The countdown to the holidays is well and truly on!
Are you sorted? You may be the type to have your Christmas gifts bought and wrapped, the menu planned and the relatives organised 6 months ago. You may have more of a “leave it to the last minute”, shop on Christmas Eve and forget to defrost the turkey approach. Whatever the case is, there is one thing that shouldn’t be left a minute longer – sorting out the parenting arrangements for your children at Christmas.
Some separated parents may have a standing arrangement, either in a court order, parenting plan or through simply doing the same thing each year. If this is you, then it is likely to be a simple matter of politely confirming this arrangement with your ex.
For those who don’t have such an arrangement in place or wish to try to negotiate something different, you need to start resolving this NOW. Forget about Christmas shopping or getting that ham glaze recipe from your aunt. This takes priority. If you leave it any longer, you will be unable to find anyone who can assist you to resolve the issue at such short notice.
So, what should you do?
First things first, before raising the issue think about what is important for you and what you think may be important for your child or children and their other parent. Then consider a range of options that you can propose to your child's other parent which may satisfy those important concerns. There are a range of issues that you will likely have to consider, including:
What are the children’s views?
Do both parents celebrate Christmas? In some families, the holiday is more significant to one parent than the other.
How far away will you be from each other on Christmas Day? This will impact on how easily arrangements can be made for your children to spend time with each parent.
What arrangements with other family and people important to your children are there?
What happened last year? If the children missed out on time with one parent last Christmas, perhaps this year they should get time with that parent.
What family traditions do each parent’s families have around Christmas? Does your family traditionally attend a service on Christmas morning? Perhaps you traditionally open presents on Christmas Eve?
Are there family members or loved ones for whom, sadly, this may be their last Christmas?
What ages and stages are your children at? For very young children, shorter blocks of contact may be more appropriate.
If you cannot resolve the issue with your ex then you will need to consider getting outside assistance quickly. This may be in the form of a trusted family member or friend who can facilitate the negotiations between you. Alternatively, you may need to approach a lawyer or mediator. However, doing this sooner rather than later, will help to ensure you can find someone to assist you.
Once you have your arrangements in place, the following may help you survive the holiday season parenting arrangements:
Try to involve your children in the planning so that they have a say in what happens both in terms of what time they spend with each parent but also what they do during their time with you. However, don’t put the emotional burden of “deciding” or "choosing" on their shoulders.
Adopt a positive and encouraging attitude with your children towards them spending time with your ex and their family (even if doing so means having to go and scream into a pillow or cry in the pantry afterwards).
Communicate with your ex about important end of year celebrations and activities, such as end of year assemblies, prize-givings, Christmas concerts and parties and about the arrangements for the children and yourselves to attend these. This should be a time when your children get to enjoy having both their parents and loved ones attend such events without feeling stressed about how the adults are going to behave!
If you are having the children on Christmas Day, ensure they get contact with their other parent on the day by phone or Facetime/Skype etc. Arranging in advance for the children to have time with the other parent as close to Christmas Day as possible also means the children know they will be having a Christmas celebration with that parent.
Christmas is meant to be a magical time for children so take steps to ensure it is that way for your children. Parents arguing or sniping about each other or their families, spending hours in a car traipsing across the countryside between families (only to stop briefly and fill their already full tummies with more food before doing it all again) and feeling pressured to ‘favour' a parent is not the stuff magical Christmas memories are made of.
Carefully consider Santa and gift giving. If Santa visits your children, where possible, consult with your ex about where Santa will be delivering to. Discuss the appropriateness of certain presents (should your 7 year old really be getting an iPhone?) sharing the cost of presents and setting a limit on how much you each spend.
Think about what message it sends to your children and their other parent if you encourage and support your children to buy or make that parent a card or gift. This can alleviate considerable stress that your child may be feeling (and perhaps not showing) about how to get the other parent a gift. A lot of parents help their child make or choose a gift for their teacher, their coach or the mail deliverer so at least do the same for your child in respect to their other parent!
In trying to resolve the arrangements with the other parent, above all, a reasonable approach will go a long way towards making life easier for yourself and your children. The build up to Christmas can be stressful enough on itself so take a deep breath and be prepared to circumvent a lot of stress by being reasonable and compromising. Sometimes goodwill and a spirit of compromise and inclusiveness is what will get you through. ‘Tis the season after all.