In the state of Texas, like most states, the courts try to ensure that both parents get to parent—which means holidays can get complicated. Often, this ends up looking like alternating Thanksgivings, the Christmas holiday gets split in half, and every other year, that pattern switches, too. It’s no surprise how many times I hear, “What do you mean I can’t see my baby at Christmas!” or “She always goes to my parents’ this time of year!” or “He won’t be able to see his cousins!” When I listen to these complaints, I think ‘you both should have thought about this during all of the times that you refused to fight fair, or you ignored each other, or you disrespected each other and overall treated everyone else better than you treated your spouse, because this is a direct consequence to those actions.’ What I say is, ‘I’m sorry, and it will get better.’ What I mean is all of it.
I’m a child of divorce. All of my siblings married children of divorce. So, I understand that some marriages should end for the benefit of all parties involved. I also understand that the death of most marriages is a slow, pitiful ride that has nothing to do with abuse and everything to do with neglect. This neglect takes the form of broken promises, broken dreams, and broken hearts. Life is hard, especially at the holidays, and especially for the kids. But my divorced parents did something that shaped my future and repaired some of the damage of their separation: they cooperated. They were married for seventeen years and now, they have been divorced for forty. And yet, this Thanksgiving, just like every one since they both moved to Arizona with their respective spouses, we all spent together. When I say all together, I mean all together: my mom and her husband, my dad and his wife, my biological siblings, my step siblings, and their spouses, together. It’s loud and it’s crowded, but it’s easier than having to choose which parents to spend time with and when. You see, there are no rules to the holidays; there are no rules that say you have to hate, and be rude, and be mean. You can choose to be okay with the new terms in your life.
Spending the holidays with both sets of parents wasn’t always easy, but it gave us great practice for occasions that would bring everyone together. You’ve heard stories where a parent refused to attend their child’s wedding because their ex was there. But that was never an issue with my family-- thankfully, because I needed them for the unthinkable. When I had to call everyone to sit vigil while my husband was on life support for 36 hours, everyone flew to Texas to pray and ultimately to say goodbye. Instead of looking like alternating Thanksgiving and split holidays, it looked like hundreds of people waiting and praying in the waiting rooms with only immediate family allowed in the ICU room. The hospital waived the limit of two visitors-at-a-time, knowing that our emotional state was what needed to start healing. My parents’ only concern was being there for my children and me in our darkest hour, as well as theirs in losing a son.
Writing this made me think. What if they had practiced hatred rather than peace for all of those years? What if the parent that didn’t have the kids this year could stop by for lunch? What if the biological parents continued to watch their kids open presents together? What if the mom and stepmom went Christmas shopping together? What if the whole family actively listened in order to make this happen?
I’ve adopted my many parents’ attitude into my work as a mediator. The key to their ability not to kill each other is not because they are special or unique, but because of their willingness to listen, if not to each other then to the needs of their kids. This is a practice called active listening. In this flawed world, most people just want to be heard, but they’ll interrupt and raise their voice to do so. Isn’t it unproductive to take someone’s voice away just to use your own? Isn’t that counterintuitive? I’ve found the best way to be heard is to listen, first. You would be surprised how much peace you can achieve by listening—really listening, using phrases like ‘tell me more,’ or ‘what I heard you say was this… is that right?’ and giving encouragement as they talk.
It’s not just your ex, either. I recommend practicing this with your children and your current spouse too, if you have one. So many people spend all day talking without feeling like they were truly understood. This holiday, make an effort to include everyone, forgive if you have to, and listen. You will be amazed at how many people return the favor. Blended families are messy, but that doesn’t mean the kids have to be passed around like fruitcake.