Making New Memories

single mom and son hugging in kitchen at Christmas

9 Divorced Moms On What They Wish They Knew That First Holiday Season

Believe it or not, you actually might miss this year one day.

The holidays are a time for family gatherings and spreading love — but when the season coincides with the separation of marriage and there are children involved, it’s not quite as filmesque. Between shared custody agreements, split holidays, and the roller coaster of emotions, navigating the most festive days of the year can feel emotionally and logistically overwhelming for newly separated and divorced parents.

My first holiday season after separation was marked by anxiety: separation anxiety, perfectionism, and the need to keep busy with activities. I needed to make the most of the time I had with them before my turn was up. I was also focused on my kids, who were 5 and 16, not being affected by the change. After I wore myself out decorating, cooking, baking, shopping, and dragging my sons to every joyous event in town, I realized my children seemed the happiest when we wound down for the day. That was when I was the most present. A few split holidays later, I wish I had known then that my kids would be affected by the new version of the holidays — but for the better.

The real magic wasn’t in the gingerbread houses, tinsel, light shows, and festive crafts. It was in the ease and comfort that a healthy home life offered them.

Without worrying about managing adult emotions, they could be children again. They didn’t have to tiptoe around the emotional minefields our marriage created around the house, especially on special days. The joy of the holidays unlocked the realization that we, this version of our family unit, had a newfound freedom. If we wanted to bake a dozen imperfectly shaped snowman cookies, we did. If we wanted to go to the holiday parade in 30-degree weather, we did. And if they didn’t want to, we didn’t. Turns out it was, dare I say, easy. If I had known that first holiday that I didn't need to wear myself out trying to make sure they weren't affected and just leaned into embracing our new reality, I would have put down the events calendar and aspirations of creating some sort of holiday magic. The real magic wasn’t in the gingerbread houses, tinsel, light shows, and festive crafts. It was in the ease and comfort that a healthy home life offered them — where they could relax emotionally and literally during a break that’s as much for them as it is for me.

Here are eight more moms on their experiences and what they wish they’d known to help them prepare for their first holidays after separation or divorce. There’s no handbook for parenting, and there are certainly no guidelines on how to get through a divorce. But, there is the wisdom and solidarity of real moms who have gone through it and come out on the other side.

More grace, less guilt

I expected grief. I didn’t expect the odd combination of relief and hopelessness that cycled through the season. A lot of the things that made me sad, like not having someone to stuff a stocking for me or make breakfast with me, were things my husband wasn’t doing anyway. The worst part was the loneliness. When the presents were done and dinner at Grandma’s was over, the silence set in — and so did the realization that this was the new normal. Through this process, give yourself grace. While you feel guilt about what you’re missing, remember that your children have gained a more present, less stressed parent. —Mia J., 44, mom of three, Texas

Let go of date-specific traditions and find joy in new rituals

The last few years since my divorce have gone by at mysterious speeds. Nothing feels the same. The holiday season isn't helping, but it's OK. I am seeking glimmers of joy and hope in the one thing this season does provide: pause. I'm alternating between self-care and nurturing my communities of care. That looks like virtual cocktails, cultural and art events, nature walks, gatherings, decorating my sanctuary, and good conversation. Find joy in something this season. Remember that rituals don’t have to look a particular way — and definitely don’t stress about celebrations being date-specific. We had a two-part Diwali celebration this past year, to accommodate my son’s parenting schedule. For the second part, my part, my son and I fried pooris, took photos, and had a sit-down dinner. Together, the celebrations felt very grounding as a family. And the date we chose to celebrate on, it didn’t matter to him. —Jyoti G., 47, mom of one, New York

I wish someone had told me that the grief and sadness would leave me so raw that I would feel Christmas the way it’s meant to be felt.

You just might miss this first holiday season looking back

That first Christmas after my divorce was fresh on the heels of my separation — I had just left with my 5-month-old daughter in October. What, on paper, should’ve been a banner year for the sads — abusive marriage coming to light, being divorced at 26, baby’s first Christmas — was actually one of the best Christmases of my life. I’m remarried now with two more little girls and our Christmases are so magical and lovely — but I almost miss how that first one felt. That first Christmas post-separation really sold me on what Christmas is all about. I leaned hard into my village. I was living with my mom and I made cookies with her for the first time in years. She let me set the table on Christmas Eve for my dad and siblings. My best friend had me and my baby spend the night for a Christmas movie marathon. My granny had me over to decorate her tree and she held my baby the whole time.

