Ex-etiquette: Divorce and the holidays

Q. I was recently married. My husband’s parents were divorced two years ago, and they are in the middle of trying to figure out how to handle the holidays. His mother wants us to spend Thanksgiving with her and his father says he will go with us anywhere, just not to his ex-wife’s home. My parents have been divorced for 10 years, but prior to that they were each married to someone else, so I have three half siblings. We settled into celebrating holidays together—my parents get along and that makes it easy. However, now that everyone is married with kids and responsibilities to other in-laws, and I have prickly in-laws, I’m having trouble with logistics. Everyone wants me to be with them and I’m frustrated beyond belief. I know we are not unique. How do people do this? What is good ex-etiquette?

A. You can only be at one place at one time, and it can get very stressful if mom is here and dad is there — plus now there are divorced in-laws, as well. I like that you called them “prickly.” We all get it.

Add to that attachments to past and present family members and you have quite a mess trying to get all the players in one place at one time. That’s why I try to remind everyone that “the holidays” are not necessarily just one day, but an entire holiday season. Between mid-November and Jan. 1, there are quite a few days to celebrate with loved ones. It doesn’t necessarily have to be on THE designated day. You’re looking for the family feeling of celebrating together. Who said that the only day everyone can create that feeling is on the fourth Thursday in November?

For example, although I have always celebrated Thanksgiving with my husband’s ex because the collective kids prefer to be together, this year our adult children have other commitments with extended family and new in-laws and I’m opting to cook on Saturday instead. And, from now on, I told the kids, go where you need to go on Thanksgiving, but plan the Saturday after Thanksgiving to be at my house. They were elated. It took all the pressure off trying to get to three or four Thanksgiving dinners — and Saturday will be the bonus Thanksgiving with yours, mine and ours at the table. Plus, it allowed me to plan where I would like to be instead of juggling extended family.

The key to having successful holiday get-togethers after a breakup is to be flexible and compromise whenever possible (good ex-etiquette rule No. 10). Modifying, rather than abandoning old traditions, can certainly help. In my case, I’m not abandoning my family Thanksgiving celebration, I’m modifying our old tradition to work with the new family configuration. I’m still cooking and making everyone’s favorites and looking forward to family time. I’m just cooking for the season, instead of the day. And I will have my family around me, relaxed and invested in our time together rather than being stressed while trying to juggle one more Thanksgiving meal.

I have another suggestion to consider. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is often a “down week.” Kids are out of school and work schedules are usually not as strict. If you are looking at it as a season and not the day, that might be a good time to establish a new bonus family tradition. Think outside of the box. That’s good ex-etiquette.

Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com.