A Divided Christmas

Students who have divorced families may have a hard time during the holidays.

Sienna S.

Students who have divorced families may have a hard time during the holidays.

Sienna S., Sienna G., and Alice L.

With the holiday season upon us, most seem to be in a joyful mood. You can feel that warmth surrounding you as everyone appears happy to spend special time with family.

Holiday cards are mailed to relatives, and gifts begin to be exchanged. Images of Santa and his crew of reindeer delivering presents bring back the nostalgia of family gatherings. These magical moments stick in the heart of a teen.

“When I think of Christmas I think of opening gifts with family, snow, playing games, and Christmas lights,” said Avery A. “It’s my favorite.”

To bring the holiday spirit to life, there are age-old activities: hanging Christmas lights, wrapping gifts behind closed doors, and baking dozens of homemade cookies. Parents buy brightly colored decorations and wrapping paper. You won’t need to look far to find a fully-decorated Christmas tree with a stack of presents underneath.

But what happens when a child isn’t surrounded by their immediate family? This oftentimes has to do with parent conflict, which can really mess up Christmas. The holidays quickly lose their luster. A season that should be full of color has all the potential to transition into dreary monotone. Something is missing because, once upon a time, everyone shared a home together.

“Last Christmas was the Christmas where my parents got divorced, and I just really wanted them to get back together. I didn’t know what my mom and dad were going through, and I thought they were really mad at each other for no reason,” said Blade S. “I thought they could get back together and everything would be normal again.

The moment this reality comes to life, the facade of the holidays disappears. It’s replaced by the dreaded dilemma of who you’d rather be with, and it quickly begins to eat away at that previously merry holiday picture. The happiest time of the year involves packing heavy bags of belongings and trudging off to the car. That exit out the door from one parent’s home to the other invites a bottled up sense of guilt, tearing at the heart. There’s no win in choosing one parent over the other. Saying goodbye results in a parent’s uncomfortable smile and hug goodbye, as it will be some time before you see them again. It’s a smaller picture of a bigger problem. Life is split in two: one half for each parent.

“I feel really bad that I have to leave one parent for another, like they deserve more time [with me],” said Harlee P. “It’s not equal with how much time I spend with the other parent, and I feel really guilty when I spend more time with the other parent. I feel like if they spent more one-on-one time with me, I wouldn’t feel so guilty.”

Each parent puts up a carefully crafted exterior, as if everything was still the same. And you ignore it for a while, fixated on making the holidays feel festive. But next to the plate of milk and cookies, there’s also a bag, packed with all your essentials, ready to head out the door. Christmas becomes a drag as getting ready for a different household becomes an unwelcome chore. It’s the feeling of dread that you have to make an early morning drive all the way to the other parent’s house that keeps you awake at night.

“Christmas is difficult because my parents live about 45 minutes away from each other,” said Avery A. “I have to wake up very early and get ready, so I can get to school on time.”

Why isn’t it the same? you ask yourself. As the years pass, you start to understand the truth of the holidays. Being a little kid offers freedom from the stress of the adult world. It was a magical time of year. Yet the joy of opening twice the number of presents suddenly becomes a burden. As you unwrap gifts, treasured memories come to mind, accompanied by an ache to recover what’s lost. The feeling of excitement is replaced by the harsh reality of a double Christmas.

“I don’t think it’ll ever be the same. It just feels different – not as enjoyable. I guess because I remember old memories, and it makes me sad,” said Blade S.
“It reminds me of when my family was together. It’s not like I don’t wanna think about it, but I am just not ready to.”

Even with the festive holiday music turned up as loud as possible, little can reintroduce the joyful spirit of Christmas. Nothing can replace the longing for a happy family during the one time of the year you want it most. Instead, it’s been replaced by the potential of manipulative silence, a sarcastic response, or a heated holiday argument. You work nonstop to avoid adding flame to the fire because you don’t want to make things worse.

“I kinda tried to ignore it. I try not to get into the conversation,” said Avery A. “[They would] fight over a certain amount of time I spend with my mom and a certain amount of time I spend with my dad.”

The continuous wish for your parents to stop arguing is exhausting. The echo of yelling and screaming in the background destroys any semblance of a joyful mood. The one thing a kid with divorced parents wishes for on Christmas is a family that simply gets along with one another.

“It’s a little overwhelming, honestly, because you know that at the end of the day one parent is gonna win,” said Neveah C. “When they argue, you know it’s just like can you stop? I am right here.”

As the years pass, the setting begins to shift. The courts recognize that teens are no longer children. Instead, teens are given the choice that comes with the maturity to pick which parent to go with. Pressure builds as the responsibility lies on the teen to choose the setting for any special day. Guilt is close behind, sitting on your shoulder, assigning unspoken blame as a consequence for that choice. That overwhelming feeling seems to take over, as the holidays are void of the calm of those younger years.

“[When Christmas comes around], I feel really pressured to pick a side,” said Blade S. “I know if I don’t go with my mom, she might be a little sad. If I don’t go with my dad, he might be a little sad. Either can be sad. It’s not like they are telling me ‘come with me, or come with me instead of you, or come with me instead of your dad,’ it’s just me, myself, feeling the pressure to go to one side because I love them so much.”

There is a split second passing thought that raises the question: What if my parents pushed through just a little longer, maybe even kept the marriage together, because the anguish and ache of the holiday season just isn’t worth it. But it’s never going to be the same as it once was. It’s ultimately for the happiness of your parents. As much as you may want to, you can’t make them struggle with their relationship forever. It is what it is.

“Now that they are divorced, my dad found his own way, and my mom found her own way. So now it’s best for both of them, and best for the kids as well,” said Eugene T.

All you can do is hope that Santa fulfills a nearly impossible wish. A piece of you secretly longs for something else, because at holiday dinners, there’s always going to be one chair missing and you’re not sure if it was because of you.

Editors Note: As we approach the holiday season, it is important to pay attention to the echoes of loneliness that some families, together or divided, may be experiencing. If you or someone you know is struggling with seasonal sadness or the holiday blues, be sure to show grace, love, and support for yourself and others. The holidays are an especially important time to stay mentally and emotionally healthy considering the complicated memories that the season may bring. Check in with your family and friends often. Focus on peace, the present, and the positive. And remember, there is always a trusted adult to talk to on your campus. School counselors are ready to listen to you and support you!