It’s an even year, so it means this year is not my turn for Thanksgiving with my children. It means I will celebrate a week beforehand with my kids, and it means filling the silence of my home when Thanksgiving Day arrives.
Two years after my COVID-era divorce, I’m still adjusting to how every year means a different plan for my children.
This year, I will plan a special dinner with my kids, only a week before Thanksgiving. Since my immediate family isn’t nearby, I asked my mom about some traditions from her childhood to get inspired, and I discovered when she was a kid it was her job to slice the canned cranberry sauce and use a turkey cookie cutter to make a decorative design for each slice. She says music played, and it was the time of year to bring out the fine china dinnerware and devour a traditional meal including pumpkin and apple pie. Afterwards, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was a must-do.
I ordered a turkey cookie cutter online. On my lunch break I rushed to get the can of jellied cranberry sauce. Considering I burn crescent rolls weekly, turkey-shaped cranberry sauce slices sound doable, actually. I’ve never been one for cooking gorgeous meal spreads — the mere thought gives me anxiety — so to lower stress, I budget to order a freezer-to-oven pre-sliced turkey and will heat up pre-made side dishes for the kiddos.
For sides, I know my daughter will eat the mac and cheese, and my son’s eyebrow rose to the idea of a yummy charcuterie plate with a variety of meats. This year I’m doing something new: a design-your-own mashed potato display, so the kids can add bits of bacon, shredded cheese, some chopped scallions, black olives, and corn, little pieces of broccoli or even turkey. Although I’m preparing for the kids to think everything is gross, I won’t take it personally; we’ll make some turkey hotdogs and call it Thanksgiving.
For me, the point isn’t even the food. I get it — many families really look forward to a certain casserole or dish — but this year, on our unconventional Thanksgiving, there will be no time for that. When a week seems to go fast when the kids are with me, and slow when they aren’t, a moment just to sit together means more than ever. I will look them in the eyes and tell them, “My gratitude starts with you; you are the ones I’m most grateful for.”
With being a working parent, kids in school, with homework and activities, we may only have an hour to eat, but I’ll make it happen. We’ll maybe play a round of Uno or look through some family photo albums, and we may FaceTime my mom and sister. It will be quick, because there are spelling words and bedtime routines — they won’t be on Thanksgiving break yet, after all — but it will be something to let my kids know that Thanksgiving still happens in our home, regardless of whether the holiday falls on “my” week or not.
When I was a child, I remember Thanksgiving being a huge gathering, like a family reunion where generations spent the whole day together. It was a ritual to dress up and run around with my cousins and share updates with uncles and aunts on how school was going. I’d share my artwork or a poem I wrote, or a highlight of how my cross-country season had gone. When it was time to eat, the seating extended through two rooms just to fit everyone. The energy was joyful, and laughter went on for hours; the TV went from football during the day to movies in the evening. I remember graduating to the “adult table”. Some family members moved away, others went to college, the cousins started families of their own or launched into careers, our ties stretched to new zip codes and states, and then my grandfather passed away. Thanksgiving got smaller, plans changed, and the traditional celebrations as we knew them became a fond, distant memory.
I know I’m not alone. Whether you are divorced or not, many families experience a shift in Thanksgiving plans over time — from the menu and seating arrangements to where a gathering will take place. As a divorced mom, I’m still getting used to the differences; a quieter holiday when it isn’t my time. As the plans for my children are different every year, I admire how well they pivot. I have slipped into another phase of life that involves heartache, but is also full of possibility, originality, and pre-made meals. The unconventional becomes a method to rely on through life changes. “Winging it” becomes togetherness and new ideas on the table. Asking the kiddos to help me check on the oven-ready turkey makes cooking one feel less intimidating, and the meal is truly family-made.
When the dynamic changes from divorce, I have found it best to keep everyone in the loop by explaining to other family members some years you will have the kids on the actual day and other years you won’t. This can be tough on families who may have generational traditions or be used to the way it used to be. Depending on your parenting plan, sharing time can mean a new type of flexibility and acceptance — not only from the parents, but also from the extended families too.
Co-parenting through Thanksgiving can be stressful, especially if the holiday involves other people hosting the gathering who are no longer in-laws — and now you are figuring out what to do for the first time by yourself.
You could still visit your family or friends without the kids; you could ask the other parent if you could FaceTime or Zoom with the children on the actual holiday; or if your kids have phones you could set up a time that you could call them and say hello. To keep some sort of tradition no matter the week, you could just plan your own Thanksgiving meal on your own timeline, like me.
On Thanksgiving Day this year I may sleep in. I will probably go for a cucumber face mask, watch an old movie, focus on gratitude to lessen the desire to hug my kiddos. I’ll read more than I have in months. I’ll take an extra-long shower, listen to a motivational podcast, maybe frame some new pictures of my kiddos. I will clean nothing. I may eat pumpkin pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There will be minutes and maybe hours when I’m mellow, and I’ll put on some upbeat music to fill the silence … and keep the turkey cookie cutter in mind for next year, too.
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