Childrearing

Splitsville: Is This A Christmas Present Or A Consolation Prize?

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Welcome to Splitsville. This weekly column will focus on parenting after a divorce, break-up or one-night stand thatdidn’t end like a Katherine Heigl movie.

“It was like a young kid’s dream or a corney ABCFamily movie. The kid who has been miserable, missing his father and begging for a little attention, sees his dad’s red Trailblazer pull into the drive. The little boy’s face lights up. And here comes the absent parent to make his penance. He may not have seen his child in months and he may not have paid support all year. But he has a huge, shiny present for that child who is just desperate for an actual father to be in his life. That’s what my holiday has looked like for a couple years now.”

This is a quote from one of our Mommyish readers, who emailed me about her holiday Splitsville experience. For years now, she’s struggled as a single mother. She’s making it work, but the older her son gets, the less they see of her ex. Until, of course, Christmas time rolls around. Then, he comes charging back into their lives with the year’s hottest toys and plenty of fake familiarity.

No one wants to villify their ex in front of their children. Even worse, who wants to start a fight during the holidays. Our reader Kate* says, “I don’t want to start harping on him for how long it’s been and how much our son has missed him. I’m afraid he’ll leave and it will be all my fault. This is the happiest time of my son’s year.” And yet, she can’t help but wonder as she stares at all those big expensive gifts, are these Christmas presents or consolation prizes? Are these supposed to make for all the time her ex hasn’t been there, all the illnesses and soccer games that he doesn’t know about? It boils down to her asking, “Is this all we get?”

It’s a difficult tug-of-war. And on the other end is her beaming son, excitedly ripping open gifts and playing games with his dad. Could a mother ever ruin her son’s happiness by raining on this holiday miracle?

Kate’s tried to discuss her frustration with her ex throughout the year. Every January, she gets to call and remind him that he promised to come by more often. And every February, she still hasn’t  heard from him. They might get a call or a visit in March, for their son’s birthday. Kate wants to be able to protect her son from this yearly disappointment. She hates seeing him fly so high only to be flung back down to Earth after the stockings have come down and the New Year’s Ball has dropped. Then, it’s back to the quiet and infrequent questions about when Daddy will show up next.

As a parent, this story is just so heart-wrenching. And as a writer and a woman, I wish I had advice to give Kate. I wish there was a cure some where out there for parents who don’t see the effects of their actions on their children. Christmas presents are great, and I’m not sure that I would be able to turn them away either. I don’t know that I could ruin the little joyful time my child gets with her father to say, “You need to be doing more. This isn’t enough. Stop with the gifts and start being present in your child’s life.”

Often in these columns, we talk about communication and its importance in creating a supportive family for a child of separation or divorce. Unfortunately, the easy conversations are the ones seem to get to. It’s these difficult ones that go left unsaid. I hope that as Kate’s ex is packing up his red Trailblazer, she walks up to him and says, “The holidays are great, but our son misses you the rest of the year.” And I hope that father realizes that kids need more than toys and gadgets.