fractured family christmas

A Fractured Family Christmas: One Single-parent’s Anti-Depression Plan

Let’s say, we know we have depression issues. And let’s also say, that last year was a very hard holiday season. I’m ready this year in a new way, with a new strength, and I’m hopeful that I can share some of my changes, my new attitudes that can help you navigate the emotional minefields of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

My Holiday Anti-Depression Plan

  • Stick with my plan – last-minute changes and interruptions will be considered, but not assumed
  • Drink less alcohol (I think I’m going sober again, just to keep my head as crystal clear as possible)
  • Sleep well
  • Eat less and higher quality food
  • Eliminate sugar and processed foods (except for my pumpkin pie)
  • Exercise daily (even if it’s just a walk around the block)
  • Stay close to my healthy friends and family
  • Keep boundaries strong with less-healthy cohorts
  • Checkin with my Al-anon sponsor, al-anon groups, and safe friends when I need help with my plan

There is nothing accidental about having a great holiday season for me. I have been working on it, with some success, over the last 12 years. Even before my divorce, ten years ago, things were not healthy or pleasant. Since then, for me, the holidays have been challenging. Last year was even more challenging than usual. My brother died that August. My kids were going to be away for Christmas with their mom. My sister and her kids were also going to be away for Christmas. And the final, but normal, kicker, I was alone again, due to a GF that self-emolliated over the summer. I was 100% alone. Well, I had my 86-year-old mom. That was my charge, to keep us both “cheery.”

With all that going on I expected it to be a rough Christmas. And it was a bit hard, but let’s get a couple of things straight.

  1. Not all hard times are depression – even for someone with depressive illness in their history
  2. Sometimes, sadness is a natural (and healthy) response to hard times
  3. We can always do a lot to take care of ourselves, regardless of how we are feeling
  4. Our self-care is the NUMBER ONE indicator of how hard our “holidays” or general DOWN cycle is going to be
  5. If we do all the good things we can, our experience of the DOWN cycle can be less painful, less self-shaming, and hopefully shorter

Those are my assumptions going into this holiday season as a single dad. And this year I will have my kids with me on Thanksgiving Day as well as Christmas Day, the single parent jackpot. And I’ve already done both kids’ presents. (They both opted to have a bigger combined birthday + Christmas present.) And that relieves a good bit of the stress of Christmas for me. Get your kids’ presents knocked out early, so you’re not rushing around in crisis trying to get everything done at the last minute.

Looking Back at My Single Dad Holidays

When you lose your kids for the initial holiday season everything changes. When the kids get a week off from school and suddenly you are not planning a family vacation, you are splitting the week into half. Half of the time you used to have with your kids (70% of that time if you’re a typical dad) is now spent alone. It’s a huge shock. Christmas used to be about the kids. And while it’s still about the kids, there a lot of time after divorce that is going to be about being alone and missing your kids. In the first couple of years, I hunkered down and stayed alone. What I’ve learned more recently, there are a lot of people looking for things to do together during the holidays. Again, Al-anon meetings have become my loneliness-busting strategy at any time of year. But in the holidays, Al-anon meetings are packed with people who are dealing with holiday hardships of their own.

Get the Schedule in Place Early

One of the hardest times after divorce is managing the schedules around the holidays. Of course, you both want the kids as much as possible. Your ex might have in-laws with plans. The inevitable email or text comes in, “We’ve been invited to my parents for Christmas this year, could you swap with me for some other weekend?” And this is a hard decision. To avoid these kinds of resets, it’s best to schedule early. “I’m taking the kids to the beach for my 4-days, and I will have them back to your house at 1 pm on Saturday.” Keep to the parenting plan schedule if possible. And if the other parent asks for a variance, make sure you are okay with the change, and that your “weekend” to be swapped is equally valuable to you.

