Holidays without homes

Jennifer Roback Morse
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Posted: Dec 26, 2005 12:05 AM

Here in California, the divorce culture is further along and more deeply entrenched than in most places. It isn’t unusual for children to grow up not only with divorced parents, but also with divorced grandparents. Holiday times can be particularly stressful for these families.

I am looking at an article entitled, “Forget the holiday fantasy; focus on flexibility.”  The article gives step-families pointers on how to “package step-family gatherings with care.” But right at the beginning of the article, without comment, is the fact that parents have holiday schedules dictated by courts. Allow me to quote:

“Next Sunday, Sandy and Steve will spend their first Christmas together as a married couple... But something big will be missing: their children. Both their sons will spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with their other parent. At noon, as stipulated in a legal document, Steve will pick up 10-year-old Oskar. At 2 P.M. Also per a legal agreement, Sandy will get 5-year-old Ethan.” 

Court-ordered, or at least court-regulated, visitation has become such a common feature of our social landscape that we don’t even notice it anymore. It is tucked into this article, in between tips on handling presents for step-mothers and managing multiple family traditions. When cooperation between parents breaks down, they implicitly or explicitly invite the state to become involved in the most intimate details of their lives.

The divorce culture appears in a different form for married couples with divorced parents.  I am acquainted with young couples whose own parents are divorced. These young families are trying to keep their parents happy. And their own marriages are extremely important to them, precisely because of the trauma they experienced through their parents’ divorces. What are the holidays like for these families?  Well, let’s just say they spend a lot of time in the car.

Since both of them have divorced parents, we’re talking about four different households who want to see the young couple and the grandkids. So Mom, Dad and the little kids go see Grandma Number 1 (Dad’s mom) and her new husband on Christmas Eve and then drive over and see Grandpa Number 1 (Dad’s dad) on Christmas day. Then they somehow have to work in Grandma No. 2 (Mom’s mom). She wants to come over on Christmas morning and watch the little ones open their gifts. But she can’t drive, so someone has to drive to her house and bring her over. There isn’t really room for everyone to descend upon Grandpa Number 2 (Mom’s dad) in his little barren apartment, so they try to include him in a group get-together with some of the brothers and sisters later in the week.

It gets even more complicated if some of the adult siblings are taking sides in one of the never-ending quarrels. Grandma Number 1 takes offense at anyone who sees Grandpa Number 1 before her, or perhaps, anyone who sees Grandpa at all. Maybe the young parents have made themselves clear that they intend to keep up relationships with both parents. But then Aunt Susie is offended, because she takes Grandpa’s side entirely and doesn’t want to see the people he considers disloyal. So our intrepid couple has to plan their visit to Grandpa’s, so that it doesn’t coincide with Aunt Susie’s, because she will make a real stink.

The end-result often is that these young parents, who are doing their best to try to please their parents and meet their children’s  needs, are caught in the middle. By the end of the ordeal, they are exhausted, frazzled and just want to be alone. Too much drama, not enough joy.

Obviously, I don’t accuse every divorced person of this sort of self-centeredness. And also obviously, many intact families torment each other during the holidays. But, I would say this: take a good look at yourself, whatever your family situation. If the shoe fits, wear it. Almost everyone can do something constructive to improve their family life.

When No-Fault Divorce was first introduced, it seemed like a good idea. People thought that easing divorce rules would lower the cost of divorce for people who had already decided to divorce anyway. No one fully anticipated how many more divorces would occur. We were assured that children would be better off living with parents who were happy, rather than living in a high-conflict environment with miserable parents.  No one anticipated how many divorces would take place among couples who were not roiled in violence, but rather in marriages with an undercurrent of discontent. We thought that whether to get married or stay married was a matter of our own personal privacy.  Little did we know that a government institution, the Family Courts, would morph into something that regulates private lives with the most minute detail, including who gets to spend Christmas with the kids.

But there is hope. The younger generation is sick of the divorce culture. I hear it from them every day, whether on talk radio, or after a speech I’ve given, or in response to a column like this one. They are hungry for information on how to keep their marriages vibrant and their love alive. With some help from older people, these young married couples may just change the world. Or at least their own little corner of the world.