Heart to heart with Adele Blair — Divorce and the holidays
My husband and I were separated earlier this year and are proceeding to a divorce. We seem to be at war over how our two young school-age children should spend the Christmas holidays. Our legal bills are skyrocketing and I wondered if you have any suggestions. We cannot be the first family up against this problem. Can you help?
Sincerely, My lawyer has all my money!
You are definitely not the first couple, nor the last, who is up against this common issue in divorced or separated families. Several years of work with the most contentious divorce cases in the province as a social work agent for the Office of the Official Guardian in Ontario, taught me a great deal about the importance of December 25th, in our culture.
Lawyers make a lot of money because of it. Moms and dads often seek to ensure that their children remember the excitement of cosy new red Christmas pyjamas, stories of a fat Santa and his prancing reindeer on the roof, and the thrill of waking up to a shimmering tree replete with all kinds of phenomenal gifts under it, to be opened on Christmas morning. Making that dream of their own, for their progeny, come true is a compelling emotional need for most parents. As a result, conflict about who has the children on December 25th is commonplace in families like yours.
A child cannot be cut in half to allow each parent to have a piece of their son or daughter in two separate homes on Christmas Day. So what to do to satisfy all the players is a conundrum. I will share my experience with you. May you learn from the cases with which I dealt.
The best case scenarios occur when separated couples, without violence or abuse issues, have come to terms with the fact that their marriage has ended and that they must continue to interact harmoniously in the best interests of the children going forward. A co-parenting style which is characterized by mutual respect, fairness, flexibility, open communication and agreement that the needs of the children will be paramount for both parents, allows the maximum potential for the children to grow up emotionally healthy and to feel positively about the Christmas holidays as adults.
No child needs to hear one parent berate the other, both parents arguing about holiday issues on the phone, or heated discussions about their other parent with dad or mom’s new partner. No child really wants to spend Christmas morning with one parent, rush through a gargantuan brunch meal, and then have to put away exciting new toys, hurry up, dress and pack, and wait on the porch at 12.01 pm Christmas afternoon for the alternate parent to pick him or her up, while grandma and grandpa are crying inside. No child needs to get into a car under these conditions with the alternate parent, their new unfamiliar partner and his or her unfamiliar children, only to head out on a lengthy three hour drive to another venue. Imagine the anxiety associated with meeting a group of people he or she hardly knows, with customs and food that are often brand new, all the while being unable to speak about his or her fantabulous Christmas morning with the alternate parent.
People, listen up! These kinds of arrangements are about the needs of the parents, not the needs of the children. They result in children who grow up dreading holiday celebrations and regularly experiencing sad feelings at seasonal Christmas triggers.
If you truly wish to put your children’s needs first, raise a white flag and call a truce between you and your ex during this time and consider a better way. The suggestions which follow may not be perfect but they have proven in my experience to be the best of many difficult options and allow the children to love and maintain good relationships with both of their parents and to grow up with positive memories of the biggest holiday in our culture, Christmas Day. If you cannot work the details of it out civilly yourselves, hire a professionally trained divorce mediator experienced with these kinds of problems to assist.
Discard the need to make your dreams of Christmas morning come true for you every year. The reality of your life’s journey and your children’s does not support those fantasies any more. Build new dreams and customs for family celebrations that are positive, harmonious and emotionally satisfying for all the players.
One reasonable arrangement might require the parents to consider the holiday as a two week window. Each parent can have the children for one week, and will be free to plan activities and celebrations which suit their situation. Draw straws for which parent has the children for week one and which parent has them for week two. Going forward reverse the weeks annually. Let each parent support the plans of the other, speak positively about each other in front of the youngsters and negotiate privately anything else requiring joint decision making.
A second arrangement that can work well, especially when parents reside in different cities, is to alternate the two week holiday period from year to year. When one parent has the pleasure of planning the two week period for the children, let the other parent once again, support the plans of the alternate parent, speak positively about each other in front of the children, and negotiate privately anything else requiring joint decision making.
A third option is to divide up the major holidays of the year into solid chunks of time which suit the parties. Take turns each year in a fair and flexible manner sharing these quality extensive lengths of time we call holiday periods between you. One parent might plan the Christmas holiday period, the other parent might plan the March break. The first parent then plans the Easter holiday, the second parent then might plan the child’s birthday. Summer can be divided into two one month periods and Thanksgiving might fall to each other in fair rotation.
Be open to input from the children, especially after they become teenagers as the holidays are no longer mom's or dad’s time but the young adolescent’s time and his or her wishes should be given respect and a lot of weight in the planning. Always, remember this is not about you but about your child and his or her needs at every stage. If you have developed a solid relationship with your child, he or she will want to spend time with you, though he or she might prefer friends and personally chosen activities to any adult or any parent’s plans, for a few years. Go with the flow and keep it chill. They do grow up!
By the time they are adults, most children of divorce are capable of accepting their parents life journey. This occurs best when the children are kept out of the issues between the parents. Then both parents can enjoy an emotionally together adult child at many times throughout the year.
When childhood Christmases are charged with positive emotional content, Christmas has a decent chance of being happily anticipated by your adult offspring. It has a chance of being celebrated in his or her own family, with an integration of the traditions each parent has helped contribute to his or her joyful memories of the season! I have no doubt both parents will then be included somewhere in that package, when they pass on the torch to the next generation who will create their own version of a Merry Christmas.
I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.