When Your Ex Gets the Kids for the Holidays: A How-To Guide

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Article by Michelle Savage-Mena

“He who binds to himself a joy does the winged life destroy. But he who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity’s sunrise.”

-William Blake

If you have children and are divorced, the holidays can quickly go from being the long-awaited, happiest days of the year to dreaded squares haunting your calendar. You only get your kids every other holiday, so you know that either Thanksgiving or Christmas is going to be abysmal. You envision yourself staying in bed all day sipping straight from a bottle of chardonnay while your children’s faces light up at gifts under somebody else’s tree. You know you should be excited about having adult time to yourself and are free to attend holiday gatherings without hunting down a sitter, but you don’t see the point in celebrating a day without the ones you love most. What’s worse is you still have to endure all the stress of holiday shopping and baking and maintaining good cheer without the payoff of that single moment when all the work is done and you get to simply be.

I’m sure nostalgia plays no part in my warm rememberings of holidays past, ahem. My own parents, now married 39 years, always made certain that my sister and I had a picture-perfect Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, including big feasts, family gatherings, candlelight services at our church, and a surprise gift or two along the way. For several years we would wake up Christmas morning and drive the hour into the mountains of Montana’s big sky country to stay at a cross-country ski resort fully stocked with hot chocolate, grasshopper pie, and a mammoth fireplace. It was a romantic way to grow up, and it impressed upon me the way that holidays should look and smell and feel.

Now, after four years of marriage and giving birth to one baby boy, divorce splintered the ideal family I worked so hard to create. I became saddled with a court order declaring I must give up half of the holidays with my two-year-old son. I knew I could survive this, but that was not going to be enough. Determined not to live every other year steeped in bitterness and sorrow, I began my quest to figure out how to thrive during the holiday season.

So what is there to do when you can’t have what you want? If you google the issue, you will find articles that suggest volunteering for the less fortunate to remind you to be thankful for all that you do have, or making a dinner with friends. There is even a site that lists staying in bed all day as one of its recommendations. All of these are viable solutions and may make it possible to weather the holidays, but they are treating outward symptoms with random distractions rather than getting to the roots beneath. The real problem is not that we don’t have something great, it’s that we expected something to be a certain way, to stay the same as it was, and we are mad as hell that we don’t get to have the pretty picture we had imagined and planned for.

And here we turn to the Buddha for holiday advice. Before you scrunch up your nose and ask what Buddha has to do with pilgrims, Jesus, Santa, a menorah, or a number of other holiday figures, read on. No matter what religion you subscribe to, the Buddhist philosophy of non-attachment is where healing your holidays can begin. The Buddha figured out that it is not what we have in life that makes us suffer, but desiring a specific and narrow outcome and then not being able to get it or keep it. A great yoga teacher once gave my class the above poem by William Blake, illustrating how we can truly find joy in life if we choose not to constantly cling to it like it’s our last ship to happiness. I keep it on my fridge as a household mantra.

Then I remembered the Easter my family went rogue and skipped the church service, excused ourselves from extended family, and took off on a spontaneous adventure in our white Buick Century. It was the Easter we drove out of town, bought three-for-a-dollar hot dogs at a convenience store and embarked on an impromptu exploration of the beautiful countryside. Those hot dogs were my best Easter dinner yet. In my parents’ choice to let go and just be in the day, an act of spontaneity produced joy. This recipe for throwing out the rulebook is how all holidays—and all the days in between—can be enjoyed simply by giving up on a rigid idea of what makes something good. Let go of your perfect picture and a door is will absolutely open to new and unexpected moments of bliss.

So put down the chardonnay, make a figgy pudding, invite friends over, volunteer, or stay in bed all day. It really doesn’t matter what you do if you are moving through your day with a grateful heart, open to the possibility that your new tradition is to let go and enjoy where you are. It just might be something you choose to do year after year.

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