The Holidays: A Time for Cheer or a Time for Jeer?

By Dorothy Wolbert

The first signs have already appeared: there are lights strung up around businesses, wreaths lining the streets, holiday family pictures popping up on your Facebook feeds, and holiday music bellowing on the radio. It’s the most wonderful time of the year—unless you’re going through a separation or divorce.

Amidst all of the merry and bright, parents of children going through a separation often feel anxiety and helplessness. This is especially true if this is the first post-separation holiday season.  Where will the children be?  Will I even get to see them on Christmas or Hanukah?  What will happen to our favorite holiday traditions?  Why should s/he have them on Christmas morning?  These are likely among the thousands of questions racing through each parent’s mind. These thoughts, coupled with the sometimes unwelcome extended familial advice of “Well if I were you….,” can make what was once a happy time of year excruciating.

To ensure you’re not a Grinch this season, here are some steps you can take in advance of the holidays to protect the best interests of the children, because that is really all that matters, right?!?

The first step is to approach this issue well in advance of the holiday season.  I usually suggest that clients start thinking about holiday schedules in October to provide enough time to negotiate a custody arrangement.  If you didn’t quite make that deadline, you need to make time for it now.  The last thing you want is for your children to see the uncertainty of their holiday schedule, and for them to become stressed.  This is a magical time of year for children and it should be protected at all costs, even if this means having a congenial conversation with your ex.

The second step is to make a prioritized list of important (and I stress important) family traditions that both sides of the family embrace. This may mean that you can’t make it to every family get-together, and have to pare the list down to events that are important to your children. Be sure your list includes events on both sides of the family. Both parents are important to children and choosing sides—especially during the holidays—shouldn’t be part of the equation.

The third step is to show your list of family traditions to your ex, and ask how s/he may like to handle the holidays. Delivery is the key to constructive conversations. When you start the conversation with “This is how we are going to do it,” you may as well throw the list away, and plan on going to court to resolve this issue. Again, remember that this isn’t about your ex’s personality, or your belief that s/he doesn’t deserve time with the kids; it is about the children making it through the holidays unscathed.

Have a calm and candid conversation with your ex about what the children are used to, and what adjustments are needed this year due to the separation. Accept that there will be adjustments. Since you are separating households and lifestyles, you are not going to be able to do all the things you used to, but if both parents focus on making it a wonderful holiday, the children will adjust to their new reality more easily.

Any family law attorney will tell you that both parents are likely to receive time during the holidays if the Court decides your holiday schedule. In fact, leading up to the holidays, the courtrooms are usually packed with last-minute motions regarding holiday season schedules. Don’t be one of those families. Why ask a judge to decide when you can see your children, or where they will spend the holidays? Have the conversation with your ex with the understanding that each parent should have quality time with the children.

This conversation may not resolve itself with the first attempt. Since you had the time to sit down and really think through the holidays traditions, the other parent will likely want the same opportunity.  He or she doesn’t want to feel ambushed, and will need time to process the information.    As such, provide the list to your ex, and ask them to think about how they want to see the schedule go.  Agree on a specific date in the future (e.g., the next custody exchange or a week from now) to discuss the holiday schedule in more detail. Timely follow-up is critical. If you don’t have the type of relationship where you can speak to your ex in person, then consider utilizing Our Family Wizard, a good online communication resource often used by courts. Again, it is all about delivery, so if you are going to write an email or text message to your ex, make sure it reads in an appropriate manner.

While delivery is important, remaining calm is also critical when discussing the holiday schedule. Don’t be offended that the other parent wants to spend Christmas morning with the children. It is highly probable that you both want this. A cooperative resolution may mean that you alternate Christmas morning every year where you have the children in even years, and your ex has them in odd years. This is a likely outcome if you would bring this issue to court anyway.

Many families decide to either split the holidays so that the children are with each parent on each holiday for half the day, or alternate the holiday by year as mentioned above. If you and your ex live close to one another and don’t have to travel for the holidays, splitting the holidays equally may be an appropriate resolution. Conversely, if you and your ex live farther apart, or travel out of state for the holidays, it is likely that you may have to alternate major holidays. Whichever course you choose, communicating appropriately with your children and your delivery is what matters most. Children pick up on both verbal and non-verbal cues, so if you and your ex decide on an appropriate holiday schedule, you need to present a united front, and together explain that the decision was made mutually in your children’s best interest.

This leads to my last point. If the children don’t have a happy holiday season, be careful not to blame your ex. Children are sensitive and easily affected by how you act and what you say; even when you don’t think they are listening, they are. If you are constantly degrading the other parent, or making negative comments about your ex to others, your children will pick up on this. Don’t be that family. Be better than that; be better for them. Make your holiday season one with lasting cheer, rather than jeer.

Happy Holidays to you and yours!