Kidless at the Holidays: A Survival Guide for Divorced Parents

Filed under: Divorce & Custody, Holidays

The Miller Family Picture

From left, Alivia, Jenna, Marla and Jessica Miller. Courtesy of Marla Miller

It is Christmas morning and the kids are bundling up to head out into the swirl of snowflakes and into your ex-spouse's new family fold. You exchange holiday wishes, hugs and kisses as your children dash out the door.

Suddenly you find yourself standing in a sea of crumbled wrapping paper, sipping eggnog solo and determined not to let the magic of the holiday season disappear as they pull out of the driveway.

You are home alone.

Welcome to the world of divorced parenting at the holidays. It's confusing and lonely and even Santa gets tripped up trying to figure out where to deliver the presents.

"Divorce sucks," Marla Miller, a single mother of three from Montecito, Calif., bluntly tells ParentDish. "It really, really hurts. And worse, you know it is really, really hurting your kids too."

Miller recalls her first Christmas Eve following her divorce five years ago.

"I was alone so the kids could celebrate with their dad," Miller, a former family therapist and now full-time writer tells ParentDish. "My daughters felt bad about it, and so did I, though I did my best to 'cover.' But it was one of the hardest days of my life."

Miller may indeed have found herself home alone, but she is not alone. For many single moms and dads, the holidays deliver heightened stress, anxiety, and a deep ache on the days when it is the other parent's turn to be with the kids.

"Single parents should never feel 'gypped' or 'deprived' of tradition during the holidays, nor should they feel that they are any less of a family in the absence of a spouse," Sherrie Madia, director for communications for The Wharton School tells ParentDish. "They should feel empowered to shape new traditions in the context of family, whatever shape or form this may take."

In an effort to help single parents stave off the "home alone" holiday blues, ParentDish went to those on the frontlines to ask for creative suggestions to survive and thrive during the holidays when the children are away.

Savor the solitude. "In my situation, my kids are with me 97% of the time," one East Coast working mom of two who asked to remain anonymous tells ParentDish. "Since I have so little time to myself, on the rare times they are with their dad -- even on holidays -- I go into extreme pampering mode."

"I do all the things for myself I never have time to do," she tells ParentDish. "I buy food my teenagers won't eat, like scallops and spinach. I watch a movie I want to watch, and take a long, hot bath. By the time my children return, I'm rested, refreshed and happy to see them."

Forget holly, jolly merriment. Curl up and have a good cry, says Miller. "I've learned that it is okay to feel sad and to sit in that sadness that day," she tells ParentDish."When the day is over, you kind of think to yourself, well I made it. I survived. I can go on. But, most of us spend the day trying to fill it up not to feel that."

Celebrate Your Own Star. Even though you aren't with the kids on the Hallmark holidays, pat yourself on the back for being on the ground 24/7 the rest of the year, both Miller and the East Coast mom of two agree. "This gives me the strength to be the parent who goes to doctor's appointments, and the ER," she tells ParentDish. "Remember who supervises homework and signs all the forms. Or who buys shoes and T-shirts and gets the haircuts scheduled. He may take them to Florida or Maine or Mexico, but I really get the best part of my kids. I get to live with them day-to-day," she adds.

Get Together With Friends. "Invite all your friends, neighbors, and nearby relatives who might have no other plans to join you on Christmas for a cooperative dinner -- everybody brings some kind of food (or, for the culinary challenged, wine)" Cynthia MacGregor, founder of tells ParentDish. "Instead of bemoaning the absence of your kids, turn it into a GOOD thing and enjoy a whine-free, disaster-free, sibling squabbling-free celebration."

Reach Out. "While parents may be without their children on the day of the holiday (depending on the terms they negotiated in the divorce), they don't necessarily have to be alone. I've suggested groups for divorced parent," Lisa Decker, a financial analyst who covers divorce, tells ParentDish.

New Year, New Adventure. "One of the suggestions I make to parents who now live apart is to make New Year's the second Christmas," Robin Siebold, a psychologist, tells ParentDish. "In other words, just because the calendar says December 25 is the actual day, the next week is a whole other set of holidays, with an Eve to go with it."

She also recommends celebrating the day after or before, versus splitting the holiday with everyone racing from home to home to celebrate on both sides of the family. Do it the day before or the day after, rather than split the day. "I think splitting the day is very taxing, not to mention unfair, to children, Siebold says.

Put on Your Party Clothes and Skype. "My in-laws are in Iowa so we use Skype to celebrate and see each other live before dinner, Sherlyn Pang Luedtke, founder of Present Parent Training, tells ParentDish.

Take a Hike. Or, do what makes you feel good. To make merry, or rather to stave off sadness, "and my pity party," Miller tells ParentDish she decided to take a long walk that first holiday alone, a tradition she honors now every year.

And her cheerful spirit was rewarded with a surprise visit -- from guess who? When she was about to head out the door, her three teenaged and young adult daughters, Jessica, Alivia and Jenna, surprised her and returned home from their father's early. The foursome headed for the nearby hills and "we turned this into one killer power walk." Halfway up the hill, her youngest daughter Jessica announced: "We've got a new tradition."

Now, every holiday when they are together, Miller and her daughters "take a hike," she laughs.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.