Even for happily married and intact families, the holidays can be fraught with conflict and compromise. But for divorced or separated parents and for blended families - the potential for conflict is significantly higher. Negotiating co-parenting agreements and sharing time with kids is rarely easy, but this is a time of year when it can be most difficult to let go because of the tradition and ritual around how the holidays are managed.
But for the sake of the kids you have to share it. And here are tips to help your holiday season be filled with merriment - not resentment.
Make a plan
If you don't already have a holiday schedule, do it now. You don't want to create anxiety for the kids about what they're going to be doing at Christmas. Sit down with your ex and a calendar to determine how you're going to share time during the holiday break. The plan can be fluid and can change, but a basic structure reduces mis-communication and sets expectations. Ideally, a vacation and holiday schedule will be part of a marital settlement agreement in a divorce. Think about the even year - odd year compromise. One parent gets first choice in even years and the other in odd years or simply switch the holiday time on an alternating year basis. For example, in even years one parent may have the children for Christmas Eve and morning, then take them to the other parent at noon. In odd years, the schedule would be reversed. Often it is worthwhile to go over the kids Christmas presents together to avoid duplicate gifts and to ensure that similar amounts will be spent. For co-parents who live far away from each other it's not so easy. If you have to be without your kids for the entire holiday make sure you can call and talk to them.
Focus on the kids
As a mediator who helps couples resolve parenting and custody issues, I sometimes have a photo of the kids on the table during a session and ask: "What do you think they would really enjoy? What would work for them?" That can be as simple as letting the kids call mom on Christmas Eve or attend a special holiday event with Dad. For mom Maureen Palmer, the answer was more extreme. When she and her husband split up, their daughters, then aged 15 and 10, stayed behind in Edmonton with their dad while palmer took a job as a TV producer in Vancouver. She'd do homework with them every night over the phone and fly back to Alberta for four or five days twice a month (a schedule she kept up for a decade). "Christmas was very, very big in our family," she says, and her girls weren't ready to let that go. So for two weeks every Christmas, she would camp out in her ex-husband's basement - once with her boyfriend in tow. "I sort of took over and did Christmas the same way we did when we were married," said Palmer, who went on to make the documentary How to Divorce and Not Wreck the Kids. It wasn't easy being a guest in her former home, and her need to impose her version of "order" on her ex's household created tension. "But Christmas morning was child-centered, and we both enjoyed their joy so much, that how we felt about each other barely registered," says Palmer. "We didn't want them to feel any of the tension kids who are pulled between two households feel."
As for me, well I am having my partner's ex-wife and husband over for Christmas so that their kids get to be with both of their parents.
And although children's preferences should always be a priority, it is also important not to them too much input into how they spend the holidays. The burden of choice is problematic for kids "because they know it's going to make one of the parents really unhappy. Kids will often tell each parent whatever they believe he or she wants to hear. And for most children, that is a terrible place to be. Kids need a predictable schedule that both parents seem happy with, even if that means putting on a brave face. Practice emotional restraint, maturity and leadership. The most important thing is to continue to be loving parents, and to keep the conflict away from the kids.
Create new traditions
Your holiday celebrations may have changed after the divorce, but they can still be wonderful. Think together with your kids about how you want to celebrate the holidays. And though it will be painful, be prepared to let go of some of the activities you used to do. Don't make the kids feel bad that they missed out on something when they come home. And no matter how sad or angry you are, never badmouth your ex in front of the kids. Save that for a good friend, therapist or support group.
If you're going to be on your own for the holidays, be prepared and plan for it. Maybe it would help to celebrate with other family and friends, or perhaps a quiet evening at home with a special meal. Or venture out and volunteer to help others, go on a trip or do something else special for yourself.
It is the best gift you can give yourself and your loved ones. Make the commitment to take the time that's needed to heal and remember that healing is a process, so give yourself the time and space to find hope and healing.
And if you cannot agree, consider a mediator. A mediator is like a referee or better yet, your first grade teacher: Someone who will help you play nicely in the sandbox, or in this case the mediator's office, and hopefully just long enough to make a deal.
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