Change Traditions to Enjoy the Holidays While Divorced

I picked up my eight-year-old son after school on a Friday in December and headed to the Montana Avenue Holiday Walk, an annual tradition in the part of Santa Monica where we live. The little boutiques lining the avenue stay open late and serve hot chocolate or cider, platters of cookies or cream puffs. Locals come to shop the sales, listen to the carolers on one corner, the violinist on the next.

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We got a half block from our apartment when we saw a neighborhood friend, a young rabbi named Chaim Teleshevsky, serving chicken-and-matzo-ball soup to passersby under a tent outside Whole Foods. He had one helper, two huge vats of chicken stock, and an ever-growing line of people hunched up in their shawls against the cool Pacific air, craving soup. I wanted to do the holiday walk with everyone else, but he clearly needed help.

I stepped up and started ladling. My son, perhaps remembering the weeknights when we used to volunteer at the soup kitchen back in Hoboken, started handing over plastic spoons. My little boy is usually shy around strangers, and not — how shall I say it? — eager to follow every single rule he’s ever heard. But he enjoyed having a job that required concentration and doing a task with his mommy. He didn’t see it as “behaving” well, despite the thanks he got.

After about thirty minutes of this, I was ready to stop helping and start shopping. But my son, feeling useful, productive, helpful, wanted to stay.

I took a step back and watched him. This break from our planned holiday indulgence reminded me of one of my Principles of Parting: Create Positive Moments. I’d been somewhat nervous about this neighborhood shop-along — just my son and me; his dad, my ex, home doing his own thing. I worried that I’d feel lonely, or that he’d feel awkward, one of the only kids with a solo mom, surrounded by happy families with both parents along.

It’s easy to feel less-than during the holidays, which could also be called the “Season of Pressure to Have the Perfect Family.” All the music in the stores is romantic; the commercials on TV are filled with happy, intact families snuggling by the fire. The whole mistletoe at New Year’s tradition can feel like one big ball of lights shining in your face, illuminating the fact that you have no one to kiss. For those of us newly single, it can be hard to take.

But as University of North Carolina psychologist Barbara Fredrickson writes, even small positive moments can spark an “upward spiral of positivity.” As she’s shown in studies, and in her uplifting book, Positivity, positive emotions broaden our awareness of the world around us and our ability to think creatively and productively. Simple actions, such as serving soup, can initiate what she calls an “upward spiral of positivity,” of increasing well-being. While the holidays look different after divorce, they remain ripe with opportunities to enjoy small positive breaks in our routine.

We did finally leave the soup-serving behind and head down the street, toward the ocean. I sampled chocolate truffles at John Kelly, chatted with a neighbor, posed for a photo with my son in a purple jester’s hat. But the highlight of the evening for both of us was serving steaming soup in the cool night air.

As we approach New Year’s Eve, here are three more tips for surviving, and thriving, during this last week of the holiday season and into the new year:

  1. Skip the Old Traditions: The holidays are prime time for what researchers call “episodic loneliness,” that chafing sense of wrongness that arises when doing something alone that formerly involved someone else–such as taking an annual holiday walk. Or watching the Times Square New Year’s Eve extravaganza with your children, without their other parent also on the couch. Or taking a winter vacation to the Bahamas, if that’s what you did while married. One of the easiest ways to minimize episodic loneliness is to avoid those situations the trigger it, at least in the beginning, rather than forcing yourself to “tough it out.”
  2. Create a New Routine: We can not only skip old traditions that feel haunting without our spouse, but also actively create new ones. We often feel like our holiday joy is rooted in one specific family tradition, but there are hundreds of ways to celebrate this season. Yes, one of the benefits of traditions is that they link us to our past, but divorce is a time when we want to shift our focus to the future. And the fact is, even new traditions have power. We create new traditions in our lives all the time. As I wrote in an earlier post, this is a great opportunity to rethink what you do, and come up with a way to celebrate that is more meaningful, and more appropriate to where you are in your life now.
  3. Bring Holiday Cheer to Someone Else: We may feel lonely at various points during the next few weeks, but we’re not alone in being by ourselves, or in being uncomfortable with that state. One of the best ways to combat a feeling of gloomy isolation is to actively do something celebratory for someone else. Invite friends over for a cookie decorating night, and then bring those cookies to someone you know who could use cheering up–an elderly neighbor, a single friend living far from family, perhaps a new mother who’s feeling overwhelmed by the excessive fullness of her own life. Host an open house at your place on New Year’s day, arrange a movie binge-watching afternoon with other single friends, or do a craft project with your children, and invite over a few of their pals.

    The tradition of giving at this time of year means there are also many pre-arranged opportunities to easily jump in and join. If you don’t have a regular routine of volunteering, the novelty of it can make it that moment stand out far stronger, for you and for your children.

    One of my favorite New Year’s Eves was celebrating my grandmother’s 70th birthday in Cleveland. I was in my early 30s, and rather than feeling bad to miss another round of parties in Manhattan, I felt generous, and soulful, somehow, to be spending time with my aging grandmother, and to bring a little youthful energy to the septuagenarian set. Fox-trotting with my grandfather felt more like a harbinger of an excellent, meaningful year than did my usual routine of going to parties inappropriately dressed for the weather, and hoping something meaningful would arise.

This month, which some might label the “Season of Seeing How Your Life is Falling Short,” also brings abundant reminders of all that we have.

For more ideas about managing your divorce and thriving, check out my blog at wendyparis.com. And my forthcoming book, Splitopia, is also available for preorder.

Do you have a post-marriage holiday routine? Write me and tell me about it at wendy@wendyparis.com.

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