Christmas as a Divorced Parent - What I've Learned

"Divorce brings changes - but it doesn't have to mean the end of all that is good in life. It can still be a very special and cherished time, even if we're not together as we once were." Divorced dad Toby shares how he and his children's mother have tried to keep Christmas special for everyone involved"

Most divorced or separated parents are fearful of the lasting impact on their kids.

They're concerned about maintaining ongoing involvement in their kids' lives, and worried for the effects that divorce will have on their relationship as parent and child. At certain times of the year, such as birthdays, summer vacations and other religious or family holidays such as Christmas, this can be much harder to contemplate.

I was thirty years old with two daughters aged six and two when I divorced from their mother. We managed to part amicably but nonetheless I feared becoming distant from the girls. At Christmas, a time of year that had always been important to me and to them, my fears were heightened.

We've co-parented our kids for most of the twelve-plus years since parting, each raising them for around half the time. We've both also remarried and I now have two step-kids as well.

With more than twelve Christmases having passed since we parted, I want to share some of the many things that we've tried in order to keep Christmas special for us and for the kids. Divorce doesn't have to signal the end of all that is good in life, or mean that we're constrained to making do or getting by in future!

Joint celebrations

When we first parted, I moved away and only saw the girls at weekends. The first Christmas after we parted, my ex graciously invited me to join her family for festive celebrations. This ensured that I could spend time on Christmas day with the kids. It felt somewhat uncomfortable though, and in the aftermath of parting, I would probably have rather been surrounded by my own extended family just as I'm sure she'd rather have been able to enjoy time with hers without me being there. The kids benefited of course which was the primary objective, but we only did this once before vowing to have the girls for alternate Christmases going forwards. While the kids need to be the primary focus of all considerations, there needs to be pragmatic consideration of how to make this work in reality, for the kids and the adults.

Giving gifts jointly

This seemed the next best option, to maintain a semblance of continuity for the kids. It also helped to ensure that as parents we didn't try and 'Out-Santa' each other, competing to give bigger and better presents. It did demand however, that unless we were willing to visit with the kids and each other on Christmas morning then we didn't have the opportunity to be part of giving the gifts to the kids. This arrangement also only endured for a couple of years before running its course. We now coordinate gifts between us to ensure that we don't duplicate what we're getting, and, more importantly to make sure that we don't spoil the girls.

Alternating years

This has now become our standard way of keeping things fair and equitable. Our custodial schedule of alternate weeks, is flexed at Christmas so that if she has them one year, I have them the next. With this schedule agreed for years ahead we're able to make long-range plans with grandparents and other family to ensure that appropriate plans can be made for large-scale family Christmases where appropriate! We also usually switch the kids between us at some point between Christmas and New Year so that the other parent can enjoy a belated Christmas, exchange gifts with them and carry on the over-eating and drinking! Structure and routine are important!

Preserving old traditions

The continuity of Christmas is maintained for the kids by observing some of the same traditions in either home; the reading of 'The Night Before Christmas' and the watching of certain festive movies are two such traditions observed no matter where they are. It helps the kids to recognise that while they're from a non-conventional family, they can still acknowledge where they've come from and don't have to feel that the past cannot be remembered or elements of it preserved.

Making new traditions

As time has passed and our family units have evolved, new traditions have emerged. My second wife and I host a big family 'Pre-Christmas' celebration with our extended families and the kids, and they've fully embraced that. We've also established traditions that blend the preferences of both her kids and mine.

Accepting that as they grow up, things change

My daughters are now in their teens (the eldest has gone to University) and I know that things will change. They are less keen to switch between us over the festive period. They're happier to go with the flow and they also want time to spend celebrating with their friends as well. This, in common with many aspects of a non-separated family, is to be expected as they get older. We have all learned the need to flex a little to accommodate each other!

Embracing in the opportunity to enjoy myself

I used to feel selfish about this, but I now recognise the enormous benefit that the change of circumstances has brought about. Christmas is a time for family, but it's also a time for recharging the batteries, resting, reflecting and celebrating with gratitude the many blessings in our lives. I've enjoyed great Christmases with the kids, but I've also enjoyed many Christmases apart from them, spending quality time with my parents, my new wife, friends and wider family. We eat, drink and make merry without having to focus on being up at 6am to watch the kids tear open their presents, and it is done without guilt or regret. I know that wherever they are they're having a good time, and I know that next year it will be my turn to enjoy Christmas with them.

Whatever Christmas holds in store for you and your kids, I hope that when it comes around it's a happy and peaceful one.


Toby Hazlewood is a writer, parent, husband, project manager and in his spare time, a cycling enthusiast. He is passionate about helping others to overcome the challenges he's overcome, by sharing the things he's learned along the way

Discover the books he has written on parenting and life after divorce on Toby's Amazon page