As a little girl, I remained blissfully unaware of sad childhood realities like rotating holidays between divorced parents. I came from an intact family, and I didn’t get introduced to the concept of divorce until my aunt and uncle split up during my middle school years.
Growing up as an only child in Florida, I remember Christmas and the days leading up to it feeling like the most magical journey of the year.
Our house, built new in the ‘70’s, boasted a huge formal living room, sunken and decked out in (what I then thought of as) fabulous golden shag carpeting. (My mom and I recently disagreed on the exact color, with me claiming yellow and her insisting on orange. Feel free to judge for yourself from the pictures below.) Every December, we put up a huge, fake tree and decorated it in colorful lights and a variety of ornaments, some fancy and beautiful, many homemade or hand-sewn.
To my delight, my parents allowed me to sleep next to the lit Christmas tree every night in December leading up to Christmas Eve.
My Dad put a foam rubber mattress “under” the tree for me, and my Mom and Gramma outfitted it as a comfy, cozy bed. For 23 nights in a row, I slept there, dreaming of Santa Claus, his reindeer, and his elves, wondering what he would bring me on Christmas Eve.
One Christmas morning, I awoke to a kitten in my stocking, every little girl’s dream! (It did try to escape repeatedly.)
Another year, an Atari 2600 console appeared from Santa, while my parents gave me multiple games for it. My Dad creatively wraps gifts, and I remember unwinding yards and yards of wrapping paper he had wound around each cartridge.
For us, Christmas Eve meant the “adult” party with my parents’ friends. My folks were married with a child (me!) long before any of their friends ventured into that level of commitment, so I became the token kid amongst their crew. This position reaped many benefits for me from the unmarried, but serious, couples who showered me with gifts ranging from a stuffed Kermit the Frog to Tweety Bird and Muppets towels to a classic teddy bear.
Christmas morning brought the whole family together at our house in that yellow-carpeted, sunken living room. Opening presents felt like a spectator sport.
We ate breakfast together and basked in the glow of the 60- to 70-degree weather for our perpetually snowless holidays. Every Christmas dinner consisted of homemade lasagna.
While our traditions were a little odd and not postcard-perfect due to the tropical weather, our holidays were always about togetherness. Most of all, I never spent a holiday away from either parent as a child due to rotating holidays or any other reason.
Vermont, with its postcard-perfect snowy landscapes, provides a deceptively charming backdrop for my current adult reality of the dreaded kidless Christmas and holiday celebrations. Now, as a divorced mom of two kids, Christmas means rotating holidays – Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – with my ex-husband.
In my opinion, rotating holidays and the holidays I have to spend without my kids are the worst part of being divorced.
My ex-husband and I made the “fair” choice of rotating holidays we each get to spend independently with our children every other year. This arrangement means he gets to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning (until 9 a.m.) with our kids one year, and I get to do so the next. Our agreement made sense at the time; no parent would always miss out on spending a certain holiday with the kids. Conceptually, it seems logical, right?
In practice, though, the experience of being kidless on a holiday is nothing short of heartbreaking.
My first Christmas Eve and Christmas morning without my kids coincided with my first major holiday celebration with my then-boyfriend’s family. His mom (who is now my mother-in-law) doesn’t make a big deal out of most holidays, but she owns Christmas Eve. She makes it completely hers. The whole family comes to her house for an all-day affair.
That year, my then-boyfriend and I both honored his tradition of sleeping over at his parents’ house for Christmas Eve. In the morning, he woke up early (not usually his thing, but he does it as part of their tradition) and went to Christmas Mass with his mom. We opened stockings at the breakfast table. She was kind enough to get me one and fill it for me that year. I felt welcome, accepted, and loved.
It all sounds great, right? Yes, and no. While I loved being part of such a special annual holiday family celebration and growing closer to the man I still love (and to whom I am now happily married), doing it without my kids ripped my heart out. I felt agitated all day on Christmas Eve, full of nervous energy and on the edge of hysteria.
When someone asked “where are those beautiful children of yours?”, I put my hand over my mouth and ran out of the room. When I called my kids to say “good night” and “Merry Christmas,” my then 4-year-old daughter said, “Mommy, I miss you.” I barely suppressed a ragged gasp and responded, “I miss you, too, baby, but I’ll see you in the morning.”
After hanging up the phone, I sobbed in front of my future mother-in-law while standing uselessly in her bustling kitchen. I wiped my eyes and managed to make it through the rest of the evening without incident, but I slept terribly and couldn’t wait to get home in the morning to prepare for the arrival of my children. I’m not usually a big fan of events resulting in more toys in my house, but that Christmas morning stands out as an exception. When my ex-husband dropped our kids off, I felt relieved, incredibly happy to see them, and bursting with anticipation as I guided them to the presents that Mom and Santa brought.
Here are the two things I learned that year:
- While spending any holiday without my kids creates a heavy weight of sadness in my heart, Christmas Eve, in particular, devastates me. Last year, at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning, my daughter, then 5-years-old, burst out of her room and ran down the hall shouting “Santa came! Santa came! Santa came!” That moment is burned in my memory. What if I had missed it? I hate that thought.
- My now-husband and his family accept me for who I am, past mistakes, emotional pain, and all. No one criticized me that one Christmas Eve for my erratic behavior and overflowing emotions. They all tacitly understood the source of my sadness and gave me the support and space I needed to just feel my emotions and soldier through. I am honored to be an official member of the family this year. I took my husband’s last name with pride.
For anyone getting divorced (and, just to be clear, I do not wish that experience on anyone), my advice is this: resist rotating holidays for every occasion. Try to claim the one holiday you really, really want every single year. Maybe your ex will even go along with it, particularly if they want to claim a different holiday as their own.
More than (almost) anything, I wish I could spend every Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with my kids, and for the years when I can’t? Please forgive me while I cry in the kitchen.
What times do you miss your kids the most? How do you cope with it?