Divorced parents: surviving the Holidays

Experiencing a "shared custody" at Christmas is not easy, both in terms of emotions and organization. Here are ways to survive this very emotional period.

Julie and Martin have a daughter, Beatrice. The couple is now separated, and both have a new partner. Martin’s girlfriend Isabelle has two kids from a previous relationship. Julie’s boyfriend Charles has a son, and they also just had a new baby together. There are a lot of variables in this family setting. Amongst all this mishmash, there are also Isabelle and Charles’s exes to take into account (and their own new family situations). Basically, it’s one big puzzle to determine where and with whom Beatrice will spend Christmas!

Ask separated parents to tell you about Christmas management, and you’ll certainly get a long and discouraged sigh. On top of being a complex situation, sharing time during the holidays is a very sensitive topic. We have the old-fashioned Christmas in mind and feel guilty for not offering the same to our kids.

To make sure everything goes well, many mothers going through this situation are offering you advice to inspire you and help plan something that will be good for both you and the kids.


Many recommend changing your traditions. Without doing a complete overhaul, it’s good to update a few rituals. Keep in mind that Christmas is not limited to a single day. “Christmas can be celebrated on the 27th, and it doesn’t have to be a big deal”, says Sophie. After experiencing her first solo Christmas last year, she invited her friends who were also alone for the occasion and cooked a great dinner for all of them. By being surrounded by friends and keeping busy in the kitchen, she didn’t have the time to think about the fact that her kids weren’t with her for Christmas Eve. She enjoyed preparing a big “grown-up” meal, a thing she hadn’t done in years because she was always in “family mode” for Christmas.

Using this time to change your traditions can also give a new meaning to Christmas, perhaps even more in tune with whom you really are (or who you have become since the separation). Seeing the experience as a chance to start over and choose new traditions is a way to make it a positive, creative and constructive one.

Handling crazy schedules

Several scenarios can occur during the holiday season. Some parents opt for the "Christmas with one parent and New Year with the other" solution by following the usual custody schedule. Others decide to divide the two parties: the 24th with dad and the 25th with mom, and the same goes for the New Year. Between the two holidays, we can split the time evenly or choose it according to each parent’s availability.

The best indicator will always be your kids. Make sure that the holiday custody arrangements don’t upset them too much and leave them completely exhausted when the festivities are over.

Winning examples!

I live in Saguenay, and the daddy is in Montreal. We decided to alternate every year: Christmas with mom and New Year with dad this year, and vice versa next year.

My son always spends the days before Christmas (December 22-23-24) with his dad, comes back with me on the 24th, goes back to his dad’s around the 27th and finally comes back with me on January 2nd. That’s how we’ve been doing things for years, and it works well for us.

I am not separated, but my parents are. On Christmas morning, we always had breakfast with our mom. It was our special Christmas breakfast, with chocolate croissants, cinnamon buns, marzipan, pancakes and fruit salad. We then opened the presents and dressed up to go to our paternal grandparents’ dinner. This way, both our parents could spend some time with us on Christmas day, and it created a tradition between me and my siblings, with whom I still have breakfast on Christmas morning, even if we now have kids of our own. It’s magical!

I have now been separated for three years, and we alternate every Christmas to avoid arguments over where the kids will spend the holiday. To make it through the holidays when I don’t have my daughter, I spend a lot of time with my nieces and nephews. Before I got separated, I didn’t pay attention or enjoy the small things. But now, I appreciate every little moment, every breakfast, every laughter with my daughter.

In my family, the transition takes place at 10 a.m. on the 25th. The kids spend Christmas Eve with me, wake up with me on the 25th, and then get picked up by their dad and spend a few days with him. Everything is pretty much organized around the custody schedule, but everyone understands that that’s how things are in a single-parent family. In fact, I think it helps my kids understand that the actual date is not that important. You can celebrate whenever you want!

I now let my nine-year-old daughter decide, but when she was younger, she was with me on the 24th and with her dad on the 25th. We switched every year and I always tried to make the best out of the day we spent together!

A truce to be together?

Making a truce to restore our original family demands great flexibility and understanding. It can work if everyone puts water in their wine and avoids making derogatory remarks or insinuations that would certainly ruin the magic. Celebrating together is almost impossible to do in the first year of separation because the two ex-spouses need time to grieve. This option can also be confusing for children, who might see it as a possible reconciliation. Kids often hope for reconciliation for years – every day of the year – so it’s important to be careful before deciding to celebrate Christmas together. If both parents are single, it’s easier, but otherwise, it can be a nightmare. Can we expect the father to want to spend time with the mom’s new boyfriend, or that the new boyfriend will want to chat with the ex? Unless you’ve reached a really great agreement, it is best not to confuse the kids during the holidays and give them false hopes of reconciliation.

Not in the mood to celebrate?

Being separated, you will likely find yourself alone at one time or another during the holiday season. Attending a party in your family without your children can be difficult. Some decide to skip it all together, others force themselves to go, and others decide to make new plans. No matter what you decide, just listen to yourself. If the thought of attending a party where kids – but not yours – are running around and having fun is too painful to you, simply call the hosts to inform them that you’re skipping your turn this year. No need to go into details.

Christmas without your children will not be easy. Don’t look too far ahead, just take it one Christmas at a time. No Christmas will be the same, but try to draw inspiration and energy from it to make every holiday a memorable moment.

When you’re separated, Christmas obviously requires a good deal of adaptation, but most of all, it requires a lot of love. Enough love to listen, witness and understand that your children are having fun with their other parent and are comfortable enough to tell you all about it. That's part of the Christmas magic.

Despite all these confusing emotions, try your best to focus on the holiday magic and cherish each second you spend with your loved ones!

Image de Nadine Descheneaux

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