Following separation from her husband, Karen Stewart had another challenge to face: spending her first Christmas Day without her three young children. She and her ex had decided on a plan of alternating years for spending the big day with the children, then 8, 6 and 1.
"There was a lot of crying that day," she recalls.
For the freshly divorced, the Happy Holiday salutation at this time of year is a painful oxymoron. When children are involved, there is often a fight over access. "This is a busy week in family court and in family-law offices as people going through the separation process want to make plans," acknowledges Nick Bala, a family-law professor at Queen's University.
Horror stories about access issues are legion, including one from a divorce lawyer who said she was once in court just days before Christmas, arguing a case for a mother who was with the children at the airport, waiting for a judge to rule on whether they could get on a plane for their planned holiday in Mexico.
Depending on their arrangements, parents are often alone for all or part of Christmas Day. In fact, for anyone who is in the process, or the immediate aftermath, of divorce, even when there are no children of the marriage, this coming week rears its head like a monster from an emotional netherworld.
To get through her first non-kid Christmas, Ms. Stewart made a project.
"I threw myself into it," she says. She didn't feel up to dinner invitations from extended family members. "I just wasn't ready."
Her plan was to spend the day on her own, making photo albums with all the pictures from the family's seven years together.
"I'm sure I snipped my husband out of a few pictures," she says, laughing ruefully now, almost six years after their acrimonious separation. But she also selected some photographs that she thought her ex would want, and put them into a box for him.
"I found pictures that didn't have me in them, because I thought he wouldn't want that."
When the children came home, she showed them the albums, and she handed her ex his collection of their children's earlier years.
"I thought that was big of me," she adds.
"The first few years are tough, but after that, you adapt," says Ms. Stewart, CEO and founder of Fairway Divorce Solutions, a consulting service in Calgary.
The trick is to develop new traditions, many divorce specialists advise.
"If the old traditions are too painful to follow, let them go," says Deborah Moskovitch, a Toronto-based divorce consultant and the author of The Smart Divorce. "Instead of trying to re-create the past, create your own positive future."
For the years that Ms. Stewart has the children on Christmas Day, she develops new routines. One year, she and her children put on a 15-minute play for several of their friends, whose homes they visited as part of their tour on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. "It distracted us in a positive way," she says.
Several of her clients report success with other activities. Some have volunteered at a homeless shelter, serving up hot meals.
Others plan family outings; hours spent skiing or skating. "People underestimate the importance of exercise, and how good it makes you feel," she says.
For parents, the best way to get through the holidays is to focus on the children. "There's no scientific evidence that Santa comes on the 25th of December," Prof. Bala notes wryly. "If you're child-focused, you wouldn't care so much about having them on that day. Parents say, 'I have to have my child on the 25th. It's an important day.' But it's not important to the child. Young kids aren't aware of what day of the week it is. It's important only to the parent."
Risa Ennis, an accredited family mediator, counsellor and child's advocate, says parents get embroiled in access issues because "they get stuck at Christmas. It takes them back to what they are losing."
Arguments over the fractured holiday are "a microcosm of bigger, more central issues," she says. "It's how we grieve the end of what was. With hope and optimism, and not fear, they have to embrace slowly what will be the new normal."
Several collaborative-divorce lawyers, whose client population tends to be low-conflict and child-focused, report that couples often agree to spend the first few holidays-in-transition together.
In one family, the father is going to the mother's new house, so they will spend Christmas Day together with their children.
In another, the parents will take their children to their vacation property - the ownership of which has yet to be decided in their financial settlement - because it is the place of so many happy family memories.
They have asked friends who have a cottage down the road to be on standby in case one of them finds it too difficult and wants to spend some time on his or her own.
Co-operation at some level - not necessarily to the degree of being in the same house - is key. After all, the holidays are only one hurdle in the life of the divorced parent. There are children's birthdays, graduations and weddings.
At this time of year, the best present of all that a parent can give to a child of divorce is calm.
As Ms. Ennis says, "What we want to teach our children is that we can manage."
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