As spring arrives, you will be thinking about the many family occasions, holidays and events that need to be planned. Easter/Passover celebrations, graduations, weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and birthdays fill your calendar. However, if you have recently separated, this year is not like other years. Notice how you are feeling as you read this – is there a pit in your stomach, an ache in your heart, a clenched jaw in reaction to your feelings about the changes in your family? Perhaps your children’s faces come to mind, as you recall the past events that were fun and easy. Perhaps you are recalling how you have imagined these family events would unfold?
Many other families have lived through these difficult moments. We have learned from the many families before you who have approached these changes and reported on how they turned out. The good news is that with careful planning, parents can craft these events so that they can be at least ‘doable’ for your children and yourselves, or even better.
Consider a specific event coming up, for example, a high school graduation of one of your children. There may have been older siblings who have graduated, and the whole family has a memory of the events and how the family celebrated this important moment in the graduate’s life. It is very important now to imagine how you want this experience to be for your son or daughter now, when you and your spouse have separated. Do you imagine it being warm, easy and focused on this important milestone and your child’s accomplishment? Do you visualize building memories of shared meals, taking pictures of your cap and gown clad child with proud siblings and family?
It is possible to keep your intention as your guide in planning this day and event, even though it is different from “last time” or from what you had previously imagined. It is possible to hold on to your best intentions even while you may feel sad or angry or disappointed. Separations and divorces create feelings of grief about what has been lost or changed. The feelings are normal. And yet you know that these important moments in a family’s life are powerful and will be remembered. So can you rise above your own emotions to create the day you want for your child?
You and your spouse can work together with your coaches to plan these events to be as positive as possible. It may take some work to sort through which birthday or holiday traditions can be kept or changed, and whether new ones can be created. You can do your best to be both flexible and realistic about what you can tolerate emotionally. For example, one caring parent realized that sharing eight hours with her spouse at Christmas was too difficult, but two hours of opening presents and sharing the traditional breakfast would have been possible.
Your children will have their own feelings and wishes. They may say or act as if “things are the same,” expecting hugs and kisses between you and your spouse, and lots of pictures together as if it were the “old days.” Ask your kids which parts of the holiday or family traditions are most important. Let them know compassionately that you know things are different this year. Let them know what is the same and what will be different.
If this is the first year after a separation you might think about it as, “this year let’s try….. to make it easier.” This takes the pressure off the parents and children to “know” how things will be next year. Let your kids know you’ll be planning with the other parent and get back to them with some plans. Most children I have talked to mostly want their parents not to fight and have the divorce dominate the event.
After checking in with the kids, let them know how you and your spouse would like to plan the event. It helps to emphasize that you both are committed to having a successful and comfortable event. If it is one child’s event (i.e., a performance, graduation, or bar/bat mitzvah), let your child know that this is their day, and that the focus will be on their accomplishment, not on the divorce. Reassure them that they don’t need to worry about you.
Working with your Collaborative team on planning successful family events can help stabilize things for your children and build trust between you and your spouse for the many post-divorce family events yet to come. The care, planning and thought that you put into making successful family events will help you begin to create new, different, and happy traditions that will build new, positive memories.
Elizabeth Salin, MFT, is a divorce coach and psychotherapist in San Rafael.
photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.