On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, my family takes to the highway. The roads are pretty quiet. The sky usually spits a little snow between Connecticut and Pennsylvania. We know there are other families on the road who are also hauling the baggage of failed marriages.
At the spot where we meet my ex-husband, my second husband pulls next to a diner and I get out. I open the back door and lean in to give my son a squeeze; he’s pulling his ear buds out and checking his backpack. He’s 13, old enough now that he knows this drill. He gives me his beautiful smile, but he doesn’t need to reassure me. He knows that I don’t get too sad about missing him at Christmas, because the day itself doesn’t mean that much to me.
I watch as he morphs from my son to his father’s son, code-switching into the different version of himself that is easiest to be around his father. I hope when he is older he can explain to me how this felt. He already tells me that the divorce is the hardest thing in his life.
I go inside the diner to wait. My husband drives to the grocery store across the road, where he will shake hands with my ex-husband in the parking lot. My husband holds the entire show together; my ex and I are not allowed to be in the same place at the same time.
Eight years ago, I drove on Christmas morning to pick up my son from his father; our first Christmas apart. My ex’s eyes were red; I looked away, dodging “broken family” guilt because everything had already been shattered long ago. I had given him divorce papers early that fall, but for months he threatened that he wouldn’t sign. That Christmas morning, as I was about to pull away, he ran back out of his place with a manila envelope and motioned for me to open the window. There were papers: signed, notarized. The best Christmas present I’ve ever received, as they allowed me to have a life after him.
What does it mean for a child when his mother’s best present was the destruction of her marriage to his father?
I don’t know, now, what my son will make of these Christmases when he’s older. But I know he doesn’t remember anything before his father and I split up. He stopped believing in Santa almost immediately after the divorce. How could Santa possibly follow him closely enough to engineer Christmases in three or four locations? For one year, I insisted that Santa’s organizational skills made it possible, but then I gave in. The boy didn’t need to be lied to.
Friends ask me if it’s hard having the holidays without him. But I don’t need Christmas, not really. Holidays make me anxious. When I was married to his father, any special occasion was fraught with an added layer of stress as we tried to fake how to be happy or normal at an extended-family gathering. Maybe I’d go cry in someone’s bathroom, or maybe not. Back then, my eyes were bright with anxiety, my laugh high and nervous.
Now that that’s over, I am suspicious of most ceremonies in which I am expected to revel. In a weird way, I very much enjoy my non-Christmas Christmas. I like rolling down the highway with a husband who makes me laugh. He orders a McNugget Value Meal, and I use up the data on our phone plan scrolling through Facebook.
After dropping off my son, I enjoy a little parenting downtime. I read a book on Dec. 26, maybe send my son a text, and hope that he’s having fun.
My kid navigates these two worlds with two parents who could not be more different. He sails back and forth, coming to me for help when he needs it. The only gift I want to give him is hard to wrap. I want to give him the knowledge that it’s always okay to be honest, to feel the way you feel and to change your mind.
I’m thankful that, every year my kid does not wrap up a Christmas gift for me. He never feels like he has to stand on ceremony or prove anything to me. I am his rock-solid taken-for-granted. I am the car he leaves and the place he comes back to when the festivities are done. I get my real gift on Jan. 3, when we get him back, we drive back home and turn off the car.