However, for single parents, the holidays can be especially trying. As a family law attorney, I typically see an uptick in custody and visitation disputes prior to every major holiday. It makes sense that the most emotionally meaningful calendar dates for people sometimes lead to the most emotionally driven family disputes.
It is always amazing to me that a time of year for celebrating peace on earth can be so full of conflict. Often I will get a frantic call right before a special day.
“The kids were with my ex last year. Now he wants to take them again!”
“I have been planning a visit with my kids to see my parents in another state and now she is ruining our plans! I already bought plane tickets!”
“He is trying to buy the kids with expensive gifts. It makes me look terrible! He knows he doesn’t pay me enough support and I can’t keep up with him!”
“She is threatening to show up right in the middle of our holiday dinner.”
Below are some tips learned through years of trial and error as a family lawyer to help co-parents get through the holidays:
Tip #1: Be Specific In Your Parenting Plan
There is a reason why lawyers write everything down. When you have your agreement in writing, there is less opportunity for playing games. When I draft custody orders, I try to include a written holiday schedule with specifics about when the kids will be with each parent for which holiday. For example, a provision might look something this:
“In every even-numbered year, Sarah shall be in the Father’s care at 10:00 A.M. on December 24 until 10:00 A.M. on December 25 and in the Mother’s care from 10:00 A.M. on December 25 until 10:00 A.M. on December 26. In every odd-numbered year, this schedule shall reverse.”
(As an aside, notice that I split up the Christmas holiday in a way that lets both parents share in the fun. This is a very typical type of provision to consider.)
The more specific your order, the less confusing things will be on the day of the holiday. Remember, confusion and ambiguity breed conflict and disagreement.
Tip #2: Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute. Discuss and Agree to Holiday Plans Early.
Planning a trip to North Dakota with the kids for winter break? Then make your plans and get your ex’s agreement early. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a party make plans and buy non-refundable tickets only to have those plans dashed at the last minute because they didn’t consult with the other parent. Talk about it early. Agree on travel plans. Get it in writing.
Tip #3: Talk to each other about gifts.
It can be very awkward when both parents buy little Susie a Big Hugs Elmo. So, make an effort to coordinate. And please, don’t make it a competition. It’s about your child after all.
Tip #4: Control the Relatives.
Your child does not need to hear anyone speaking ill of the other parent over turkey, even if he really is a big jerk. Make sure that relatives and family members refrain from bad mouthing. Remember, that’s your child’s other parent they’re talking about. When you allow other people to speak ill of the other parent in front of your children, it only hurts the kids.
Tip #5: Don’t be selfish. Share!
There is a real temptation to want to keep all of the holiday fun for yourself. Avoid that type of thinking. When you are co-parenting, you simply may not get to spend every holiday with your child. It’s the season of giving—remember? However, you may consider (if you are up to it) spending a holiday together with the ex. Why not do the Santa thing together? It can really make a holiday special for your child if you can pull it off without fighting. Be realistic about it, though. If you really can’t get through an evening with your ex without throwing your egg nog at him, then go the separate route.
Tip #6: Respect Boundaries.
If it is your ex’s year to have the kids on a holiday, remember to be respectful of her time with the kids. Don’t interfere. Don’t try to show up at the house unannounced during dinner. Don’t worry. I know it may be really difficult to be away from your little ones during a special holiday, but it will be okay. Don’t let your kids be the subject of a tug of war on a day that is supposed to be merry and joyful. Let them experience the holiday without being placed in the middle of your struggle. Just let go—at least for the holiday. Your ex will be grateful and will be more likely to return the favor when it’s your year.