More than any other time of the year, Christmas tends to pose the greatest challenge for separated and divorced parents. The biggest issue is generally – where will the children spend Christmas, followed by – who has them on Christmas eve, followed by – how will we divide up present buying and santa given that we are hardly speaking or not speaking at all, followed by – who has them for New Years. All of these issues can be minefields in the hands of warring parents. Over the years I have presided over many a Christmas access battle, the odd festive kidnapping and one memorable Christmas, my brother was on one phone to a Father for several hours on Christmas day and I was on another line to the Mother as they commenced their domestic journey toward separation– that must have been a fun Christmas for the children! I remember my own Mother being absolutely furious at the interruptions as the calls went on and on throughout the day.
For many of us, Christmas brings us back into our own childhoods, to a more innocent time perhaps and a time of anticipation mixed with comfort and security. We tell ourselves that we want to recreate that for our children and, of course, that may be true but buried underneath all that may be our own need to feel those feelings again. Apart from our own feelings, there is the potent commercial sell of Christmas. Those of us who do not have children may feel inadequate and incomplete during this season as well as those of us who are unmarried, homeless, old, widowed etc. So it is as well to understand that we are not alone. When we combine those potent feelings with a power struggle and the loss of focus that the emotional flooding of divorce or separation brings on, it is not too surprising that Christmas can become a major battleground each year. So what can we do to prevent this happening?
The first thing is to have a plan for Christmas. Don’t leave things to chance and don’t assume anything. Make sure that you have discussed things and you have a clear strategy for the Christmas period. The first thing to remember when you make your plan is that Christmas is about the children and not the adults. Therefore, the focus is not about my rights or your rights but about how we make this Christmas a good one for the children and not just this Christmas but every Christmas. For the children of separated parents, this is a difficult time as well. Since we are the adults, it is our job to make it easier on them and not the other way around. The every second Christmas routine may work well for parents but it is unlikely to find favour with the children. Children are creatures of habit and they like things to be exactly as they would expect them to be each Christmas with a little room for originality but not much. Therefore, as parents, we may have to accept that divvying up Christmas day on a turn and turn about basis may feel “fair” to us adults but may not be at all fair to the children. We need to look at these things with a fresh mind.
So maybe you won’t get to spend Christmas with your children. Realise in good time that this will be very hard and rise to the challenge. Unless you absolutely cherish being alone, plan not to be alone. One suggestion I came across was getting a few people together in the same situation as yourself and organising a dinner party. Sad as that is, it is not the end of the world, provided you do not sit at home moping all day. If you sit at home all day getting upset and morose, your children are just going to feel really bad and so are you. However, if they think you are ok, then they will be ok. Remember that your children will find Christmas without a parent challenging as well. Try and ensure that each parent allows them the time to reflect on this by talking openly about it. If you are the designated house for Christmas then include the absent parent by plotting with the children on a suitable present and taking care and time to wrap that and ensuring phone calls are made on the day. For the absent parent, why not make Christmas Eve the important day in your house if you can’t have Christmas Day? After all there are many countries where it is far more important than Christmas Day in any event. The children will be delighted to have a celebration wherever and whenever that celebration occurs and to build traditions around that. And if you don’t want to turn up like a lost soul at your family of origin, though I would say they would be delighted, then volunteer to do something on Christmas Day or make a plan for it – for example, take part in the Christmas swim and the conviviality around that and spend the rest of the day basking in your accomplishment and recovering. Whatever it is , the key is to have a plan.
It is important that while children enjoy and celebrate Christmas that parenting quality does not diminish to the extent that outrageous sums of money are spent and there is unnecessary doubling up on gifts. Where possible, as I have said before, parent on the “what if” basis ie what if we had not separated? If you and your ex had not separated , you would watch your spending and you would each contribute to the costs. Try, where possible, and do the same when separated. Sharing gift ideas and information about what each of you have planned for Christmas is both prudent and mature.
Some separated parents will manage to get together for a family meal on Christmas Day and that is truly wonderful if it can happen and happen with good grace. Obviously, it is not wonderful if it is an excuse for sniping and bickering or for other family members to have a go at the ex. Other people will divide up the day. Whether or not that is a good idea depends on how it impacts on the children. Whatever solution you and your fellow parent consider, has to be one that the children will benefit from and that is not primarily designed to make both of your feel that you have got your due. For many children, leaving their nice warm house and new toys to go off somewhere with the visiting parent on Christmas Day is not welcome. Rather than dragging them out, perhaps a fresh think might be required. Look at the holidays as they occur throughout the year and ask each other which parent tends to be more involved with the children on that particular holiday. For example, some Dads get very invested in Halloween and love the whole celebration whereas Mum may see it as an inconvenience or vice versa. Some Mums are totally devoted to Christmas and have been collecting Christmas decorations and memorabilia for years, whereas Dad can take it or leave it and even at the best of times was a 4 o’clock shopper on Christmas Eve. Some people adore New Years and others try and sleep it away. Looking at all these holidays in an honest way can quite often help us to divvy them up more realistically, ensuring maximum enjoyment for the children.
Sometimes you won’t be able to agree on how to divide the holidays and when that happens, you just have to designate. Decide which parent will have that holiday. Don’t just split them up or do a turn and turn about, because that seems like the best compromise. Be creative and look at the bigger picture. Designating specific holidays to each of you allows for you to build up happy traditions in each of your homes. Many parents will suffer from extra guilt because they will feel that their failure has brought this extra suffering on their children. Guilt is such a waste of time and serves no one. When you are happy, your child will be happy.