Christmas is a time for food, fun, and, above all, family. So what do you do when your family has been irreparably altered by divorce? Here, this Stylist writer opens up about the struggles of navigating the holidays as an adult child of divorce – and reveals how ACODs everywhere can tackle the fallout of a less-than-amicable split…
My parents officially separated when I was 26 years old, in an event that definitely took the shine off Christmas festivities. It’s difficult to nail those ‘peace on earth’ vibes when your mum and dad have suddenly decided that they hate each other’s guts.
Nowadays, I find myself perennially haunted by the Ghosts of Christmas.
The first one usually visits quite early on in the year, when your mum asks casually – a little too casually – what your yuletide plans are. She catches you off guard, and you almost answer without thinking about it; you almost say, “I’m coming home, obviously – where else would I go?”
Then you remember that home isn’t the same as it used to be. Mum’s moved into her own little flat, Dad is living with his new girlfriend, and to make a decision without thinking very carefully about the repercussions is the familial equivalent of voting to Brexit; a horrible mess that you can’t talk your way out of, no matter how hard you try.
“Remember?” whispers the Ghost of Christmas Past, suddenly at your ear. “Remember when you could just go home for presents and a sloppy turkey roast?”
The Ghost of Christmas Past likes to state the obvious, I’ve found. And it also likes to shuffle through my memories for the rosiest-tinted recollections it can get its mitts on, playing them over and over in my head whenever I’m feeling emotionally fragile – which, at this time of year, is pretty much my constant state of being.
All it takes is a soaring rendition of Judy Garland’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas on the radio, or prolonged exposure to sappy Christmas adverts.
I often wonder if it would have been better if my parents had decided to go their separate ways back when I was a kid, because (from what I learned during whispered conversations on the playground) kids don’t have to handle the Sophie’s Choice dilemma of who to spend December 25 with.
Instead, mum and dad come to an agreement, usually while hammering out the custody arrangements, and the child is forced to get on with it. They spend Christmas with mum, Boxing Day with dad.
They usually get a sackful of competitive gifts from each parent too, in a bid to restore some of that festive magic.
I can understand the need to D-I-V-O-R-C-E; relationships can turn sour, people can be better apart, and, for my parents at least, this was absolutely the right decision for them. Trust me when I say that I’m not Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap, winking cutely at the camera as I force and cajole my parents back into matrimony. If anything, I’m more likely to run interference if they even think about rekindling their romance.
I just wish they’d remember that I’m their daughter first, and their friend second.
As an adult, my parents no longer feel the need to protect me from all the unpleasantness that goes with a divorce. Nothing is sugar-coated, or hidden, or avoided. Instead, mum and dad are desperate for me to validate their decision, to pick a side, to join them in badmouthing one another, and to listen to all the gory emotional details.
More annoying still is that, when it comes to making plans for the holidays, my inner child is desperate for mum and dad to choose for me. Instead, I find myself enrolled on a horrifying quiz show – presumably hosted by Chris Tarrant – against my will.
The title of this quiz show is, naturally, Which Parent Do You Love The Most?, and that’s pretty much the only question Tarrant asks me, over and over again, until the end of time.
Sure, he varies the phrasing a little bit, but I know what he means. And going 50/50 doesn’t help, my parents are the only people in the studio audience, I can’t phone a friend, and the prize is always the same; abject guilt and misery.
Trying to please everybody is impossible, even if you think you’ve got it sussed. My parents, bless them, did try; just weeks after they announced their plans to divorce, they revealed that they intended to host one last Christmas together at the family home. Some small part of me sensed that it would be a very bad idea, but it seemed the easiest solution; this way, no parent would be left alone on 25 December, and my guilt would be assuaged.
So, come Christmas, my sister and I dutifully flew back to the nest, with visions of sugarplums – or, at the very least, pleasant familial interactions – dancing in our heads.
Instead, we were treated to a tense day of thoughtless comments, awkward presents, and an overwhelming air of resentment. Dinner was the final straw; my poor mum was overcome with emotion and wound up walking out before pudding was served, dad suddenly revealed that he’d booked a flight out of Gatwick that same evening, and, to top it all off, there was a heavy dose of food poisoning to contend with, too.
Come the end of the night, my sister and I found ourselves sat on the sofa in the dark, sipping listlessly at cups of strong tea, and feeling utterly shell-shocked.
This time around, things are going to be different – because I’m refusing to be the “good daughter” and please everybody. I’m tired of pretending everything is OK, I’m tired of the sniping, I’m tired of breaking down timetables more intense than Obama’s day-to-day schedule, and I’m tired of keeping my face as neutral as possible when they rant about “him” or “her”. Because (fun fact) they never use one another’s names anymore – it’s always a cold objective pronoun loaded with venom.
