Dear Therapist: Christmas With My Divorced Parents Is Getting Harder

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Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My parents were married for some 30 years. I grew up watching them mostly get along, but as my siblings and I got older, little problems just wouldn’t go away. By the time I was in high school, a divorce seemed inevitable, but they carried on for another 10 years or so, and separated before Christmas three years ago.

I got engaged the week before the split, and our entire family made an effort to push through the holidays. All of my brothers had children and my parents said that they wanted to try to make the holidays feel special and “normal.” We didn’t discuss what had happened, and my mother has never had closure or a chance to fully heal and move on.

My mother still has a hard time being around my father, and every holiday season, we all do our best to divide our time between them. But with all of our kids and families, doing so gets harder every year.

My mom wants to let things go, but also worries that this will make her seem like a fool. She had a feeling that my father had been unfaithful for years, and she caught him on a dating website in 2017. He pleaded with her to give him one more chance, and they had a very public vow renewal that same year. But the next year he left, saying he wasn't happy and hadn’t been for a while. My mother is having reservations about seeing a therapist, because her last one laughed at her for something she said. I’ve tried my best to support her and even moved in with her when they first separated. But now I have a baby, and I worry that I don’t have the time or energy to give her the support she needs.

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What can I do or say to help her get through this holiday season and, beyond that, finally start to heal?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

A common misconception is that adult children will weather their parents’ divorce relatively easily, and that’s why many parents wait until their children are out of the house to split up. But divorce takes a toll on adult children as well. They lose their family home as they knew it (even if one parent remains in the home, it feels different). They tend to learn more details about what led to the divorce than younger children do, and even get thrust into the role of mediator or armchair therapist to one or both parents. They might be asked to offer logistical assistance post-divorce, such as helping with moving, dealing with finances, or getting to doctor’s appointments. And when the holidays come around, adult children with spouses and kids of their own might be pulled in all directions, adding to feelings of guilt or anxiety when expectations aren’t met and somebody ends up disappointed or hurt.

You asked how you can help your mom through the holidays—and more generally, how you can help her move forward—but I mention how hard divorce can be on adult children because you should also be considering how you can help yourself through the holidays and the aftermath of your parents’ divorce.

What might help most is to acknowledge this: You can’t please everyone, and it’s not your responsibility to make everyone happy. For some people with divorced parents, this concept is a revelation. If their parents divorced when they were young, they might have grown up being very aware of their parents’ needs, and now don’t realize that they have choices as to how to spend the holidays as adults. (Many unwittingly end up following the custody schedule from when they were in elementary school.) And among those whose parents divorced when they were adults, many feel a sense of responsibility for their parents’ well-being without minding their own—and at a particularly demanding phase of life.

You and your brothers have not only your own parents to consider when making holiday plans, but also your spouses and their parents (and if any of those parents are divorced, that adds to the complexity too). You also want your kids to enjoy the holidays, and not feel like “grandkids of divorce”—meaning that, like kids of divorce, they’re shuttled to one grandparent’s house for a proscribed number of hours before being shuttled to another’s for the same meal or celebration (a big Thanksgiving lunch followed by a big Thanksgiving dinner that nobody has an appetite for with perhaps a visit to your spouse’s parents’ house for a dessert nobody wants). What kids tend to remember from these gatherings is how hurried and unnatural they felt (adults constantly looking at the clock to make sure it’s not time to rush off somewhere else). And for everyone, your parents included, the experience can feel stressful and superficial rather than connecting, relaxing, and fun.

With that in mind, consider adjusting your mindset from needing to manage your mom’s feelings to letting your parents work out their relationship issues themselves. If your mom doesn’t want to be in the same room with your dad, she doesn’t have to be—but that may mean that you see her on a different day and enjoy your time together then. Many people with divorced parents establish enjoyable, original traditions early on so that each year doesn’t require a new round of negotiations. Maybe your family bakes holiday cookies with your mom before or after the actual holiday, and you all Zoom in to say hi on the day of. Maybe holiday dinner is always with your mom and you have an outing that you always do with your dad. Maybe you break it up over two different weekends so there’s some downtime between parental visits. Maybe you and your siblings create your own respective rituals with each parent so that neither is alone on a particular holiday.

No matter what you decide to do, you’ll have to accept the fact that there are no magic words you can offer or actions you can take that will help your mom move through the holidays or the aftermath of her divorce. She is going to need to come to terms with her grief and loss on her own—not just from the end of the marriage but from the betrayals and all that came before. You’re right that you don’t have the time and energy to offer the support she needs, but even if you did, the only way she’ll get unstuck is if she drives her own healing process instead of relying on someone else to do it for her. If she’s lonely, you can encourage her to get involved with hobbies, activities, or volunteer work where she might meet people with similar interests or discover a new passion. If she didn’t connect with the first therapist, you can help her research others. But she will have to choose to do the work of coming to terms with your father and their marriage and creating a sense of possibility for a better future; you, in turn, will have to do the work of accepting that she may choose instead to remain stuck. Seeing a parent suffer is hard, but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer alongside her.

Finally, bear in mind that the holidays bring up all kinds of emotions, even in families where everyone gets along well. Whatever issues existed before are amplified because we’ve been sold the idea that the holidays are extra-special. When that idealized version of the holidays doesn’t match reality (no family is perfect), residual anger, disappointments, conflicts, and resentments tend to surface. (A perceived slight from a sibling or a questionable look from a parent can turn us into our 16-year-old selves in an instant.) You might also have your own grieving to do—remembering holidays when your parents were still together, and feeling nostalgic for those holidays of the past—so give yourself the space to sit with whatever comes up. By going through a healing process yourself, you’ll be modeling for your mom how she might help herself move forward too.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.