Divorced families come together for the holidays

Today's get-togethers can include mom and her new husband, dad and his wife, plus the kids

Natalie Sherman, a 30-something lawyer in Baltimore, decided four years ago that enough was enough. She was tired of the holiday shuffle between her parents' houses, 10 minutes apart in New Jersey.

Ms. Sherman's parents divorced when she was 12 years old. Both parents have been remarried for at least 15 years. So Sherman and her younger sister, Leslie, came up with a proposal: everybody squeeze around one table for Thanksgiving dinner.

Without too much hesitation, all four parents agreed, and they have been doing it ever since.

Family togetherness goes with the holidays like nutmeg sprinkled on eggnog. But for divorced families - especially those with children - the holidays can have more Scrooge than cheer when choosing where to eat the Thanksgiving meal, or with whom to open presents.

This is a holiday reality for many households in a nation where the number of annual divorces first topped 1 million in the mid-1970s, and gloomy statistics reveal that half of all marriages now end in divorce.

But what happens when the children have grown up, and old wounds have healed or disappeared? Some families find that they like one another enough to occasionally congregate.

This quiet phenomenon of divorced families gathering for the holidays does occur - and even seems natural to some who have been reuniting for graduations, weddings, and other important events for years.

There's no question that divorce tears the family social fabric. But what some families have come to learn is that divorce doesn't have to continue to be divisive as children mature and start families of their own.

Human-development and family-study experts offer different reasons for why this happens. Mediation instead of litigation has become an effective way for divorcing spouses to learn how to solve problems concerning children. Also, divorce education, a court-mandated, child-focused class for divorcing parents, has become common practice in the United States.

"With mediation and joint legal custody, probably now, more than 15 years ago, there are more divorcing parents that do try to work together for the sake of the kids," says Larry Ganong, a professor of human and family development at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Marilyn Coleman, Mr. Ganong's wife and colleague, says agreeing to cooperate can help ease tension over the holidays, an anxious time for many people, married or not.

"If people can be more flexible and not worry about the day a holiday falls on - as if it were magical in some way - then you can adapt so kids don't feel like they are disappointing everybody by not being [at both parents' holiday celebrations]. That takes some maturing and distance from the anger in order to do that."

Early Muntzing and his former wife, Aubrey Paull, who are both remarried and live on opposite ends of the East Coast, found that to be true since divorcing more than 25 years ago.

"I think for people with children, negative feelings toward each other [are] often centered around money or power, control issues: Who chooses what school, who chooses what religion....," says Mr. Muntzing. "But after awhile, those go away when the child becomes independent, and you have [fewer] reasons to be antagonistic."

But, while some former spouses have found the means to reunite briefly for the children's sake, sometimes their children - especially younger ones - don't enjoy the experience.

For the past 17 years, Bob Billingham has been teaching a class at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., about the effects of divorce on children. He sees some of his students get angry when their parents try to reunite for holidays.

"In adolescence and in college, children are trying to sort out their own personal definitions: What is commitment and what is love? What are relationships and how do they work? On the one hand," Mr. Billingham says, "[they're pleased when] they see their parents, who seem to get along as good friends; but the other side of this is, if you guys can get along so well ... isn't this what marriage was supposed to have been about?"

But as children mature and discover for themselves the complexities of relationships, easing the intensity of trying to juggle time with both parents becomes a priority. And agreeing to get along can make it easier for parents who might otherwise have spent the holiday alone.

Diane McMorris, who lives in Rockport, Mass., sometimes finds herself seated in the same dining room in upstate New York where she raised her children with her former husband.

The first invitation came a few years ago, when her adult daughter was arriving from Hawaii with her young children for Thanksgiving in New York, and everyone wanted to spend as much time together as possible.

"It's almost a natural thing," says Ms. McMorris, who is now unmarried, "because I had lived in that house so long with the children and him, and both [my ex-husband and his wife] have said at different times, 'This is your house, too.' "

A focus on what is best for the children is what makes most former spouses who do get together consider the option in the first place.

"It doesn't center around wanting to keep a friendship with the ex-spouse," explains Muntzing. "That may be the result, but the goal is to do what is right for the child, and to keep the best relationship that you can, even though you are divorced."

But, with new stepparents - and sometimes new children - a post-divorce family gathering can sometimes border on emotional-sensory overload.

Natalie Sherman admits that it can be exhausting to be the focus of four loving parents. And last year, when she hosted not only her own parents (and their spouses), but her husband's parents as well, she said it felt like Grand Central Station. "It's a real whirlwind, and you feel like you are at a press junket, where you are answering questions from 20 different people."

Charlotte Shoup Olsen, a Kansas State University family systems specialist, offers workshops with pointers on how all kinds of families can make it through the holidays with more peace and less disappointment. While divorced families who reunite are relatively unusual, Ms. Olsen says, the same etiquette applies to them as to other gatherings of family members: Be willing to compromise; talk about expectations ahead of time; avoid "hot button" topics; and be respectful of everybody's wants, while not denying your own.

When divorced families mature to the point where they can agree to reunite, family ties can strengthen, however untraditional they seem. And sometimes when grandchildren start arriving, the nuclear family tightens, even though it might include new players and different relationships.

Muntzing and his wife, Susan, have two daughters who consider themselves quasi-family members of his former wife's daughter and have exchanged visits and school photos with her.

In addition, the family's first grandchild has arrived, bringing a new level of interest in getting together.

"With Simon in the picture, there is more of a desire for the grandparents to be with him on special occasions.... I think that's why we are talking about sharing Thanksgiving next year," says Muntzing.

Experts caution, however, that post-divorce family togetherness may not be not for everyone, and honesty should be carefully considered by all parties involved. "People should be asking themselves: 'Is this really going to work, or are we pretending?' " says Billingham of Indiana University.

Sherman gives her parents a lot of credit for being willing to get together for the good of everybody during the holidays.

And seeing the end of old conflicts can add to the holiday cheer. "As my other daughter says," says McMorris with a laugh, "we are no longer dysfunctional."

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