It is a relatively mundane task for an afternoon in late November. As I walk across my lawn, my steps become audible as the browning grass crunches under my feet. I make it to the mailbox, hunch down, and launch my hand inside. As I draw out the trappings, I am instantly made aware without seeing it that today’s bounty is particularly large. I tug at the contents. As the letters, mailers, and promotional credit card offers loosen, what is creating the day’s logjam comes into view. My stomach tightens, and I sigh. The first batch of the season’s holiday cards have begun to arrive. I can’t help but wonder: Will this be the year I muster up the courage to send my first family card since the divorce?
Our very first holiday card as a married couple was simple, elegant and, I thought, perfectly represented us as a couple. After sifting through the seemingly thousands of proofs from our dozen-ish Indian wedding events, I was able to narrow it down to three photos I truly loved: a formal one from our traditional Hindu ceremony, a relaxed image from a pre-wedding shoot at the beach, and a playful photograph taken while dancing at our wedding reception, all in San Diego.
Each year, our holiday card would update our narrow corner of the world on how we were progressing as a couple on our trajectory in life. A few years after the wedding, I had a beautiful holiday card sketched sharing the exterior sidewalk view of the quaint New York City brownstone in which we purchased our first apartment, along with our new mailing address. Two years later, our card doubled as the birth announcement for our first child within this same home. Four years later, we used our holiday card to announce the impending arrival of our third child, with a subtle “and bump” added to the end of our family signature. We always signed the card as “the Advani-Joshi family,” since I kept my maiden name.
Participating in the holiday, Christmas, or New Year’s card tradition seemed to be a rite of passage reserved just for married couples. It is almost like holiday cards are a fringe benefit of having a wedding. It was one that brought me excitement and joy, as well. But, to me, it appears to be a marriage perk that continues so long as you follow the so-called traditional path of marriage, kids, and happily ever after. When life’s progression is curtailed by unforeseen circumstances like an illness, difficulty in bearing children, or, in my case, a divorce, that’s when the tradition—and the cards—take a pause. Maybe indefinitely.
When I separated from my husband almost five years ago, I had believed that, at the time, I had faced the brunt of the heartache of divorce in the first years after parting. Separate homes, alternating time with the kids, and fewer social invitations with couples were the obvious pain points. Yet, what I have come to know about divorce grief is that it never disappears, it just lessens. And, there are predictable moments where the grief reemerges for me, especially on wedding anniversaries and, I have come to realize, with the opening of cards during the holiday season.
On one hand, I adore the annual invitation to adorn my fireplace with photos of loved ones from around the globe. I take time to open them in batches, allowing me to savor the visual glimpse into the lives of my closest friends and family members. Even better, when there’s a written summary of the year’s happenings. Like Facebook and Instagram, holiday cards let us participate in the lives of our nearest and dearest, as if we lived in the same zip code.
On the other hand, I can’t help but feel sad at visual reminders of what has come to an end for me, while it progresses and strengthens for others. The snapshots of loving, embracing couples dressed in their holiday best alongside their children still stings. The reason? It is a picture I can never recreate for my own life, at least not now. These cheery cards in gold, red, and green remind me of what was lost in my divorce—my hope for a lifelong marriage.
Despite family trips and co-hosted birthday parties that continue some aspects of remaining a family, there are recurring reminders of our choice. For instance, when I open my mailbox in late November and December. Every year since the divorce, I question whether I will ever send a holiday card again.
Much holds me back from doing so. Some of it is externally driven. “What will people think?” comes up for me again, just as it did when I first contemplated divorcing in the first place. It is also driven around the confusion of visually depicting our dynamic and what to write on the card. How do we accurately reflect how we are as a family and as a former couple? How will we sign the card? Whose address goes on the envelope’s exterior? There are no Hallmark cards or Paperless Post templates that fit our family.
But by bowing out each year, I put myself in the position of feeling a victim to my circumstances. Having been sent cards by divorced friends, unmarried people, and those with “fur babies” or pets, I know that this is a self-imposed limitation. It is my own belief that, because of my divorce, I am ineligible to send a holiday card that kept me on the sidelines—that is, until recently.
Last Christmas, while examining the glittering holiday cards lined up across the mantle, my tween daughter turned to me and asked, “Mom, when will we make a holiday card again?” I was silent. I didn’t know what to say, the air thick with complexity. What photos would we include? What last name would I use? Would it be a card from five of us, or four? Something so small was terribly complicated. Yet, for her, it was simple. She wanted her family to show up in the world, on the mantle of others, just as others did for us. Just as we had once before. Her younger brothers agreed.