I will never forget stuffing a law office’s Christmas cards to make some money and then promptly using that money to buy my baby her first Christmas ornament and her first pair of Christmas jammies. I felt so fulfilled. The anxiety and stress of a narcissistic ex who used our child like a pawn was still there, and the fear of being controlled by him through parenting plans and the worry of what life would look like for my girl as she grew was still there — but Christmas dulled it all a bit. The way Christmas does. I wish someone had told me that the grief and sadness would leave me so raw that I would feel Christmas the way it’s meant to be felt. That the first Christmas post-divorce would be both a balm and an extra singe — that even the colored bulbs on our Christmas tree would appear brighter than ever before, all because I was brave enough to leave. —Samantha D., 35, mom of three, Georgia


There’s no such thing as normal

Discussing the arrangements the day before Christmas led to arguments between me and my ex, and I wish I would have started the conversations much earlier. Having to design and create a new normal for my children and expecting for it to look and feel normal was also a mistake. People get divorced every day. Relationships end every day. Surely we could do the holidays and things would be normal, right? Wrong. Having to share my kids on a regular Saturday was more challenging than I expected, so sharing them around the holidays was even harder. Then add their questions and noticeable confusion and discomfort with the change, and it was just so far from what I expected. They still had an amazing holiday, but change is hard. Just know that there’s no such thing as “normal,” so go into it with a very open mind on how you will feel. Change sometimes comes with challenging feelings, and that is what’s normal. Don’t be so hard on yourself. —Ilycia M., 44, mom of two, Michigan

The freedom feels so good

Logistics were hard. Who gets the actual holiday? When do the grandparents get to see their grandkid? But, let me tell you what was easy: not feeling the tension between my spouse and my parents, not emotionally monitoring a full-grown adult, and being able to fully enjoy my time because I wasn’t distracted by someone else’s emotions. If I thought of some fun holiday thing I wanted to do with my kid or family, I could just do it. I didn't have to plan it around when my spouse was feeling “up to it,” or risk feeling bad about them not joining me and my child. Coming across the sentimental ornaments was a little hard, but I also felt free. The advice I would give to other moms on their first holiday after divorce is to believe that the future will be more joyful than you can imagine. Even if it hurts now, you're better off now than in a relationship that wasn’t healthy. Keep hoping. —Aarika T., 33, mom of one, Pennsylvania

Plan ahead to do something just for yourself

That first holiday season is very difficult. My ex-husband was in the military and we had recently completed a move from Germany back to the U.S. We had no family here and I had not made many friends yet. I had been a stay-at-home mom for most of my kids' lives as a military wife and had only recently reentered the workforce. Christmas is one of my favorite holidays, and the first year dropping my kids off on Christmas morning at their dad’s and then going home alone was depressing. I didn’t even own a TV or a lot of furniture yet. I wish I had been more prepared for the mourning period you go through after a divorce, especially when you have to split holiday times. Plan ahead. Do something just for yourself — even if it’s just sitting in your PJs and relaxing. My new Christmas tradition, the years when I don’t have the kids, is to take myself to a movie and then find an open restaurant. Over the years I’ve developed some close friendships with people who also don’t have family or friends close by and we will sometimes do a small gathering. —Bree C., 37, mom of two, Maine

Children aren’t emotional support and it’s OK to seek that elsewhere

My first divorce was during the holiday season, and my second was right before. The first was honestly a blur. I was in survival mode and just grateful it was over. The second began a reign of terror known as the holiday season. Families would offer and take me and my boys in. I am very good at side dishes, so cooking became my key to a proper invite. My struggle early on was that I wanted someone to be obligated to me during the holidays, but didn’t want anyone spending time with me out of obligation. I remember reaching out to one of my friends in tears explaining how hard it was not having a family. Her response would haunt me for years: “Your children are your family.” We never hung out again. What I was really seeking was emotional support. I wish I would have known that people who made me feel like a burden were not my people. Children aren’t your emotional support animals designed to replace your adult needs for companionship. If anyone suggests otherwise, run. Find the other single moms. —Heather R., 41, mom of two, California

Trust that your kids will appreciate it all looking back

This first Thanksgiving after the divorce was my turn with the kids. I’m kind of nervous about waking up on Christmas morning and my children not being here. I used to work in news, where I didn’t always get holidays off, so I'm trying to psych myself into thinking it’s just a regular Monday — of course until they come home in the afternoon and I get to have them for a week and do fun stuff. The counting the weekends and trying to overcommunicate with my co-parent about who has the kids when is a lot. Trying to navigate custody and holidays and vacation time is just as daunting, but I choose to make the best of it with my co-parent to make sure my children are OK. My 8-year-old, he just wants to be within touching distance of his mom, if not damn near in my skin. My daughter, who’s 2, just wants to be with me no matter the activity or the effort I put in. Please know that they’ll appreciate it one day when they’re adults with their own kids. —Nikesha W., 37, mom of two, Florida