Even once the ink on the divorce papers has dried, there's still work to do when there are children involved. The learning curve while going through a divorce and the whole coparenting dynamic is infinite. Just because the marriage is over does not mean the relationship is. I got divorced in my 30s when my daughter was a toddler. It was messy and heartbreaking, and all of us had to go through an adjustment period. There are legal documents and parenting plans, and everything is laid out for splitting time, including during the holidays, but coparenting is so much more than that.
I navigated through the daily logistics and after a few months felt like I was getting into a groove. But the holidays killed me. While we worked with our attorneys to give us both equal time during all relevant holidays, it's totally different seeing your life splayed out on legal documents than it is actually living it — especially during the holidays, when there is such a focus on family and emotions can run high. But after almost a decade of being divorced and even remarrying and having a blended family, I've learned a few things.
- Make Requests, Not Demands.
Divorce doesn't necessarily erase the history you have with someone, and with that history comes a certain level of familiarity. In the beginning, we were both totally guilty of sending emails like, "Hey. I'll take this night and you take that." We didn't ask, we just declared what we wanted. It would have been just as easy to say something like, "Hey, how do you feel about taking the first night and I'll take the second?" The nuance in language from claiming something outright versus making it more of a conversation makes a substantial difference. When one person sets the tone, even with seemingly simple courtesies, it makes every exchange following much less emotionally charged, especially if you are in an acrimonious situation.
- Be Flexible.
The more flexible my ex and I are with each other including during the holidays, the better we get along and the less stress it puts on us and our shared child. I am not interested in constantly fighting with someone I'm no longer married to. So both of us showing the willingness to be flexible during the holidays, which already come with a heaping side of stress, is a game changer. If one of us has something come up that might require a date change, we always do our best to accommodate one another. Keeping a running tally of every extra chunk of time one parent gets over another is wasted energy. It's not always going to be split down the middle during every single holiday, and sometimes it's easier to roll with it than to fight it.
- Create New Traditions.
Thanksgiving is my favorite. Since it's only one day, we alternate who has our daughter each year. I thought I would be OK with it, but that very first year that rolled around when she was not with me, I was gutted. I hated sitting around a table with my whole family except her. It was a noticeable void and didn't feel like a holiday to me at all. So, we flipped the script. Now, on the years we do not have her, we celebrate Thanksgiving over the weekend. Nobody in my family cares that it's not actually Thanksgiving Day because they care more about all of us being able to be together. It's OK and even awesome to create new family traditions, big and small. There's no hard right or wrong, and you are entitled to do things your way if it makes your holidays better.
- Empower Your Child.
My daughter is young and not in a position to go out and get gifts or cards. So, I have always let her know that if there is something she wants to get for her dad, I will always help her. I know it makes her feel more comfortable and empowered to give cards or little gifts instead of showing up empty-handed for holiday celebrations. Plus, she is able to see me treating her dad with kindness. She is a separate entity from the relationship he and I have, and I always want to do my best to preserve that.
- Acknowledge That Things Are Different.
I never wanted my daughter to feel awkwardness or shame around our divorce logistics. It's hard enough for kids since they did not choose to have their parents split. Divorce is not taboo anymore as conversations are happening constantly to normalize it much more than in the past. I have always had candid conversations with my daughter about what holidays look like and how she feels. The first few times we had to divvy up holiday celebrations, I'm pretty sure I even looked at her and said, "It's a little weird, right?" Not in an effort to shine a light on our new normal in a negative way but to let her know that it was OK to acknowledge that it wasn't the same. Different isn't always bad, and if I can use scenarios like this to honor the reality of divorce logistics and create teachable moments, I am all for it.
- Kids Over Everything.
It may sound cliché or like the headline on a brochure you get in a parenting class postdivorce, but it's true. None of it matters. No issue with my ex is ever worth putting our child in a tough spot. It's not always easy. Coparenting with someone you are not married to comes with inherent challenges. I'm not going to argue about holidays and stress my kid out when we are all supposed to be able to enjoy family and make memories. If my ex wants a certain day that is technically mine, but it doesn't really affect my plans in the scheme of things, I will give it to him. And vice versa. Because no matter what has happened between us as a couple and now coparents, our kid will always win. Always.
Coparenting is certainly not a fairy tale, and some have it down more than others. It evolves and grows. It can be challenging on a normal day, so it can feel even more difficult during the holidays. There are no steadfast rules, and everyone has different circumstances. Of all the things I have learned over the years while coparenting a child, the most important is that if we are both willing to put our child first, then we are doing something right, on holidays and all the other days, too.