At that moment, for my children, I decided to reclaim the holiday card tradition and rewrite the rule for my family.
“Okay, let’s do it,” I proclaimed. “Being late December already, I will send an e-card around the new year instead.”
Over that weekend, I crafted the precise words to accurately represent our two-household family. Language and imagery are powerful in this way. Sharing a single family photo with the five of us could appear as though we had reconciled, which was untrue. So, I selected images only of the kids. I searched for wording to reflect that my former spouse and I were moving on with our personal lives, yet remain steadfastly devoted to our children. It took thought and discussion. Soon, an e-card from the sender “the Advani kids” was ready, containing a few candid images of the children to a small distribution list culled from our respective address books. The message read: “Happy New Year from the Advani kids,” along with their names and ages at the bottom.
Hitting send felt triumphant, and the responses were equally monumental. “I am so proud and happy to see you back on your feet and taking care of everything,” replied one friend. Yes, it was true. This was a symbol that I was on the mend. That we all were. Yet, I knew I was still partially in hiding. I had intentionally excluded a photo of myself, which is ironic given my career of speaking on TV and on public stages for work. A holiday card somehow felt too exposed. By sending an e-card, I avoided some tricky choices reflecting the unfolding reality of my new life. I excluded the use of a family name, for example, because I was not sure how or whether my surname fit next to that of the rest of my family. I was not yet at peace with the holiday card tradition, and was still uncertain if I had a place in it.
So, as I hold the first batch of the 2022 holiday cards in my hands, from those ambitious friends who use the Thanksgiving weekend to mail them out, I am at a crossroads again. Am I ready?
Yes, I am.
Over the course of a few hours, I designed the first physical holiday card I would send after my divorce. I initially considered creating a card just from the kids and I, excluding my former spouse. It would be easier in many ways to do this. I could use images of the kids and I, sign our four names, and use my return address on the envelope. Yes, it would accurately reflect my marital reality. Yet, it didn’t feel right. I imagined how I would feel if he sent a card out that excluded me. It would hurt. The card wasn’t just about me, it was about our family. It was my attempt to keep some of our most important rituals alive for my children. The kids wanted us to show up as a unified front. A part of me wanted that, as well. I am fortunate in being able to explore this, I know, and am aware that not all divorced couples can or want to do this.
So this year, I asked my former spouse whether he was open to being included in a printed card. He was, and left me with its design and delivery, just as he had when we were married. I avoid creating hard rules that our 2022 card needed to be the forever format. I told myself this is what we will do this year. Our cards will evolve just as we will as individuals and a changing family. That thinking gave me the freedom I needed to move forward.
The language and the layout of the card required much more care and thought than the last time I sent them out. Would I use a family photo from our recent trip to Disney World? Will we sign the card from the Advani-Joshi family again? These small details communicate volumes. This need for delicate crafting stalled me for half a decade.
Ultimately, the layout that emerged just felt right, and, for this year at least, includes nine photos in scattered boxes across the front. The images I chose focus on our children and our role as co-parents with them, with a single photo of each adult with one of our children. His is placed at the top-right corner, and I am at the bottom left, farthest apart from one another. The rest of the card is populated with photos of the kids. At the bottom, there is a simple signature with the kids’ names and ages. Now, there’s a dual-family name of “Joshi & Advani” on the back of the envelope, along with my mailing address underneath. This feels appropriate since I did the design work, affixed the stamps and mailed the cards, as was the case previously. But this time, feeling less bound to marital custom, I feel some feminist gusto in putting my last name first.
When the box of newly printed cards finally arrived at the doorstep, my heart skipped with excitement. Tears filled my eyes, as I ripped open the box to reveal the carefully protected decks of red and white cards reading “J-O-Y.” For that is precisely what I felt swirling in my heart. Pride, too, for a triumphant family moment in what has been a long journey to the other side of divorce, which continues on. Even though our cards took a small hiatus, I didn’t let my family fade into oblivion. It also marks a milestone moment for me personally. I finally came out of hiding. I could do so because I found a new way of participating with yet another only-for-married-people ritual. This holiday tradition could continue, after all. And, after five years, I allowed myself to be included in it again.
Shibani Joshi is an experienced business and technology journalist covering news for outlets including ABC News, Fox Business Network and CNBC. She also provides commentary on lifestyle topics and hosts events for leading corporations. She lives in the Bay Area with her three children. She writes personal essays about her pursuit of balanced excellence, purposeful parenting and life after her Indian divorce on her blog www.boldly-forward.com.