“Christmas really sucks for children of divorce,” my daughter pronounced while we were sitting on the couch together watching a Zak Efron movie (our compromise) after I made yet another batch of cookies, these with chocolate.
That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear. She’s 14. This is her fourth divorced Christmas. I thought we had worked out the kinks.
“Ah, how do you mean?”
My first reaction is to get all defensive. Mom’s in a better place, I say to myself. When Mom is happier, it’s better for those around Mom (except the divorced Dad, I guess). My grown-up brain is flashing back to the Christmas season six years ago when, on this day, Dec. 20, I went into the Cleveland Clinic because I was in liver failure. I didn’t know exactly what was wrong, other than my liver wasn’t recovering even after I stopped drinking a month earlier. The damage was more extensive than the Erie hospital, where I went in right before Thanksgiving, and returned two weeks later, had noted.
I had been self-medicating with alcohol to deal with anxiety/panic attacks that began when my daughter was around 2. I’d be suddenly overcome with nausea, and then the heaving would start. I could be driving. Or in the middle of a meeting. In the six months leading up to the diagnosis, I ate very little in an attempt to keep my stomach empty. I drank at home (like most women) to stay calm (my rationalization).
I tried therapy. But three different therapists said I had nothing to be anxious about. I had a job. A husband. Family. A daughter. A nice home. Friends. A member of a country club. What did I have to be anxious/depressed about?
As I write this now, I wonder if perhaps that was a question. At the time, I heard judgment. I heard, “Suck it up, sister. There are a lot of people with real problems out there.”
“And you aren’t one of them.”
No excuse on my part. I almost left a middle schooler without a mother.
Support of my family, some close friends, and some great women in AA, helped me navigate life post alcohol. And, not surprisingly, a lot of things became clearer. I was a different person than the woman who married 20 years earlier. I didn’t want to dull feelings, I wanted adventure. I wanted to hike in the mountains. I wanted to kayak – and eventually try rapids. Travel to Europe again. Go dancing. I wanted to live – in all CAPS.
I didn’t, and couldn’t, come home from a day of work, supporting our little family because my husband was unemployed, have a glass of wine and make dinner. I also needed to be a Mom. An active Mom. A Mom who shows her daughter what it is like to bounce back from the edge – it is possible – and go on to be happy. And happiness didn’t mean a house, two cars, two dogs, the country club, and dinner with wine. I had to find it on my own terms.
My daughter is right. Christmas sucks for divorced kids. That first Christmas was painful. The lawyer my ex hired wanted monthly support and a housing allowance that amounted to my entire salary. He was unemployed, and had been for quite a few years. He was in the house and deserved to be supported in the life he and my daughter were accustomed to. Arguing that we couldn’t afford the house – I had tried to convince my ex to sell when he first lost his job so we could afford to live on just my salary. He kept saying he would find a job and it would be OK. Four years and a tremendous amount of credit card debt (nearly all in my name) to balance the books, and I was panicked.
So that first Christmas as painful. I was living rent free thanks to my family in a summer cottage that had been winterized and had heat. I had enough for presents and a tree. But she wasn’t going to wake up in a house with Mom and Dad, and Santa. She would wake up in the house she had lived in her whole life, with no Mom and no tree. I woke up with a tree and no Nicole. The gym had become my anti-anxiety medication, but it was closed. That was when I started running.
I picked her up mid-morning and we had our own Christmas. I convinced her Santa would find her new second home, even if it was temporary. But it was different. And kids don’t like different, especially where Santa is involved. This wasn’t the first different. Two years earlier, when I was at the Cleveland Clinic, she spent Christmas in Mexico with my parents, my sister, and her family. I wouldn’t be released in time to make it. A winter storm shut down the East Coast, preventing my brothers and their families from getting to Cancun.
So I was messing with her Christmas for the second time.
I think of how far we’ve come. I have my own place now. It’s a small condo – not a three-bedroom house on 2 acres overlooking Lake Erie like she grew up in. My credit is still destroyed, but that just means Christmas is paid for. I own a car, used and purchased with cash, of course. And we have a dog, not a pure-breed, but a loving shelter dog.
But she knows about the struggle to get here. She still watches me at the holiday table when alcohol is served. She worries about money. She thinks I am extravagant when it comes to Christmas – but she still has a list that includes 365 T-shirts (so she doesn’t have to worry about running out) and an equal number of phone cases.
I know this is OK. She has the optimism to still ask for the moon, but understand that she may not get there. She can see that you can go to a holiday event and not have a drink. I also think it is OK not to go to some holiday events because the main feature is alcohol, which is incredibly dull when you are the only person not imbibing. It’s OK to find other things to do, like go for a walk in the woods. Read a book. Or find a terrible Zak Efron movie on TV to watch with your daughter.
But, yes, Nicole, Christmas does suck when you are the child of divorce. Mainly because you learn a lot of lessons about Christmas at an earlier age than the other kids. You learn that it’s not a holiday about presents that magically appear, and people who get along. You learn that Christmas is about love. It’s about the love of a mother for her child. And sometimes the journey they take is a difficult one, sometimes celebrated with strangers in a house that isn’t our own.
I’m not all about the lessons – thank heavens. I do know my daughter adores chocolate. So after her pronunciation about divorce, I handed her a cookie. It doesn’t make everything better, but chocolate does help.