One Year at a Time Many divorced parents agree to alternate visitation: Johnny spends Christmas this year with Mom and next year with Dad. The agreement is spelled out, and there is no reason for Johnny to feel guilty. Margorie Engel, a Boston-based author and consultant on divorce and families, suggests that whether or not you alternate, every year you should do whatever is necessary to avoid putting a child in the position of being torn between families.
"Give yourself permission to color outside the lines," she says. "Don't be locked into only Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Just brainstorm a little."
New Traditions Create a new holiday ritual for your child, Engel suggests. Perhaps every year your celebration will be a December party you host for your daughters friends. Maybe an annual outing to see The Nutcracker can be your special time together. Or maybe from this year on, your big family gathering will be on July 4.
Make Your Plans Known Whatever the situation, The Stepfamily Association of America urges parents to plan. Communicate with former spouses and other relatives, asking for written confirmation on travel plans. Make itineraries for the kids so they will know what to expect. "The kids are uptight, because they're not sure where their base of security is," explains Donald A. Gordon of the Center for Divorce Education in Athens, Ohio. "If both parents have remarried, they don't have a place where they really feel at home." Knowing the specific plans helps alleviate this.
Communicate openly with your former spouse and new partner about holiday plans and gift buying. "That would make the children very happy, to see Mom and Dad consulting positively with each other about them," Gordon says. "Do it so the kids will know you are conferring over something pleasant regarding them -- not about a problem. Holidays and birthdays are probably the only two opportunities during the year to do that. Don't let that opportunity pass."
Parents and stepparents should also communicate about proposed holiday menus and dinnertimes if kids will be visiting more than one house in a day.
"The positive thing about the holidays is that they are a time when a family can begin to build new history," says Judith L. Bauersfeld of Phoenix, Arizona, president of The Stepfamily Association of America. "But for children, there is often a profound sense of loss and sadness in knowing they cannot return to what was before." It is important to acknowledge that loss and allow kids to mourn good times that are gone. They also need to know these feelings are normal.
Continued on page 2: If a Parent Is Absent