A Divorce Lawyer’s Advice For Co-Parenting During The Holidays
If you keep these points in mind, your chances of a satisfying holiday for all parties will be much higher.
The holidays are supposed to be joyful. For kids, especially, it’s a magical time and can create lifetime memories. But in families in which the parents are recently divorced or separated, there’s some tricky terrain to navigate. Co-parenting through the holidays can be stressful for parents who are no longer together. There’s a lot of newness in the family landscape — not to mention two separate households to coordinate — and, often, a backdrop of heightened emotions.
So how can families make sure “the most wonderful time of the year” creates special and happy memories? As a lawyer who specializes family law, including divorce law, I’ve encountered a lot of parents and know what works and what doesn’t. I'll share the same things I tell my clients. Some of this advice might vary based on the children’s ages and other specifics, but here are my recommendations for co-parenting during the holidays.
1. The Children Come First. Period.
Above all else, your children’s best interests come first. With this in mind, you have to communicate, be boundaried (but flexible when needed), and cut out the arguing. This might all sound obvious, but it’s the bottom line, so it bears mentioning and mentioning again. Maybe less obvious: You want to do everything you can to encourage the children to spend time with the other parent. You also need to refrain from disparaging your former spouse in front of the children, as the resultant damage can be significant. Again, your children come first, this is their fun time, and the last thing you want to do is destroy that.
2. Be A United Front With Your Co-Parent
In advance of the holidays, talk to your kids. Together. Tell them that you’re going to have a great time, and just acknowledge that things may look different from previous years. Yes, this takes parents who can communicate effectively, but this is the time to put your swords to the side, and say hey look, whatever you feel about me, that’s fine, but let our kids have the best time. If you can do this, you’re really helping your kids. I always tell parents if you do well, your kids do 100 times better.
3. Start Planning Early
Early coordination is key. A few months before the holidays, pull out your custody agreement and see what it says. Your schedules for the holidays are carefully detailed in the agreement you executed. Review the agreement, take a look at what the holiday schedule is, and determine whether adjustments need to be made. If adjustments are needed, work them out in advance because last minute changes tend to create tremendous stress for everybody.
4. Split The Holiday Evenly
Equal time is important, but that might look different for different families. Maybe your family alternates the holidays by even or odd years, or maybe it’s a division of the break right down the middle. In families where co-parents get along—and this is the exception, not the rule—the possibility of overlap exists, which means kids get to spend time with both parents together. This is less disruptive for the children, parents benefit from more time, and you still get those shared holiday memories (and maybe even create new ones), but obviously it’s a very unusual couple that can do this.
5. Don’t Guilt The Children
It might be tempting to say to the children well you’re not really doing anything tonight with Dad so why don’t you come here, we’re going to a party. But just…don’t. Adhere to the schedule in place. Respect the other parent’s plans, even if, to you, they don’t seem like ‘real plans,’ i.e. if they’re down the street having a staycation rather than traveling. Part of not disparaging your co-parent requires not only respecting the schedule, but actually encouraging and supporting your children’s time with the other parent.
6. Create New Traditions
This is especially big for families new to co-parenting, but it applies across the board. New traditions create stability. So embrace an outing or activity that the family didn’t do before and dive on in. What kind of show or other events can the children look forward to every year? What’s something that they can anticipate and get excited about as part of being with each parent? Include kids in the brainstorming by asking them in advance to suggest one thing that's really special that they would love to do – and then communicate that to the other parent so that they can do the same (and so you don't overlap). Speaking of overlap…
7. Coordinate Gifts
There are so many reasons to do this, including to avoid giving duplicates or entirely overlooking beloved items. But above all, don’t try to outdo the other parent by buying extravagant gifts. Gift-giving should be a discussion between parents. Establish guidelines with your co-parent from the outset. Are there types of gifts that are off-limits? Expenditure limits? What kinds of gifts are and aren’t age-appropriate? Some families set it up so that all the gifts are from both parents, others share Santa gifts only, and still others go their separate ways. Communication, as always, is everything.
8. Introduce Your “New Friend” Another Time
This is a sensitive one, but it’s really not that complicated. Parents sometimes decide that it’s OK to bring their new partner along on a holiday trip if they’ve been divorced for a couple years or if they constantly see the special person. But do not spring a “new person” on the kids during their vacation with you. That's the worst thing to do, because the kids look forward to the vacation time with their parent, not with this other person. It's not thoughtful and it’s taking time away that your children look forward to spending with you. So unless the new person already has a close relationship with your kids, it’s a no. The whole point is that you want to spend time and have experiences with your children. Bringing somebody that you’ve been involved with for a short time is a poor idea because you're making your kids feel like they’re not first and foremost, and you’re taking away a very special time with them.
9. Prioritize Self Care
It’s not always easy when the kids go off with the other parent for an extended period and leave you alone. So take a little time for yourself and plan something special. If you can afford to go away, do so for a few days, or find friends who are around, get theater tickets, go to a concert, or have a massage. I think it’s really important to do anything that makes you feel strong and empowered. Parents need to show themselves some love.
Marilyn Chinitz is a partner at Blank Rome with 35 years of experience in every facet of family law. She is known for representing A-List celebrities and influential, high-profile clients in cases that have received national and international attention.