One of the most difficult aspects of family transition comes when parents and children have to face separation at holiday times. The alternating year schedule that most divorce families know is a legally convenient solution to a profoundly painful problem: who gets the kids when?
In my family, we too answered this question with the alternating year solution. Every year, one of us felt barren, ripped off, torn away from our daughter. No matter how good our intentions were about creating equal time, lost time never felt equal. And loss could always so easily lead to blame, to leveling a finger at the other parent for ‘causing’ the pain of separation.
Then one year, everything changed. The change came about with the planning of our daughter’s bat mitzvah and the dawning realization that we wanted our whole family, all the disparate parts, to be joined together in celebration. All of the adults and all of the children participated in making food. All of the adults and all of the children walked into the reception hall linked arm-in-arm, and most of our family and friends cried with joy to see such unity after divorce. From that time on, our daughter requested that we try to have family holiday gatherings so that she would not be caught in the middle and would not have to feel that she was missing something, somewhere, in someone else’s home. For nearly ten years now, we have shared the feasting holidays as a large, extended family.
This past week was Thanksgiving, and once again a time for family gathering. Only this year, my ex-husband and his family were unable to host the dinner as they have alwyas done in the past. This year, my husband and I headed to my ex-husband’s wife’s mother’s home.
It was a different scene. All of the usual family members were not present. New and different families participated in the gathering this time, including neighbors in the community. The meal was a mixed buffet of homemade traditional Thanksgiving goodies and store-bought kosher Chinese food topped off with scrumptuous homemade desserts. The children, mostly in their late teens and early twenties now, chatted and ate together while the adults and the new parents of infants and toddlers moved about the house, catching up with each other and cooing over the little ones.
My husband and my former mother-in-law have forged a friendship and a deep affection. My ex-husband and I got to schmooze and snuggle with our daughter, then our niece and nephew. A while later, my husband and I repeated these affectionate encounters. None of it would have been possible if it were not for the manner in which my ex-husband’s wife held value and honor for me in the eyes of her family, especially her parents, in whose home we celebrated the holiday.
Divorce means the end of a marital union. It does not mean the end of family relationships. It need not mean the end of shared family experiences. Moving through divorce, family connections shift and alter. Often, they disintegrate and dissolve, but that is not a mandate. Our children inherently want us to remain connected, and if not in the marriage, then at least within the larger bond of family. To do the holidays better, we need to do divorce better, recognizing the strength of familial bonds that hold us, and allowing that web of connectedness to expand so that new unions are folded into the family structure. We can be separated and move on to develop new lives and even new families. Yet, we can also allow ourselves to be held by the extended arms of an expanded sense of family that supports our inclination to show up and be present for the big celebrations. Our children want this. Most parents I speak to want this. And every year, every celebratory moment in the lives of our children, we can do it better if we can do it together.