John is right-nothing is the same for a dad who is separated from his family during the holidays. And whether it was John's first Christmas as a non-custodial dad or not, the challenges are just as real.
The holidays tend to be an emotional time for non-custodial dads. There is just something about the holiday season that puts us in a nostalgic mood, remembering the good times for the most part. Our holiday memories are often romanticized, and many of the traditions families create become negative or impossible after an estrangement, separation or divorce.
So, given all the emotion and the nostalgia, what is a non-custodial father to do during the holidays? How do you make new memories and new traditions? What should you do to make the holidays as positive as possible for your children, who are possibly hurting far worse than their non-custodial dad?
After visiting with several family therapists and non-custodial dads, the following list seems to be helpful as fathers prepare for this challenging time of year.
Plan Ahead. If you enter the holiday season unprepared, the emotional pull of the holidays may be too much. Recognize that things are different. Don't try to ignore that fact. Be ready for your emotional roller coaster and the one your kids will be on as well. Think through the calendar, the traditions and the challenges.
Stop Playing What If or Poor Me. It is so easy for non-custodial dads to get into the martyr mode, or to start imaging "if only this" or "if only that." Decide that you won't spend any time in that frame of mind. Look instead to the present and the future.
Create New Traditions. Every family has some holiday traditions. Some you can keep, but many will now be hurtful instead of helpful. Try looking for new traditions. Consider planning to help feed or clothe the homeless during the season. Maybe find a new area to drive around looking at Christmas lights. If your Christmas tree has always had colored lights, think about using white lights. Make a few changes that will be a little different and can become your own. If you have your children for part of the holidays, consider creating some all new ways to celebrate with them.
Avoid Drugs and Alcohol. Many non-custodial fathers find ways to drown their sorrows in addictive or harmful substances. Staying clean and sober will help you deal better with your circumstances.
Do Something New and Different. If you usually are home for the holidays, consider a trip to the mountains, the beach or another location this year. If the kids are with their mom, maybe take in a day or two of skiing, or travel to a warm climate for a couple of days of golf. Get out of the old comfort zone and break the routine. It will help you see your situation more clearly.
Plan the Time with the Kids. Most non-custodial fathers will have the children for at least part of the holidays. Plan some activities so you are not just sitting around being bored and depressed. If you are into projects, About Family Crafts Guide Sherri Osborne has a site filled with hundreds of simple craft projects you can do around the kitchen table. Plan a day trip to the zoo, the planetarium or a museum. Take a train ride somewhere (remember the Polar Express?). Drive out after dinner and look at Christmas light displays. Rent a couple of Christmas movies and curl up with popcorn and hot cocoa. Just make sure you have some structured time mixed in with some time just to relax.
Stay Positive. Especially with the kids, it is important not to let yourself get negative. Acting depressed (whether or not you feel it) is only a downer to those around you. Look for the positive and uplifting in your holiday. Consider finding people you can serve-participate in a "Toys for Tots" program or do some special kindness for your neighbors, your extended family or people from your church. Getting outside yourself tends to minimize the negative stressors of the holidays.
Recharge Your Batteries. Even if you have the children part of the holidays, there will be some time alone. Use it for a refreshing period. Get to the gym and work off the extra holiday pounds. Take a long walk or two. If you're in a winter climate, consider skiing or snowshoeing. If you are where it's warm, head to a lake or the beach. Take some time to reconnect with your inner self and find a little peace of your own.
The holidays can be a hard time for non-custodial dads; but you can do well and even thrive will a little planning and focus. Happy Holidays!