Each year at this time I reprint this letter. While this may not be pertinent to all, I’m sure you know many divorced couples and if you know them well enough you can pass this along.
Each year thousands of American children are informed that their parents are divorcing and that there will be new living arrangements with the children alternating time between parents. Adults who experienced divorce as children frequently report that the holidays were especially stressful for them during their own childhood. This means that divorced or separated parents have to take time to figure out and discuss what the holidays should look like for their children and not what suits the parents or the custody arrangements. After all, we say, “Christmas is all about the children” but do we really set it up to be so?
What should Christmas morning look like then in these situations? Well, every young child wants to be at home for that special moment when they discover what Santa left under the tree. Children also want their siblings and parents present. If there has not been a remarriage I would suggest for example that if the children are living with Mom then maybe Dad can sleep on the couch on Christmas Eve (or arrive early) so he can be there when the children awake. (This means Dad has to refrain from any amorous feelings and stay on couch.) In this way, the children can have both parents together on Christmas morning and not feel the absence of one parent or the guilt that comes from being with one parent and not the other.
During the holidays children of divorced parents are often transported all over the country to be with their non-custodial parent. Is this the best thing for a child and whose purpose does it serve? I really question the wisdom of this arrangement. How comfortable is a child being taken out of their home and familiar surroundings, away from their friends at such an important time of the year? My instinct tells me that children would be more comfortable in their homes on such a day and at another time travel to their other parent’s home. How does a child feel when they have to leave Mom for Christmas to be with Dad or vice-versa? A child will often experience guilt and anxiety or a sense of betrayal, not exactly the fa-la-la merriness of the season. Children of divorce are often forced to operate in two different worlds and have to struggle to make sense of them both causing them to feel very alone. This forces them to act like chameleons in order to conform to two different sets of expectations and therefore being at home in neither. This is all especially acute when children have very infrequent contact with their non-custodial parent.
Gift giving is also a challenge. Too often parents vie for a child’s approval by getting them a little more or a little better gift than the other parent. What I suggest is that parents decide together what to get the child. This way one parent does not undermine the other or pit the child against the other parent. It usually goes down like this: Dad gets the child a gift the mother does not want the child to have. The mother may have good reasons to withhold a certain present. An example might be a new computer: Mom doesn’t want Junior to have a new computer because he already spends too much time on the one he has and has abused it but Dad knowing this goes ahead and gets it anyway sending the message that Dad is the nicer parent and Mom is merely a dictator.
The point is that parents even if divorced still need to communicate about the needs of their children. This means at times putting aside personal grudges and resentments and acting in a way that serves the child’s best interests. The best thing to do is to come up with a common gift list based on the child’s needs and wants and then split up who buys what. And what will make it really nice is if all the gifts are under one tree so that even if the non-custodial parent can’t be present he or she will still be included in that important moment.
Divorce, I realize is an unfortunate reality in our culture. While I wish it wasn’t so I still believe that if adults can carefully pay attention to the needs of their children then the emotional havoc wrought on children can be minimized. Christmas is the best place to start doing this. Obviously an “amicable” divorce is preferable to a bitter one but still, there is no such thing as a “good” divorce, at least not when children are involved. That’s an illusion adults create to assuage their guilt.
So, at Christmas divorced or separated parents obviously have a choice to either “rock around the Christmas tree” or throw rocks at each other through the Christmas tree. When you choose the later then our children are the ones being bruised.
Fr. John B.