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When parents live apart

When parents live apart: How to keep the joy in holidays

Keeping your kids' joy front and center is the best guide

When parents live apart, keeping holidays joyful can get tricky.

Families can change over the years, losing members or adding them. Divorce and separation are wild-card situations, where families sharply divide, then sometimes continue to grow in different directions. For parents and kids, all of this change can make the winter holidays, normally some of the best parts of childhood, seem like a festive ribbon wrapped around a time bomb.

It doesn’t have to be that way. “If you were born in the ’70s or ’80s, there was a lot of divorce — but it was not done skillfully,” says Karen Bonnell, collaborative divorce coach in Kirkland and author of “The Co-Parenting Handbook.” “We have the opportunity to do things differently now and show up as good parents to our children, even though it takes work and commitment.” The holidays can be the perfect time to practice.

Separate is OK

Uncoupling can negatively impact an adult’s ability to focus on the act of parenting. In cases where emotions are high and adjustment has not yet taken root, it may make sense to celebrate holidays separately. “If parents are unable to be in the same room to light the first candle of Hanukkah or hang stockings, it might be hard on the children,” Bonnell says, “but that is preferable to making them experience a pool of distressing adult emotions.”

Magnolia photographer Lydia Brewer remembers one Christmas when her young daughter’s father showed up unannounced on her doorstep, and she had to make a choice. “The little communication we had at the time was harsh. Thinking of my daughter, I decided to turn my house over to him,” Brewer says. “I let them have the Christmas dinner and gave them space to open presents. When they were finished, he sent me a message. I returned, he left, and I was able to enjoy the rest of the evening with my daughter.”


Jennifer Picinich of Gig Harbor has three children from her first marriage. She married a man with two sons, then gave birth to twins. She has a week-on, weekends-off co-parenting schedule.

When a single parent recouples with another single parent, holiday co-parenting schedules can get complicated. Jennifer Picinich of Gig Harbor has three children from her first marriage. She married a man with two sons, then gave birth to twins. During the year, Picinich has a week-on, weekends-off co-parenting schedule, while her husband’s agreement with his children’s mom is 50-50. “Fortunately, we’ve been able to line up the holiday schedules so we have all six kids at the same time,” says Picinich. “One year we have them on Christmas Eve, and they leave Christmas morning. We switch the next year.”


Dorey Miller splits winter break. The kids celebrate Christmas with their father, and Hanukkah with Dorey.

Celebrating separately can mean that one parent has to go it alone when others are gathered together. “The first holiday season apart was very hard,” says Dorey Miller, Wedgwood mom of a son and daughter in elementary school. “Everything pretty much shuts down on Christmas Day, and if you are out, it’s painful to see people with their families.” Miller discovered a way to make December 25 less lonely that year: “I found out that one of my favorite yoga teachers was actually leading a class that morning, and it was wonderful.”

Divide the time, gracefully

After the first few years post-divorce, Bonnell actually recommends alternating where children spend the holidays, which may strike fear into many single parents’ hearts. Seen from the children’s perspective, however, alternating holidays may allow children to relax and not feel constantly in transition at those special times.

In their parenting plan, Miller and her children’s father each get half of the winter break: “He gets the kids during Christmas week, and I get them the following one.” Miller was raised honoring both Jewish and Christian holidays, and enjoys celebrating Hanukkah with her children. The Festival of Lights presents unique holiday co-parenting challenges, however — it lasts for eight nights and sometimes overlaps with Christmas. “This year, I’m missing most of Hanukkah with my kids,” Miller says. “It was disappointing, but ultimately, I’m OK with it. We’ll just really live it up on the last two nights.”

For parents with large extended families and broad religious traditions, the winter holidays can mean multiple opportunities for celebrating, requiring more cooperation from co-parents. Adama Seck, Central District dad of a 5-year-old, comes from a blended religious background and follows Islam and other spiritual traditions.

“We try to make sure that each of us has the chance to include our son in holiday events,” says Seck. He and his co-parent Sydney Swonigan (together they co-host the podcast “Two Exes and a Baby”) schedule events in a way that works for both of them: “That means sometimes our son will have two family celebrations in a day.”


Adama Seck and Sydney Swonigan share a blended religious background with a large extended family, and try to include their son in both of their holiday events.

Share if you can

Some co-parents, regardless of the turmoil they feel inside, have the capacity to separate their uncoupling challenges from their ability to show up fully as mom or dad. “These are the ones who can put on their parenting selves and be together to help their child hang a special ornament or sing the prayers, and give their kids the best of both worlds,” says Bonnell. “These parents are able to keep their interactions with each other short and sweet, and their children get to create happy holiday memories.”

Evan Reynolds, Queen Anne dad of a tween and a teen, shares Christmas Day with his children’s mom. “We have a standing invitation for each other,” Reynolds says. “This year, I’ll go there in the morning to see them open her gifts, and she and the kids will come back to my house in the afternoon to open gifts from me.” The key to this kind of continued family celebration is staying amicable: “If we didn’t work to get along, it would be different. We’re still human, of course, but maintaining a respectful relationship gives our kids an advantage.”

Swonigan and Seck also make the effort to share Christmas with their son. “The first year was a little awkward,” Swonigan admits, “but now we share the morning with no drama, just doing what we need to do for our son.”

Celebrate with care

Rather than smoothing interactions, the effects of alcohol on judgment, aggression and even flirtatiousness can make awkward situations worse, Bonnell said. When spending time in the same room with your co-parent, their new partner, and maybe even your former in-laws, it’s best to avoid relying on alcohol to cope through holiday stress. “Some people get sad and others get angry when they drink,” says Bonnell. “If there was one thing I wish co-parents would do, it’s realizing that using alcohol to relax does not help.”

If you are facing co-parenting challenges this winter, just remember you are not alone, and the holidays don’t last forever. “Married, single, or divorced, everyone feels that way about getting to January 2nd,” Bonnell says. Here’s to a respectful and cooperative New Year!

Joining a family holiday in progress: Including new partners

Even the most amicable co-parenting relationship may suffer when one person re-couples and a new adult is added to a still-stabilizing family system. “The slower we go, the faster we arrive,” says Bonnell, who also co-authored (with Patricia Papernow) “The Stepfamily Handbook.” “Pushing a new partner on your children and your co-parent will only create more resistance and distress. Hearts don’t work that way.” Humans need time.

Around the holidays, when we try to “force-feed” happiness, family culture and memories surface, making it difficult for children to feel secure and new partners to fit in. These are not relationships of choice between the kids and their other parent and the new partner. “Step-parenting is a challenging place to be,” says Eileen Underhill, stepmom to two boys in Magnolia, “even if you thought you knew what you were getting into.”

First do no harm

Taking care not to harm each other, while being flexible, can go a long way toward healthy co-parenting. “This year, my husband and I will have a lot of holiday time when his kids are not with us,” says Underhill. “We are going to reconnect, which is something that parents who are not divorced don’t always have time for.”

Reflect on what your children are used to at this time of year, and remember it’s also OK to create new traditions separately, while staying open to changes for future holidays. “Family structures settle over time,“ says Bonnell, “and then things renormalize. That is where the spaciousness can happen that makes wonderful things possible.

Updated: This article was originally published in 2019.

More family holiday topics:

Dad Next Door: 2 words: gratitude and generosity

“What if we just … didn’t”: Tips for reining in holiday excess

About the Author

Joely Johnson