The holidays are often a very difficult time for divorced parents, which is particularly true if you are recently separated or still going through the divorce process.
The logistical challenges that come with dividing holiday time between two households, as well as dealing with lingering anger and resentment, can turn what has traditionally been a joyous time of the year into a nightmare — something that can be particularly tough on fathers who more often than not are designated as the non-custodial parent.
However, with advanced planning and the right attitude, it is often possible to reduce the stress of the holiday season for yourself — but most importantly your children — and create new traditions that can be equally enjoyable after your divorce.
The Holiday Custody Schedule
While communication is one of the most important aspects of co-parenting during and after divorce, this becomes doubly important during the holidays.
You and your ex may not get along, but crafting an acceptable schedule for both sides ahead of time and sticking to it will help reduce one of the biggest issues divorcing couples face during this time of the year.
If you are already divorced, the holiday schedule should be a no-brainer since it will be spelled out in the parenting plan of your settlement agreement. This is a court order that must be upheld until the judge orders otherwise, and violations of the order would set the offending party up to be held in contempt.
However, if you are recently separated or do not yet have official orders from the court specifying the holiday schedule, problems can easily arise since there is nothing official designating the parenting arrangement. In fact, if the parents are not yet divorced, they are presumed to have 50/50 physical and legal custody until the court orders otherwise.
This can create obvious problems since a parent can refuse visitation and there is little that can be done by the other party. But something both sides must to seriously consider in advance is what is truly in the best interests of their children.
You and your spouse need to put your personal differences aside to come up with an arrangement that will reduce conflict for your kids. The chances are that they will want to see both parents, particularly if you have had a traditional family Christmas up to this point.
While the first separated holiday season will be the most difficult, the smoother you make the transition on your kids, the better they will handle it.
Creating New Traditions
Something that is frequently recommended as a way to avoid the awkwardness that commonly comes with the first holiday season as a divorced or separated family is to develop new holiday traditions, which helps create a fun and unique holiday experience for you and your kids and keeps them from dwelling on the past.
This can mean something as simple as buying a tree and decorating your home for Christmas together, to coming up with creative ways to stay connected while you are apart.
You can even plan new annual events, such as inviting your side of the family over for a Christmas event during your holiday visitation, even if it’s not necessarily on the big day.
Obviously, much will depend upon your custody schedule — and you and your ex’s flexibility — when it comes to your holiday planning.
There are several common custody schedules that courts implement for the holidays, such as alternating Christmas Eve / Christmas Day each year, though many courts are also beginning to allow parents to share the holidays under certain circumstances.
Either way, you should have the opportunity to create new traditions that make the transition to a two-household family easier on your children and reduce the stress of the holiday season.
If the courts have yet to issue orders, however, the task of creating a fair parenting arrangement that takes into account the best interests of the children during the holidays falls on the parents — something that can be difficult when a separation is fresh.
Remember, even though you and your soon-to-be ex may no longer get along, you need to do what is right for your kids to ensure they have as smooth of a holiday season as possible and avoid letting them see the animosity that may exist, as that has been found to be much more psychologically damaging for children than divorce itself.
Creating fun new traditions that you can continue and expand upon in the years following divorce or separation helps ease the stress and confusion your kids are feeling and also brings yourself some piece of mind during this often chaotic time of the year for divorced families.
Handling Custody Discrepancies
Even when going into the holidays with the best intentions to keep things civil and as enjoyable as possible given the circumstances, many divorced or separated parents will run into issues pertaining to the custody schedule.
This can be particularly frustrating for non-custodial fathers since they often already have less than the desired amount of contact with their children, and when issues arise during the holidays, they are often left with the short end of the stick (if not a fist full of splinters).
Again, much will come down to whether or not you have court orders outlining a custody schedule.
If you do and your ex decides not to abide by the order for whatever reason, you may have remedy from the courts through a contempt action, though it may come later since the courts are often overwhelmed this time of the year and it will likely take some time to get a hearing scheduled.
If you do not have official court orders, it may be more challenging to get make up time issued; however, it is not impossible. The most important thing you can do to help your cause in either case is to document whatever has happened.
Texts and emails can be presented to the court as evidence, and any excuse your ex or soon-to-be ex makes for going against the initial plans could be shown to the judge to determine who was in the wrong.
It will help to get your plans in writing ahead of time, whether that is in the form of an official court order or simply an unofficial agreement that you and your spouse agree upon. That way, you have documentation of an agreed upon plan and you can show a judge that your spouse reneged on the arrangement at a later court date.
The first holiday season for a divorced or separated family is going to be tough, but the more you plan ahead and work towards making it run smoothly, the better off it will be for all parties involved.
You should strive to make this time of the year as fun and joyful as possible not only for your own sake, but particularly for the well-being of your children.
Mat Camp is a former Lexicon Services Online Editor, who focused on providing a comprehensive look into all aspects of the divorce experience. On MensDivorce.com, he concentrated on issues, such as parenting time, custodial rights, mediation, the division of assets, and so much more.
Mr. Camp used the wealth of experience of Cordell & Cordell attorneys to bring tangible answers to reader questions in Ask a Lawyer articles, as well as offer a step by step process through the divorce experience with Cordell & Cordell Co-Founder and Principal Partner Joseph E. Cordell in Divorce 101: A Guide for Men.
Mr. Camp used thorough research to highlight the challenging reality that those who go through divorce or child custody issues face. He helped foster the continued success of the Men’s Divorce Survival Guide, the Men’s Divorce Podcast, and the Men’s Divorce YouTube series “Attorney Bites.”