The Hardest Part Of The Holidays For Children Of Divorce

The ambiguity around “family time” and how it will be divvied up causes Emily Heist Moss more anxiety than just about anything.

This will be the first year that my brother won’t be coming home for Christmas. Intellectually, I know that this is what happens—families grow, priorities change, traditions evolve. Intellectually, I know that his decision about how to spend his holiday isn’t a comment on his commitment to us, but rather a comment on commitments he’s made to others. Intellectually, I know it’s admirable how much loyalty he feels and how he keeps the promises he’s made.

He never promised he would be home every Christmas—how could he? But this is the first year when the reality of Christmas as adults, with competing desires and responsibilities, will result in us being separated by several time zones, and I’m not handling it very well.


Christmas in my family, like for many families, isn’t about religion. Although we’ve tried the odd church caroling group, and progressive non-denominational service, none of those traditions ever stuck. Instead, our traditions are a hodgepodge of food (cranberry coffee cake), music (The Neville Brothers, James Taylor, and of course, NSYNC for the Holidays), movies (The Ref), and familiar faces for Christmas dinner.

And, of course, there’s the Heist/Moss family tradition more deeply ingrained than all the others: the cross-town drive from one parent’s house to the other’s. After waking up, opening presents in front of a fire to a soundtrack of holiday tunes, we bundle our still-pajama’d selves into the car and head on over for a second Christmas “morning,” usually around 1pm. More logs on the fire, more tunes. We’ve been doing it this way for 15 years.

I get stuck when I try to explain to my brother, and others, why his being home for Christmas on Christmas has such an outsized importance in my personal holiday mythology. I think it’s for the drive itself, the physical representation of our children-of-divorce existence, that I need him navigating next to me. The “tradition” of a joint Christmas spread across two households is unimaginable to me without him sharing it.

I recognize that plenty of other families celebrate earlier or later, multiple times, or not at all. I acknowledge that we are extraordinarily lucky to have the resources to fly ourselves cross-country after both abandoning Massachusetts for the Midwest. I know that eventually, if not this year, then next year, I would have had to let go of this tradition. But does it have to be now? I don’t think I’m ready to do it by myself, and every time I start to imagine how it will go, I’m overcome by panicky tears. I’m crying right now, can you feel the shakes in this essay?


The disruption of routine was and is the toughest part, for me anyway, of my parents’ divorce. It wasn’t the emotional toll of parents living separately, or the logistical challenges of keeping tabs on science textbooks and soccer cleats. It was the uncertainty of not knowing who does what, or when, or how. What are the new routines that will replace the old, discarded ones? The rules that I thought applied didn’t apply anymore, so what assumptions can I count on?

My parents and stepparents, to their eternal credit, were excellent at quietly and quickly creating new structural frameworks for my brother and me. Wednesday night to Saturday morning with Dad, Saturday night to Wednesday morning with Mom. Thanksgiving with Dad, Christmas with Mom, switching the following year. Despite their efforts, the ambiguity around “family time” and how it would be divvied up caused (and causes, apparently) me more anxiety than just about anything. If they didn’t sit near each other at my brother’s basketball games, for example, the choice of where to set up camp always sent me into a spasm of indecision.  

Christmas, if you celebrate it, is usually the crown jewel of “family time,” especially for families spread across the continent. And so Christmas, more than any other time of year, is when I rely most heavily on our long-established routines. If we do it the way we’ve always done it, then I don’t have to make any decisions. I don’t have to wonder if it’s fair, if I’m doing the right thing, if everyone, including me, is getting their needs met.

But this year, we’ll be celebrating on the 30th and I don’t know what it will look like. Even though I know I’m being irrational, operating script-less terrifies me. It will all work out. I will see everyone I love, listen to the classic music, eat the usual food. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway, to calm the shakes.

Is it working? Check back in January.

Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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