I was at the shops on the weekend before last, and upon entering was confronted with Christmas carols, decorations in shops, and an enormous Christmas tree. I consulted my calendar. It was November 5. That’s right, November. ‘So it begins’, I thought to myself. The stresses of Christmas – buying gifts, planning Christmas lunch, finding places for relatives to stay. Those are things that, despite the best laid plans, it is hard to get right.
It occurred to me that, for separated parents, seeing Christmas decorations for the first time can lead to its own set of anxieties, because those parents carry a Christmas responsibility far more extreme than the ‘will I serve a hot lunch this year’ dilemma – organising how children will spend Christmas, and the Christmas holiday period, between your household and that of your co-parent.
This is a subject which can have a direct impact on your mood during the festive season, and if there is tension on the subject, it can be a daily distraction for you, and create negative energy which pervades the entire household, detracting from the experience of your children. What should be a happy time can easily be clouded by negativity.
As a family lawyer who has seen nearly 2 decades of Christmases, the following are my recommendations to avoid letting parenting issues kill the buzz of your family’s Christmas in 2016:-
- Plan ahead. Think about what happened last year, and in particular, what worked well, and what needed improvement. That thought process will guide the development of your plan for Christmas 2016.
- Communicate. Get in touch with your co-parent early. Say that you’d like to agree on, and record, the arrangements for Christmas, well ahead of time, so that it is clear for you both, and so that you can put it on a calendar for the children.
- Be co-operative. The process of thinking about last year will allow you to put yourself in your co-parent’s shoes. If you had particular days (such as Christmas Eve) last year, you might consider offering those days to your co-parent this year, on the basis that you will have another day (such as Christmas Day) instead. If you know your co-parent takes time off work on a particular week, or that his or her relatives visit at a particular time, consider offering those times, so that the children can enjoy time with their parent, and extended family, again on the basis that you will have some other designated time suitable to you. All going well, your thoughtfulness will lead to some reciprocity.
- Be specific. Do not leave things ‘to be agreed’ at a later point. Record your specific agreement about such things as how the holidays will be shared (for example, half with Parent A, half with Parent B), on what day changeover will occur, what is to occur on the ‘special’ days (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day), and who is doing the picking up and dropping off. If there is a history of ‘going back’ on agreements, talk to your lawyer about agreeing to a parenting Order which specifies Christmas and holiday arrangements (such an Order can include other general parenting issues as well). A lawyer can also help you with a Parenting Plan (a less formal option to an Order) dedicated specifically to Christmas and the Christmas holidays.
- If all else fails, take early action. There may be deadlines for the filing of Court applications for Christmas parenting time, so be sure to speak to your lawyer early about the options in terms of approaching a Court if it is clear that your co-parent will not engage in any discussion about Christmas arrangements, or that you will not be able to reach any sensible agreement. It is compulsory for parents to have completed a form of mediation before an application can be filed, so allow enough time for that to occur.
- Mentally prepare. Once the arrangements are agreed, let the children know. Some parents choose to put how the holidays will be spent on a calendar, so that the children can mentally prepare for that period, and can be reassured that they will be seeing, and spending time with, both of their parents over the holidays.
- Be practical. Christmas is a longer holiday period, and you and your co-parent may be travelling away from home for a family holiday. If it is important that children bring a particular belonging with them (such as an iPad, for a long flight), ask for that well in advance. Be mutual in relation to items which belong in your household (so that if your co-parent is taking the children on a beach holiday, to allow your child to take their surfboard will enhance their experience).
- Gift giving. Children may want to give both of their parents a gift. If a gift will not be made at school, help them shop for a gift, and have it wrapped and ready to go as the children depart your household for Christmas parenting time in your co-parents’ household. Children are often last-minute thinkers, and they will thank you (at least on the inside) for being organised.
- Remember fun. The holidays are about fun. Let the children know that they should enjoy the time they spend at their other parents’ house. Sometimes that is hard for you to observe, but allowing your children to feel ‘free’ to be themselves in the households of each of their parents is something they will thank you for when they are older.
- You have fun too. Though it is natural to feel a little blue when the house seems, with the children at your co-parent’s house, suddenly very quiet, use that time to have a little ‘you time’. Do a little personal shopping. Get to the cooking you’ve been meaning to try. Lay by the pool and read a book. Whatever helps you re-charge your ‘parent’ batteries. The children will be back soon enough, high on the sweets they have received as gifts. So enjoy the down time while it lasts, as your half of the holidays will be here before you know it.