One thing for sure, after divorce, you cannot shield your kids from the pain of the divorce. There will awkward moments. There will be missed Christmas brunches or missed “opening presents with their cousins” on both sides. Just get over it. Christmas should be arranged for everyone to have as good a time as possible. Just because you are divorced and unhappy does not mean you should accept being alone and give in to every whimsical request of your ex, just because they have come up with “wonderful” opportunities for the kids. It’s a balancing act. Make sure you are taking care of yourself in the balance as well. The kids will be fine. Many Christmases will come and go. And eventually, Christmas will have less impact on everyone’s lives. So, let this Christmas be important, but not too important.

Plan for Your Alone Time

As I started recovering from my divorce, I started learning how to take better care of myself in the OFF times. During the holidays it’s even more critical to practice good self-care. (See my list above.) And the most valuable lesson I have learned in my last nine years as a single dad is this: plan what you are going to do during your off times. Make dates with friends. Go to Al-anon groups and Al-anon Chrismas dinners. Hit meetups that strike your fancy. Join a sports league and start playing. Ask others to join you for a movie or a dinner date.

Don’t leave it to chance. Make a plan. Make a backup plan. And then stick to the plan, even if you are “not feeling it.” Depression will often convince you that you will be better served by staying home and crawling under the covers. THIS. NEVER. WORKS. Your depression is lying to you. Isolation is the biggest risk factor for depression and suicide, and the holidays are peak depression time. Don’t stay at home alone. Get out. Get together with people who are emotionally safe and working their own programs of recovery. (Not an advertisement for Al-anon, but it’s free, and there’s probably a meeting starting in your town in the next two hours. Go.)

Get Your Holiday Logistics/Gifts Done Ahead of Time

If you can get your kids’ gifts done early, you will be doing yourself a great favor. And don’t think, that just because you are divorced now, you have to buy the biggest and best presents. Don’t let Chrismas become a competition between you and your ex-partner. Stay within your budget. Don’t get too emotional about your gifts. Just get it done early. Take the “present stress” off your todo list as early as possible. Then you can focus on your schedule and plans.

Pick up and drop off with kids can be hard during the holidays. Where to the presents go? Do the kids open all the presents in one place? What if they get a great present at one parent’s house and want to take it with them when they switch houses? It’s all very common. Try and have the discussion with your co-parent ahead of time, if possible. Like this. “Hey, I’m getting the kids both new iPhones this year, just wanted you to have heads up, I’ll do the transfer and set up before they come back to your house.” Sometimes presents are popular but harder to transfer from one parent’s house to the other house. (Older gaming systems come to mind.) See how you can work out the process or expectations with your co-parent before Chrismas morning when it’s too late to make changes.

If you can coordinate your presents with your ex you might both be able to save some money. You can “go in together” on a present and share the “custody” of that present. And it’s completely okay for the kids to have TWO Christmas trees, TWO Christmas mornings, and TWO Santas. Even if one of the “present mornings” happens a few days late. If your kids are old enough, talk to them about how they would like to do Christmas within the schedule you and the other parent have determined.

Christmas is About Family

And now that you have a fractured family table, make sure you do your best

FIRST, to take care of yourself and your health during the holidays

SECOND, eliminating conflict points between you and your co-parent

THIRD, help your kids enjoy the “new Christmas” traditions and schedules

I’m heading into the most optimistic Christmas I can recall in the last 12 years. I’ve got my self-care plan. I’ve got a solid relationship. And my kids are teenagers and have both gotten their combined birthday/Christmas presents already. And this year I can sit back and just enjoy the holiday as a single parent. It does get better. But while things are fresh and hard, make sure you take care of yourself first. Let me know if I can provide you any addtional support.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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As a certified life coach, I’ve been helping men and women find fulfilling life after divorce. If you’d like to chat for 30-minutes about your dating/relationship challenges, I always give the first 30-session away for free. LEARN ABOUT COACHING WITH JOHN. There are no obligations to continue. But I get excited every time I talk to someone new. I can offer new perspectives and experiences from my post-divorce journey. Most of all, I can offer hope.

image: holiday selfie 2015, john mcelhenney, creative commons usage

Two other holiday depression posts:

More articles from The Whole Parent:

Further reading for your health and recovery:

Further Reading:

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