holidays, especially Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we would go out to lunch somewhere we hadn't been before (much easier after we moved to Santa Fe!) That evening we would attend Mass and then come home for our big "fancy" dinner. The next morning we'd have crab souffle' and open gifts. I had certain plates that I loved to use for certain dishes, certain ways to arrange the ornaments and certain recipes that were always used. I loved creating a special time for my family.
X didn't love it though, especially in the last few holiday seasons of our marriage. One whole marital counseling session was actually devoted to how he would concede to put the lights on the tree, but that was it. I could not ask him to put any ornaments on, he didn't want to, and he flat out wouldn't do it. I would just have to live with it. I went along with it, and we did compromise. He agreed to my request that he hang the Santa ornament he'd made out of a walnut when he was five. I could live with that.
I wanted to keep up the traditions for the kids. I could force the decking of the halls, what I couldn't force was the joy. He didn't have any. I admit that I could be a little militant about holiday decorating, but joyfully so!
X filed for divorce in October 2014 and moved out in early November. I was beyond devastated. Besides that, our daughter was away at college and our son was practically moved out. The empty nest that I'd been believing we would face together had become just another thing I inevitably faced alone.
Had I known that that year would be my dad's last healthy year, I would have gone home, but our 26th wedding anniversary was the day before Thanksgiving and I was hoping that a reconciliation was imminent. Due to my work schedule, I'd also made my first appointment with an attorney for that day. Needless to say, it was not the way I'd originally pictured ushering in the holiday season.
I felt even more isolated because I hadn't yet told any of my friends or family, except my parents, about the divorce. X had said he wanted one so many times before and then changed his mind that I didn't feel like explaining it to everyone all again.
That year, X was going to Las Vegas for Thanksgiving for a big family gathering. I was distraught. They were my family too and the thought of missing out on a trip I'd been looking forward to was extremely painful. Somehow, our son was not going to take part in this Vegas event, but I knew I wouldn't be able to muster up the cheer to roast a turkey. He had been invited to a family gathering at his friend's house, and I could "come along."
I remember driving there, and I remember making small talk with people. I remember turkey and some pie. The boy's parents were lovely, but to be honest, I don't remember their names. I don't remember anything I said or what I wore or what I brought. I couldn't even tell you where their house was. Looking back, it was like I was in a dream.
I hoped to avoid the same scenario for Christmas, so I called X to ask him what the plan was. "The kids can come to your house for Christmas Eve and I'll host them Christmas day," he said. Okay, that sounded good. I decided to make a big pot of spaghetti and put up a few decorations. I put the sauce in the crock pot and headed over to my neighbors to give them a bottle of wine. I didn't really know them that well, but re-gifting some wine seemed like the neighborly thing to do.
She answered the door and invited me in, asking how X and I were celebrating the holiday. I choked back tears as I told her all that had happened. She was very sweet and invited me to her church that evening. "Oh no," I said, "Thanks anyway, but my kids are coming over tonight."
Except, they weren't. Someone had obviously forgotten the plan or forgotten to tell them the plan. I'm still not quite sure what happened. I didn't know, as I sat alone with my pot of spaghetti and an 18 inch tall tree, that they were somewhere across town eating grilled cheese sandwiches at X's house. I was alone. On Christmas Eve.
I don't remember crying. I don't remember anything, really, except complete and utter shock. Literal shock. I knew deep down that for me it would be best to put my focus on the birth of Christ. I somehow put the spaghetti away and made it to my neighbor's church. I sang along to the carols on complete autopilot. To this day I can't remember the name of the church; it isn't even there anymore. I went home and cried myself to sleep. Not really. I didn't sleep.
The next day my kids showed up expecting dinner and gifts as though it was all part of the plan. I guess it was, somehow. We had spaghetti.
The days between Thanksgiving and New Year's were the strangest days of my life. Painful yes, but in an unfathomable, unbelievable way. How had I gotten here? It was like a crazy sort of limbo. I was alone in a giant, strange house and I jangled around the rooms as though I was in an alternate universe.
Pain is pain at any time of year, but the holidays certainly magnify it. If you are going through unwanted divorce or separation over the holidays you have my deepest sympathy.
Here are my gentle suggestions for you:
1) Be extremely clear about where who is going to be when. Of course, with younger children things are probably a bit more dialed in, if your kids are older like mine, be especially certain everyone is on board with the plan.