For Grown Children Of Divorce, Holidays Are Always Half-Full

Do we ever outgrow our desire to have “one big happy family”?

When I was a kid, we always had really big Thanksgiving celebrations—loud, crowded dinners where aunts and uncles and distant cousins five-times removed would eat too much and tell dirty jokes that went right over my head. I loved the noise and the chaos and the attention my brother and I got as the only kids in the group. We would put on an original Thanksgiving skit (with costumes) or perform some made-up rap song about turkeys. Then revel in the audibly wet lipstick kisses of great aunts, and the perfunctory attention from cool teenage cousins that always smelled a little bit like cigarettes.

My divorced parents always came together on Thanksgiving. My dad and my grandma were invited guests to the mayhem. I know that I was lucky, of course. Most divorced parents can’t even be in the same room with each other—mine were a united front for our birthdays and holidays and soccer games. Every Sunday, we had dinner at the same neutral-ground restaurant for the joint custody hand-off. We even visited the Grand Canyon together. I was glad that my parents weren’t married anymore, and never held out hope of reconciliation. I didn’t want that. They were such good friends and strong co-parents—their divorce had been relatively easy on us.

When I was 14, my dad remarried. Our stepmom was caring and involved and wanted to be like family to us, but she was also young and jealous and didn’t like my mom. So, there went that friendship between my parents. No more Sunday dinners or family vacations. And Thanksgiving was split into two—we’d spend the day and dinner with my mom’s family and then leave early to get to my dad’s house by dessert. I’d still get the raucous meals with my funny, inappropriate uncles, and my dad’s signature pecan pie later, but it was all fractured, hurried. We were always half-there.

I knew how much my mom hated rushing us to our dad’s before the dinner plates had even been cleared. I knew how much my dad wished we could spend the day watching football with him and helping his wife cook her chef-quality food. They both felt our absence, and we felt their low-grade heartache. And there wasn’t anything we could do about it. All of that love from our parents, that need to be with us as much as they could—for that, we were so grateful. It also made it that much more sad.

The holidays always came with an underlying tension, some pot that was bound to bubble over. One parent or the other was always disappointed and it was impossible for them to hide it. I always felt guilty, like somehow it was my fault we couldn’t be in two places at once. I’d be tap-dancing and smooth-talking, trying to soften any sadness with “we’re here now!” enthusiasm. Later, when my brother and I were adults living in New York, we sometimes felt relieved when we couldn’t make it home for Thanksgiving—no one’s feelings to hurt.

I don’t think divorce is the end of the world, even when you have kids. I think some couples simply can’t make it work, and when that happens, it’s best for everyone if they go their separate ways. Amicably, if they can. I think everyone in my family is happier than we would be had they stayed together. I can’t even imagine them married now. I can’t even figure out how they got together to begin with.

That being said, when you’re a child of divorce, you’re always a child of divorce. At a young age, you’re so busy trying to protect your parents’ feelings, you’re not even sure what you want anymore. You feel like it’s your job to shield them from any hurt, because you must love them more than anyone else. I’m not sure why it happens, but I know many grown children of divorce who still feel this way—make each parent happy first, deal with your needs second. And, still, it’s never enough. Sometimes a parent asks for what they really want, often they don’t. But we know better. We can read the subtext.

I thought that once I became an adult with my own family, I’d get over it. Nope. In fact, I think it’s just gotten worse. For the last several years, we’ve been eating two Thanksgiving dinners—one right after the other, my dad’s house and then my mom’s. The first year we did it, I ended the night with my head over a toilet bowl, puking my guts out. At least I got to see everyone, right?

So, this year, we decided to host Thanksgiving dinner at our house. No shuttling our kids around town, gorging ourselves on double helpings of turkey and mashed potatoes. No need to explain that the macaroni and cheese is terrific, but we’re saving room for my mom’s stuffing later. No need to explain that yes, this second dinner is as delicious as the first but, see, those yams from our 1:00 meal are still sitting like a rock in our stomachs. Yep, this year, we invited everyone to come to us. We’re doing this once, and all are welcome.

But not everyone came. It was a nice thought, I guess, but apparently unrealistic.

When you’re grown and married, it’s tough to get your whole family together for Thanksgiving, even without divorce. My husband didn’t get to be with his family in New York. My brother was with his wife’s family. Still, I wished for the sake of my little boys that their Gaga and Papa could have sat at the same table. My dad could have brought his girlfriend and her family and they wouldn’t have felt awkward about it. My parents could have shared in their love for their grandchildren at least, talked about their high cholesterol, gabbed about the USA shows they both seem to love. It’s a child’s need. I know that. But maybe it’s my need as a mother too.

When we sat down at our Thanksgiving table, I loved seeing my sons wearing their silly turkey hats, reveling in the attention and the food and the family. It was perfectly OK that not everyone we love was there to see it.

Jennifer Benjamin is an LA-based freelance writer and editor with over thirteen years of experience writing for national magazines and websites like Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, SELF, Parents Magazine, The Stir and Daily Glow. More important, she’s a Mommy to identical twin boys, as well as an avid cook, a terrible housewife, and a loungewear enthusiast. Find her on Twitter @JennyBenjamin or Facebook.

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