My ex-husband, “Bryce,” and I have a rather unusual co-parenting situation. Two years past our finalized divorce and we’re still spending special occasions together as a family. Sometimes this is as simple as us, our children, and our significant others sitting together at school functions. Sometimes it takes the form of throwing joint birthday parties for our girls, with everyone pitching in to help and make it a special day.
But Christmas is the pinnacle of our post-divorce cordiality. Our divorce decree dictates that we are to exchange the girls at noon on Christmas day, but each year so far, we have continued to get together at the crack of dawn to see the girls discover Santa’s schwag and open the treasures under the tree. We make Russian tea and light breakfast snacks, take photos, and generally have all the semblance of an oddly-extended family.
Life after divorce is certainly a series of “aha” moments — when the past and the present converge to illuminate something that seems so clear and simple that you can’t believe you never noticed it or understood it before. This Christmas, Santa delivered me just such a moment.
Christmas morning I awoke early and set about readying the house for the arrival of Bryce and his girlfriend, “Debbie.” I lit the fire and the candles, put the breakfast casserole I’d prepared the night before in the oven and the tea on the stove, and turned on the Christmas music. The stage was set for a lovely and merry celebration.
As we moved through the motions of gift-opening and ooh-ing and ahh-ing, I observed my family, as if from a distance, with the memory of the weekend’s celebrations with James’ family still fresh in my consciousness. I saw Bryce’s impatience with the girls’ giddiness, and his refusal to eat any of the food, including the banana bread Debbie had so thoughtfully brought over. I saw his stiffness and forced smile. I saw Debbie trying to keep things running smoothly (wait a second… why does that look so familiar…? oh, right… now I remember….). I saw the children’s almost manic exuberance, as if they were intent on forcibly infusing joy into the very proper and formal proceedings.
Slowly, it dawned on me that there was something very off about the tableau playing out in front of me…. There was nothing horribly wrong or dysfunctional about the morning… no nasty arguments or discourse….it simply lacked any warmth or lightness or connection. Small, kind comments were exchanged, some sincere expressions of gratitude were made, but it didn’t feel fun. Honestly, there wasn’t anything fun about it. It was like the equivalent of a first date in which the food is fine, the wine is fine, the conversation is fine, and yet you’ve forgotten his name by the time you get home.
And suddenly, as I sat by the fire that morning and sipped my tea and soaked it all in, the epiphany arrived: this Christmas was not this way because we’re divorced and things are awkward and Debbie was there for the first time. No, this Christmas was this way because it was always this way.
Bryce and I tried. Sincerely, I think we both tried very hard, in our own ways, for all those years, to create something special on those mornings. We did what we knew to do — all the same stage settings I did this morning. But I remember, over the years, looking across the room at him, as our girls tore into some much anticipated present, and having his eyes lock with mine for only a brief moment, before his gaze darted away, the connection broken almost as quickly as it was made. And I would be left feeling dizzily detached on a morning that I’d always anticipated would be pregnant with intimate, shared family moments.
I feel certain that we both wanted it to be different, but didn’t know how to make it so. I think we had a mutual vision for a Christmas morning that was fun and relaxed and warm, but we never quite got it there. And, frankly, lacking both the skills and the raw materials within our relationship to truly create that connection, our efforts were likely doomed.
Later that morning, as I lay on my sofa and watched my girls play with their gifts, I pondered our previous shared family dynamic and how it has affected our current dynamic. It occurred to me that maybe the very nature of our marriage is the reason we can be good to each other after our divorce. Maybe it was the formality and distance within our marriage that has enabled us to remain mostly cordial to each other. Maybe it is because our relationship has been merely altered, rather than seismically shifted, that is the crux of our current “success.” If Christmases had been close, connected affairs, overflowing with our love for each other and our family, it might be impossible to comfortably fake our way through it as a divorced couple. But there was little appreciable difference between today and a Christmas morning 10 years ago.
Just a couple of weeks earlier, an acquaintance mom approached me at one of the holiday school functions and laughingly told me that she and some others felt that Bryce and I should be voted “Best Divorced Couple.” This is especially amusing if you’ve read this post, detailing my horror at being informed by my best friend during my marriage that Bryce and I were the infamous “Jones'” couple that everyone is always comparing themselves to at a disadvantage. Apparently, Bryce and I are destined to be the prom king and queen of whatever relationship status we occupy. It’s a little bit ridiculous, isn’t it?
My Christmas epiphany brought me a sense of gratitude. Rather than seeing the nature of our marriage or our current relationship as something sad or unfortunate, I am instead feeling appreciative of it. As I am no longer in the marriage, I see no point in wishing it had been something other than it was, and I think it may serve us very well as a divorced couple. No, our shared Christmas mornings will not be lively or intimate, but at least we’re able to have them, which continues be important to my daughters. And if those mornings were lively or intimate, how might that actually feel to me? What regrets might that prompt? As it is, these mutual occasions serve as a very firm reminder of what our marriage was and why it no longer exists. So, maybe for all of us, that’s the best possible thing. The rest of the holiday celebrations the girls and I shared were very merry occasions indeed, and if our daughters want us to simultaneously share Christmas morning with them, how much of a sacrifice is that really?
So, while my little epiphany was a tad melancholy in the moment, with a bit of introspection, it was also reassuring of both my decision to leave, and the path I’m on currently. I am grateful to Bryce that we can find some mutual understanding of cordiality for the sake of our children; that our love for them is still preeminent. And I am grateful for the sharp contrast between that morning and the holiday celebrations that we shared with James. There is much to be learned from that contrast — about me, what I seek for myself and my girls, and the choices I’m making now. Funny how a somewhat sad Christmas morning can take on a positive shine when viewed from a distance.
It seems the only consistent thing about this journey is the surprises along the way…. but I guess that’s what Christmas mornings are all about, right?