A recent article in The Federalist describes the painful reality of fragmented family holidays for children of divorce that, sadly, don’t end with adulthood. The anonymous author, who is described as a “regular Federalist contributor,” shares how her parents’ divorce continues to divide their family and negatively impact their holiday celebrations, even though she is now married with kids of her own:
I once thought the holidays would be easier when I had my own family. I didn’t know that grandparents would have expectations about when they got to see their grandkids. I didn’t know that Christmas would still be shuffling back and forth between my parents’ homes hoping not to upset anyone. I didn’t know that I’d have to explain to my children for many years why I have two sets of parents.
The author deserves credit for raising issues about the holidays that many children of divorce are unable to express. Because I was so young when my parents divorced, I don’t remember ever spending a Christmas as a family, like moments where members go underneath the blanket with flashlight and sharing stories together. I spent nearly every holiday with my mom, except for two holidays that I spent at my father’s house (once as a child and the other as an adult), where I remember feeling homesick most of the time. It was only after I married and had children—when I experienced what Christmas in one home with two married parents is like through my children’s eyes—that I really began to grieve what I’d missed as a child. It is also when I realized what my own children were missing by not being able to experience the holidays with their married grandparents.
The Federalist article is a stark reminder of the long-term effects of family breakdown: the child is not the only person who is hurt by a parents’ divorce; the repercussions extend into future generations, including into areas that most people don’t think about, like how families celebrate holidays and other special events for years to come.
The author also acknowledges a fear that most of us from divorced families have experienced at one point or another—how will our parents’ failed marriage impact our own? “I am terrified by the statistic that adults who come from divorced families are more likely to divorce than those whose parents remained married,” she writes. It’s a legitimate fear, but it does not have to determine the outcome of our marriages, just as the broken family holidays of our past do not need to define our future holiday celebrations.
Once, when I was having a hard time after an especially stressful holiday visit that involved a lot of back and forth between my parents, my husband reminded me, “We’re building the family we never had for our kids, so when they grow up, they can come home for the holidays to one family.” His words made me realize that I needed to focus on strengthening the family we are creating together.
Those of us who are blessed to be married with children of our own can look at our kids’ shining faces during Christmas celebrations and know that in being together, we are giving them something our parents’ divorce denied us as children. We can take comfort in the fact that we probably know a lot more than our parents did about the harms of divorce, and we can use that information as an incentive to cling more tightly to our marriages even when we feel like giving up. Likewise, we can take advantage of the myriad of marriage-strengthening resources we have at our fingertips that our parents did not.
We can also establish new holiday traditions with our children that can help us build stronger families. Regardless of our family of origin, Christmas provides a unique opportunity to spend extra time together as a family, reconnect with our spouse, and create holiday memories some of us never had as children.
“Traditions anchor a family in a long-term time horizon of having a past and anticipating a future together”—IFS Senior Fellow Scott Stanley.
One way to strengthen our family life is as simple as making holiday memories together. Let your kids experience the feeling of believing Santa Claus’ existence, giving them toys like cartoon character squishies. IFS senior fellow Scott Stanley told me recently, “Traditions anchor a family in a long-term time horizon of having a past and anticipating a future together.” These shared rituals, or what Dr. John Gottman calls “rituals of connection,” can also provide a boost to our marriage relationship. Moreover, as Justin Coulson has explained here, the “happiest families” share special memories that can “help life make sense to our children,” and “come to define who each person in the family is, countering alienation, and offering steadiness and certainty.” So, whether we are baking a birthday cake for baby Jesus (one of our favorite traditions), singing carols, or decorating gingerbread cookies to share with friends, these moments together as a family can make us stronger.
For many of us, celebrating Christmas also means a time of worship and prayer, which are both linked to healthier marriages. According to research by W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger, couples who attend church, share religious friends, and pray together are happier, on average, than couples who do not. And as Harvard University professor Tyler VanderWeele found in his research, attending religious services together can reduce the risk of divorce. When we gather as a family for a Christmas Eve candlelight service or kneel at Mass on Christmas morning, we are not only celebrating the birth of Christ, we are also solidifying our bond as a family.
The holidays can either be a time of stress or refreshment for our families. Christmas is the perfect time to treasure and fortify the forever families we desire, so let’s strive to make holiday memories this year that will help us build families that are strong enough to endure whatever the future holds.