Thanksgiving: that most American of holidays. Pumpkin pie. Football. Divorce.
For much of Smartmom’s childhood, Thanksgiving meant standing in front of the Museum of Natural History waiting for Underdog and Mighty Mouse to fly over.
The Macy’s parade would be followed by an enthusiastic gathering of her extended family in the large, light-filled dining room of their Riverside Drive apartment for a sumptuous meal, spirited discussion, debate and her Great Aunt Beatrice’s delicious mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows.
Without fail, Nanny, Smartmom’s maternal grandmother, would say, “Good eatin,’” plus a smattering of Yiddish words as a way to bless the abundant feast that was topped off by too many slices of pie from Greenberg’s Bakery on Madison Avenue.
But on the night before Thanksgiving the year she was 17, Smartmom learned that her parents were separating. On Turkey Day, her father was gone and her mother didn’t leave her bedroom.
It was sudden, it was quick. Her parent’s marriage was over and family life as she knew it was kaput.
Thanksgiving morning, Smartmom’s aunt picked up Smartmom and her sister.
“This is awful,” she said as she took Smartmom and Diaper Diva to her home in Westchester where Smartmom’s maternal relatives were gathered.
As she remembers it, nobody said a thing. It was the giant elephant; the great unmentionable.
Sitting at the huge Danish Modern dining table, Smartmom and Diaper Diva felt like orphans as they worried about their mother and wondered where their father had gone. The day went by in a blur of emotions. By the time the football games were playing on the black-and-white television, they already felt stigmatized by this unfortunate schism in their domestic lives.
Back home, the apartment felt empty and sad. Her mother was asleep and Smartmom sat in the living room and listened to the Laura Nyro album, “Gonna Take a Miracle,” feeling too confused to cry and too anxious to sleep.
Less than a year later, Smartmom left for college and an independent life of her own. She can barely remember the next Thanksgiving or the ones after that. Like most kids of divorce, she made a valiant effort to adjust to the new normal: life without an intact family.
Over time, Smartmom and Diaper Diva got used to their holidays being divvied up like portions of cake. Her mother always got Thanksgiving. Her father got Christmas. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover were up for grabs.
Nothing was written down or settled in a legal way; her parents weren’t legally divorced for years to come. So Smartmom and her sister were basically winging it every holiday.
It often came down to which parent needed them more. In so many ways, divorce forces the child to grow up fast and interpret the needs of their parents.
This can make the child feel responsible for a parent’s happiness or unhappiness in ways that are definitely not all that healthy for young children.
Even in this enlightened day and age, when divorce is understood as the monster it is, divorced parents continue to try to split their children in two.
Nowadays, most of the divorced parents Smartmom knows have it in writing which parent their children will be with on each holiday until the child is 18.
Typically, the big-ticket holidays are divided up like a bucket of coins. Luckily there are eight days of Hannukah.
One thing’s for sure: Mom always gets Mother’s Day. Dad has Father’s Day.
Sometimes the children become a rope in the battle between the parents. Some parents end up in court fighting over scheduling matters.
Smartmom knows some divorced parents who do unusual things to keep their child’s needs front and center.
One kid she knows spends Christmas morning with both parents and their significant others. Mom, Dad, stepmom and stepdad open presents together and even share some food.
But this kind of arrangement is very rare. Not every divorced couple is quite that civilized—or flexible.
Civilized or not, the more thought the parents give to the emotional needs of their children the better off those kids will be. While many parents are well meaning, the contentiousness sometimes clouds their ability to do what is right for their kids.
Kids are resilient, and Smartmom is as resilient as they come. But sometimes this so-called resiliency can cover up the pain that is really going on inside.
Smartmom isn’t sure any child of divorce ever adjusts to the split. Sure they go along with it because they have to. But in the end, it is the children more than the parents who suffer because of it.
Smartmom’s parents’ divorce is the great before/after event in her life. It has affected her relationships, her sense of self, and her ability to love.
And the fact that the split occurred on Thanksgiving means her great American holiday is still colored by that life-changing event.
It still hurts that Smartmom never gets to see her father carve the turkey or make the first Thanksgiving toast.
But she’s used to it. By now, she has spent many more Thanksgivings without her dad than with him.
Still, that doesn’t mean that she’s not thinking about him. It’s a split-screen life for kids of divorce. You go through the holiday with one parent while you imagine what the other parent is up to. You worry about them, think of them, hope they’re doing well.
Children of divorce learn to be in two places at once: Where they are and where the other parent is. In this way, they keep the family together. If only in the mind.