So, months before anyone could start bending my ear about it all, I accepted an invite to spend the holidays with my partner’s family. Weirdly enough, my mum and my sister are coming along with me.
Dad, meanwhile, is currently living abroad – which should have been my Get Out Of Jail Free Card, only he was more than willing to fly home to spend the 25 December with my sister and I. Eventually we found the courage to tell him to save his money, to spend Christmas with his new partner, and to see us properly in the New Year.
It was probably the hardest thing that we’ve ever done; telling somebody that you won’t spend Christmas with them, when you’ve done it every single year of your life… it hurts your insides. After that conversation, I genuinely felt as if my heart was being ripped into two pieces. But he understood. At least, I hope he understood.
And, as I keep telling myself, I’m not responsible for my parents’ happiness, nor am I to blame for the fact that I can’t be in two places at once.
It’s time to stop smooth-talking, tap-dancing, and trying to soften the blow of disappointment; one of them will always feel left out, no matter what I do, and I will always feel like it’s my fault. I need to put myself first.
Read more: 30 Christmas jumpers to suit every taste
Yes, the Ghost of Christmas Past is a bit of a nightmare, and the Overwhelmingly Irrational Ghost of Christmas Future isn’t exactly fun either (WHAT HAPPENS IF I HAVE A BABY?! WHICH GRANDPARENT SHOULD I TAKE IT TO SEE???). But, as they focus on the shadows of what has already been, or what might come to pass, it seems a waste of energy to spend all my time appeasing them,
Instead, this Christmas, I’m going to focus on the lessons taught by Scrooge’s favourite ghost, and make a conscious effort to be happy in the present.
Hopefully, with a few glasses of Prosecco, a scattering of thoughtful phone calls, and a dash of Mariah Carey, it should be possible to make the Ghost of Christmas Present proud.
And, if not, I’ll be tipsily dancing around the room to All I Want for Christmas. It's a win win.
Expert advice for adult children grieving the divorce of their parents
- Shut down over-sharing
Brook Lea Foster, author of The Way They Were; Dealing With Your Parents’ Divorce After a Lifetime of Marriage, advises that adult children should (just like younger children) be shielded from details about their parents’ love lives. When your mum and dad start sounding off about one another, shut the conversation down as quickly and politely as possible.
- Don’t play parent, mediator, or friend
“You can be sympathetic and loving, but it is unhealthy for you to fill any of those roles,” says Foster. “You are not responsible for guiding your parents through their divorce.”
- Don’t take sides
ACODs are often pressured to take sides in their parents’ divorce, particularly when infidelity is involved, but they should attempt to remain as unbiased as possible – and stay out of any arguments. If you do need to air your feelings, try speaking to someone who is outside of the situation, such as a friend or partner.
- Embrace your own sense of autonomy
M. Gary Neuman, author of The Long Way Home: The Powerful 4-step Plan for Adult Children of Divorce, says that you shouldn’t feel pressured to cut out extended family members – keep in touch with the people you love, and don’t let anyone persuade you otherwise. He explains: “People who come from divorced families can have stronger family ties than other people, because they have a strong commitment to making family relationships work. We can empower ourselves to have better family connections than we did before the divorce. You don’t always have to be 100 percent healed. You can still make great progress.”
- Don’t compare your own relationship to that of your parents
Some adult children of divorce will find themselves questioning their own relationships or shunning commitment after their parents’ divorce – but you shouldn’t cultivate a cynicism about love. Instead, use it as a learning experience, analyse what went wrong between your mum and dad, and apply that knowledge to your own relationships to avoid the same pitfalls.
- Give yourself time to grieve
You need time to work through those acute feelings of denial, sadness, and anger – not to mention grieve the loss of your family; stop pretending everything is okay if it isn’t. Speak to your friends about how you’re feeling, or try writing your feelings down in a journal. If you prefer, there are therapists who specialise in ‘grey divorce’, and they may be able to help smooth out the transition for you.
- Monitor your alcohol intake over Christmas
We can all drink more on festive occasions, but it’s important to remember that using alcohol as a form of escape provides only very temporary relief.
- Remember that everyone is different
Everyone handles stressful situations in different ways. Try to be sensitive to others’ needs at this time, and to talk openly about what will be best for you.
- Be kind to yourself
You’re going through a hard time – and it’s important that you show yourself some compassion. Make sure you try to keep to regular patterns of sleeping and eating, remove yourself from situations that are difficult, and give yourself time to adjust to this new reality.