Routine is a great thing for those of us who fall just outside what is considered a normal family structure. It is so much easier to fit in with the crowd when you are behaving just like everyone else: running to take your kids to school, off to work, back home again and just following the normal pattern of structured, day-to-day living. Even during the days of robot-like routine we are occasionally reminded of the family life we once had, for better or for worse.
When the chagim season (Jewish holidays) comes a knocking and the whole air seems filled with holiday preparations, divorcees start to face the harsh reality that they have been mostly avoiding: their lives are filled with different and new challenges and they need to make the most of it. Family therapists have even coined a phrase to describe this phenomenon called, “Pre-chagim trauma” because while everyone is normal until proven otherwise, the chagim prove otherwise.
Ever since my divorce three years ago, I have not built a sukkah and once again this year, I am not building a sukkah. Why should I if my kids are not with me this year for the first days of sukkot? Believe me, I don’t need one just for l’il ol’ me, so thank you to my neighbors who offered to help me build it. I really appreciate your offer I just don’t need one for only me. This is just one of the many challenges and decisions I find myself dealing with, post divorce, when the holidays roll around.
I was pleasantly surprised when just a few days ago, I got a warm and caring email from one of my readers who offered me her support and advice on how she manages to go the chagim alone. I wanted to share some of her ideas with you here, with her permission of course. Laurie lives in Safed and has five kids who range in age from 17 – 27. She’s been doing the holidays on her own since her separation (and subsequent divorce) 9 years ago and she seems to have developed some strategies that create a good holiday atmosphere in her home (so her kids tell her).
First of all let me explain to you what the chagim are like for the divorced crowd:
Option one is that you are with your kids. You might not be alone but you definitely feel it. I mean, who can feel alone when your kids start jumping on you at five in the morning. At that point, you probably feel as alone as a conductor in grand central station. The alone feeling is not about being alone (locking yourself in the bathroom for five minutes doesn’t count). It’s all about being the sole caregiver/entertainer /logistics planner/sukkah builder etc.
As a woman you are faced with the challenges of building a sukkah, performing the rituals of the Sabbath and holiday table all the while trying to get your kids to feel the holiday spirit. Hosting becomes a burden because it is nearly impossible to host, serve and tend to the kids at the same time. Attending synagogue, if you choose to do so, is a challenge at best since your boys end up having to sit alone (in a separate seating synagogue), they don’t have anyone to embrace them in the Tallit when the Priests bless the congregation and they are surrounded by other kids who all seem to be sitting with someone, anyone, while they are sitting alone. So isn’t it just easier not to go to synagogue at all?
As a man, you try to make it to the synagogue and somehow gulp down some form of normal prayer time, prepare much of what is needed at home for the meals and still look after the kids while trying to create a holiday atmosphere. Building the sukkah, working and at the same time trying to shop and prepare food are challenges that both fathers and mothers face when spending time with their kids over the holidays.
Not everyone has this option, but many divorcees just go with the default plan of moving in with their parents or close family for the holidays so that they can avoid a lot of the chaos mentioned above.
Then there is the opposite situation, which is when you are sans kids.
In this case, you might at first feel a feeling of relief not having to worry about the extra responsibility of the kids. But what inevitably follows is the feeling of missing out, watching all of the people around you celebrating, keeping yourself busy so you don’t think about it until you realize, sometimes too late, that while you were busy with life you forgot to make holiday plans.
Maybe it’s a subconscious thing since we all know that making those calls to get an invite for a meal is not necessarily a pleasant task. Many families don’t want to have a divorcee over for a multitude of reasons. One comment I received from a couple who I had asked a couple of years ago to host me was, “Who will my husband speak to?” a legitimate concern when you are 15 years old but as an adult I would think that one could just try to make conversation, be polite and smile. My parents have had more than 25 years of guests pass through their home and eat at their table and I am sure that many of them did not schmooze it up with my Dad and yet somehow he seemed to weather the storm.
Now, if you actually do get the invite, you often times arrive to find the table filled with lovely and complete families and you are, well, alone. So you sit there and pretend not to care that this meal is just one more reminder of the life you once had.
These are just SOME of the issues that divorcees face when heading into the holiday season and believe me I know there are also divorcees without kids, those who remarry etc. but this is the reality I know best so it’s what I am presenting here.
Although there isn’t all that much one can do about our reality we can definitely try to manage things a bit easier, make it less emotionally trying and a lot more doable for everyone involved.
Give yourself credit
Everyone pat yourselves on the back because you are doing a great job! It’s not easy to go it alone and you are doing your utmost so give yourself a break.
The K.I.S.S. method: Keep It Simple Stupid
Laurie told me to always use her KISS method of Keep. It. Simple. Stupid. Many of us try to keep up with all of our pre-divorce traditions. We still try to get everyone off to the synagogue, cook elaborate menus and still have a pleasant environment at home.
It’s just not reasonable to expect to do all of that on your own. By keeping things simple, the stress will automatically lessen and things will be more pleasant.
Kids don’t care if you stood and fried every single piece of that Chinese chicken any more than if you threw everything into a pan, poured some sauce over it and stuck it in the oven. So why make yourself crazy.
And make sure that your Facebook friends know that if anyone posts pictures of their completed cooking for the Chag a week before it even started, that you will un-friend them immediately without giving it a second thought.
Develop your own traditions
My kids and I love having a salmon and bagels meal, something you can’t always do when your spouse loves meat. Our meals last a fraction of the time they used to last and then we find ourselves spending much less time at the table and much more time in the living room. So now we play board games, read books or just make each other laugh during the time that normally would have been spent eating or sleeping after a long holiday meal.
Spend time with the right families
Spending time with families and friends who make you and your kids feel normal and welcome makes all the difference in the world. Try to keep a list of the families you like to socialize with. It can be a different list for when you are with your kids or when you are alone, and then just reference that list when you are feeling overwhelmed or in need of some adult company.
The best families to socialize with are ones that have kids with similar ages to yours or with adults with whom the kids connect and feel comfortable with.
Yes, you need to invite guests too, even if it is tough. My home is a little utopia for the kids and guests are oftentimes seen as invaders of Mason Land by my kids. But usually after the first few minutes, the kids adjust and everyone seems to have a good time. It makes me feel like a giver, not just a taker, and it lets the kids learn to share their personal space with others.
And finally, make sure to have your own life in place. The holidays are but a blip in the grand scheme of what you do with your life. If you are happy, it will show so go out there and do things you love to do, make friends, be active and most of all have fun and try to laugh.