All I want for Christmas is… my kids.
My daughters will be spending Christmas with their father this year. Last year they were with me along with my partner as well my extended family.
It’s one of the difficult and often unspoken aspects of Christmas for the estimated four in 10 families whose parents have split. Children are either shared like Christmas presents on one of the most significant days of our year – lunch with mum and dinner with dad – or they’ll do what my ex-husband and I have done for many years: spend alternate Christmas days with each parent and their stepparents.
How do I manage not having my daughters with me on one of the most memorable days of the calendar? Around August, my alternate Christmas Day without the kids is planned. Christmas Day with just my partner and our dog is what I find the most difficult.
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Christmas Day can’t be real if there aren’t enough children and adults. It brings back memories of Christmases I spent as a child. We typically gathered at one of my aunt’s houses in Hawke’s Bay, with Mum’s six siblings and their broods of children. It was usually hot. It didn’t matter what we ate – sometimes it was coleslaw from a bag and cold ham – but the point was our Christmas Day was jammed with adults and kids. My aunts and uncles were all there to help me pull the presents out of the tree.
When I was 22 years old, my first daughter, I imagined celebrating Christmas every year with her. It is inconceivable when you’re starting a family that one day it might all break up.
Sarah Robb, a grief coach, started Christmas Connection to support people who are struggling during the holiday season. To pass on love to the spirit world, messages are written on wooden Christmas decorations and burned on Christmas Eve.
My daughters’ father and I split 12 years ago. The hardest Christmas was the first.
The girls were present with me on the first Christmas Eve. This is always the best part of the Christmas period.
Ask any parent divorcing if they can choose Christmas Eve or Christmas night for their children. The majority would choose Christmas Eve. You can watch their happy faces when they open presents and pull out toys from stockings.
After our first Christmas Eve together, I spent the morning with my ex, and was dreading the handover at midday. My ex-husband was in the Wairarapa, while I lived at home. Just after 11 o’clock in the morning, I loaded the girls into the car along with their Christmas gifts and overnight bags. We sped up Rimutaka Hill behind several cars and horses trucks headed for the Wairarapa. My ex-husband waited for me at the top of Rimutaka Hill, on the windswept crest with views over native bush and gorse.
That first Christmas Day is still fresh in my mind. Excited to see their father, my daughters leapt out of the car and I gave them to them. I was still in tears as I drove back from Wellington.
As the girls grew up, it has become easier, but Christmas Day is different since my divorce. My ex now lives elsewhere which means we physically can’t share the kids on Christmas Day because we made the choice that their day would be no fun if they spent half of it at the airport, being ferried back and forth between their parents’ homes.
On the year they’re with me, I make a point of making sure that they ring their Dad – and more recently, to video call him – at a time which suits him. When I spend Christmas with my daughters, I realize that he is the one who is missing so I try to make it less painful.
Kimberlee Sweeney has the following to say. Zooming in from Auckland, Kimberlee Sweeney, a divorce coach, said that she also alternates Christmas with her ex. “Oh yes,’’ she nods, fighting tears as she talks about how difficult it is when she doesn’t have her daughter, when she feels the same ache as I do.
I asked her for advice on how to handle the day without-your-kid/s Christmas Day.
Sweeney is a coach for hundreds of clients. He says Christmas Day can prove to be one of the most difficult days of the year, especially for divorcing and separated parents. “Christmas days are never the same again and it’s about accepting that and creating new traditions and being flexible about change…’’
She encourages parents to talk to their children about what they would like to do with Christmas Day and how they want to spend it.
In a blogpost, she writes: “What will make it a good Xmas day for your children? They are essential to your decision-making. Do you want exhausted, grumpy children to spend half of Christmas Day? Do they find it entertaining to be ferried around the country or town for half of the day? Is it better to spend a whole year with one parent and one with the other? Or perhaps Christmas Day with Dad and a second Christmas Day with Mum on Boxing Day.’’
Sweeney also discusses the period leading up to Christmas when newly separated or divorced individuals find themselves on Christmas party list drops, or are forced to attend pre-Christmas functions by themselves, often without a partner. It was a very difficult time for me to remember. I didn’t feel particularly festive going to the girls’ dance and school break-ups on my own when I was dealing with a marriage break-up.
My partner and me will spend Christmas Day together this year with my father, my brother, and their families in Christchurch. I planned this months ago, asking my sister with mild desperation: “What are you doing for Christmas?’’
Sweeney and her daughter will also be visiting Christchurch. When we agree that Christmas is the best gift ever, even if they are separated or divorcing, it will be unanimous. She smiles. “It will actually feel like Christmas.’’