It's been 10 years since Suzanne Hayes went through a divorce, but the mom of three still remembers the feelings of fear and failure she experienced on her first Christmas as a single mother.
"I felt like a bad mom," Hayes says. "All I could focus on were my kids and how I failed them and how scared I was for them. I don't remember the little details of that first holiday season — did they go to both parents' homes on that first Christmas Day? What presents did they get? Did my ex and I argue? I honestly don't know."
Hayes says what she does remember was beating herself up. The Simsbury, Conn. mom was anxious and struggling with alcoholism. To make up for what she perceived as her failure as a mother, she turned to overspending, buying her kids more Christmas presents than they needed.
"In my hurting and sad mind, the way to make [the divorce] up to my kids was gifts," says Hayes, who has been sober since 2014. "In my mind the thought of spending even a few hours on a holiday without my children by my side felt painfully wrong. Going to sleep on Christmas Eve while your children are at their dad's house for the first time is a lonely, overwhelming, intense experience."
"But," adds Hayes, "it gets better."
Therapist Barbara Greenberg says in those first holidays after a divorce, breakup or death of a partner, feelings like Hayes' are normal. What's important is that parents prioritize giving themselves a lot of rest and a bit of grace.
Practice self care
"Accept that it will be hard because it is a big transition from being a family during the holidays to your new status as a single parent," Greenberg tells Yahoo Life. "Parents have to engage in self-care. That's a tough one, but if you whip yourself up into too much of a frenzy and worry too much about whether or not you're spending enough on gifts and how the kids are going to perceive the holidays — if you're exhausted and not sleeping and not taking care of yourself — you're bound to have a difficult holiday."
For Olivia Howell, a mom of two boys ages 5 and 8, self-care on her first Christmas as a single mom involved being gentle with herself.
"The first holiday season post-separation was definitely a hard one," says Howell, who lives on Long Island, N.Y. and is co-founder of Fresh Starts Registry, a product and resource guide for others who need help navigating life changes. "So much of the early days of separation or divorce is reliving a lot of the memories from the past and grieving what you thought you would have in the future ... It's OK to start new traditions and make them traditions you are excited, as the parent, to uphold. As a creative person, I loved painting ornaments with my kids and baking cookies."
Put away the credit cards
While Greenberg says it's common for parents, like Hayes, to be tempted to try to soothe kids' feelings through gift-giving, such overspending is a major no-no.
"You'll be paying down your credit card all year long," says Greenberg. "[The holidays are] not a competition with your ex about who's going to buy the kids the most gifts. It's about providing your kids fun and relaxation and a festive and cozy time."
Let kids share their feelings
When it comes to kids' feelings about their holiday looking different than in previous years, Greenberg says it's important to remember you don't have to have all the answers, you just have to listen.
"Often, kids just want a quiet presence and to be heard," she says. "Just do a lot of listening and validating. There has to be an acknowledgement of how the kids feel about this different sort of holiday."
Share your feelings with the right people (not your kids)
"Make sure to find someone else to talk about your own feelings with," Greenberg cautions. "Your kids aren't your friends, so you talk about your feelings with your friends, family or therapist."
For Howell, that person was her sister.
"I remember feeling so sad and full of guilt about being emotionally low during one of the few holidays in my children's childhoods where they believed in Santa," she recalls. "My sister said to me matter of factly, 'This holiday will be hard, and that's OK, and it won't always be this way, so let yourself feel sad and don't feel bad about it.' It helped to hear that."
Your kids aren't your friends, so you talk about your feelings with your friends, family or therapist."Barbara Greenberg
Trina Diakabanzila, a divorced mom and Air Force Veteran from Charlotte, N.C., says she makes it a point to never speak poorly of her ex-husband in front of her 6-year-old daughter.
"It doesn't have to end nasty," she says. "You can become better friends and parents after a divorce. No matter what, kids will love their parents the same so never talk bad about an absent parent in front of a child, they know and observe more than we think they do."
Greenberg also cautions against "grilling" kids about how the holidays were celebrated at the other parent's home.
"There's a tendency to ask what it was like there," she says. "Do not start interrogating them, that's a perfect way to ruin the holidays, they're really not your messengers."
If a parent has died, keep their memory alive
Liz Mavis' husband, Bobby, was killed in a car accident in Nov. 2019, just weeks before the holidays. Mavis says facing Christmas morning without her husband felt overwhelming, but one of the things that brought comfort to her and her two children, who were 5 and 8 at the time, was looking through memories on Facebook from previous Christmases together.
"Hearing his voice and seeing him happy with the kids in those memories helped pull me out of my funk and get through the morning," Mavis recalls. "As tough as it was, pushing through and sharing happy memories helped so much and was really a turning point for us as a family — focusing on the happy memories we shared and talking about them."
"The second year, we made sure to watch the videos before opening presents and it made us feel more connected to him," Mavis, who lives in Land o' Lakes, Fla., adds.
Greenberg says when a family has endured a loss like Mavis', developing holiday traditions like these are key.
"Find a way to celebrate that parent each holiday," she says. "You must talk about that parent because then you give the message that, not only is it OK, but it's also necessary to talk about them — that they're still with you in so many ways."
"Have pictures around, talk about it, celebrate the parent who is no longer alive," Greenberg suggests. "Don't hide all the pictures and act as if that parent never existed."
If you're without the kids, ask for help
If your kids are spending the holiday with your ex, Greenberg says it's important to remember to be around people.
"Don't assume people know you're going to be alone," she says. "People get so caught up in the frenzy of the holidays that they're just not thinking about everything, but people want to take care of other people."
To score that holiday dinner invite, Greenberg says be vulnerable: Tell friends you'll be alone on the holiday and ask if you can join them for dinner or host a dinner party at your house, inviting others who don't have family in town to celebrate with.
"Be proactive. Let people know. Don't be bashful about that," Greenberg says. "You'd be surprised how many people would love to have someone outside their family in their home."
After many holidays spent co-parenting with her ex-husband. Hayes says she's learned that even the most difficult divorce can turn into something beautiful.
"There is only one other person in this world who loves your kids the way you do and that is their other parent," she says. "The holidays will be an emotional roller coaster and that is normal, but be gentle with yourself."
"It gets better and more and more beautiful and sometimes you just have to trust the word of someone who has been there," Hayes adds. "The holidays will be and feel different and new and perhaps uncomfortable and scary, but that doesn't mean they won't be filled with love and joy and smiling children."
Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.