Sarah Brokaw talks about "Handling the Holidays After Divorce" on |

Sarah Brokaw talks about “Handling the Holidays After Divorce” on

So you’re newly separated, and it’s your first holiday alone with your son. After everything you’ve done to make it perfect, he turns to you and says, “This Christmas just isn’t as good as last year.”

What can anyone possibly say to that?

“It’s about having a dialogue, a real open conversation,” says Sarah Brokaw, licensed psychotherapist, philanthropist and author of the upcoming book, Fortytude: Making the Next Decades the Best Years of Your Life: Through the 40s, 50s and Beyond. “But that conversation cannot be had, until you’ve had the conversation with yourself.”

For many of us after a divorce, that can mean confronting our own expectations about the holidays. Do you torment yourself with ideas of how the holiday “should” be?

Here’s how to rethink five of the most common holiday “shoulds,” so you can turn around negative feelings and help your kids enjoy the season, too.

  1. I should not be alone on “the day.”One-day holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas Day come with an added dose of stress. Many divorced moms fear that they’ll be left alone on the main day – or not have their kids with them, which for many is the same thing.

    But what if it happens? The key, says Brokaw, is planning ahead.

    Think about what you’ll be feeling, whether it is loneliness, shame, guilt, anger, or sadness. Decide not to deny the feelings, and instead come up with a plan for how you’ll handle them. “Ask yourself in advance, ‘How do I work with myself and my support system so I don’t feel as alone?'” offers Brokaw.

    For example, one divorced mom told us, “I decided to have my own Thanksgiving the way I wanted it a couple weeks early. That way, my Thanksgiving date didn’t conflict with anyone else’s, so everyone would most likely come. And by doing that, I had NO expectations on the day of Thanksgiving, because in my head, I’d already celebrated – so whatever happened was a bonus.”

    One word of warning: Don’t slip into your usual set of unhealthy responses. Overeating, undereating, not sleeping, avoiding friends, and watching endless hours of TV are common ways of “coping” that don’t get you anywhere. And that third glass of wine? Probably not a good idea either.

  2. I should accommodate all the grandparents.Between your family and your ex’s, several different sets of grandparents may demand to see your kids in a very tight timeframe – and make you feel like you have to be everywhere. “Instead, turn down the volume of your parents’ voices in your head, and learn to hear your own,” says Brokaw. If you’re only assuming responsibility for their happiness, then who is responsible for yours?

    Learn to set aside the need for their approval, and do what works for you. This could mean spending each holiday with only one set of grandparents, but rotating every year. You could also split the day in half, or celebrate with some family members the night before. “It’s a very difficult task, but it is doable,” says Brokaw.

  3. I should get my child a better gift than my ex.It’s called overcompensating. Stop it! “This is a defense mechanism that is so counterproductive,” says Brokaw. Usually stemming from guilt, divorced moms will often try to make their kids “feel better” with material things, or other attempts to “one-up” their ex.

    “Then what happens is, you don’t get the response that you want to get – and it makes you feel that much worse,” says Brokaw. “And it’s a spiral – you get angry at your ex-spouse, and at your ex in-laws.” If you tend to overdo it with your kids, think about why. Do you feel guilty because you left your husband? Do you want to prove that even though your ex has more money, you can give a “better” gift? Learn where it’s coming from, and deal with those feelings directly.

  4. I should feel joyful no matter what. After all, it’s the holidays!This can be a form of denial — pretending everything is okay when it’s not, to hide your true feelings. “In our country somehow, we’d like to say holidays are the most joyous. But everyone experiences pain, or some type of unsettling emotion,” says Brokaw. “Really feel the issue at hand. Recognize that how you handle those emotions is your choice. And if you don’t feel comfortable in having a conversation with your friends, it’s okay to go to a therapist.”
  5. I should create the perfect holiday for my kids, like the ones I used to have.Your kids don’t spend the holidays in one place, like you might have. But remember, two-parent households often disguise problems just like any other. Don’t give into beliefs created by society, or your parents’ generation of what a family or holiday should look like.

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Posted on: December 21, 2010
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