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.