As the Jewish High Holy Days have come to their lunar, agrarian climax and Thanksgiving and Christmas begin to creep into our consciousness, it seems like a good time to reflect on child custody holiday issues. The holidays are a time of heightened emotion under the best of circumstances and while under the influence of a separation and divorce can be an emotional as well as logistical nightmare. In this article I’ll describe some common emotional and practical issues and provide insight on how to deal with them.
Court ordered Holiday parenting schedules usually prescribe that the kids spend time with both parents over a holiday period. It’s not uncommon, in cases where the parents live close by to one another, for the court to order that the children spend some part of the day on which a major holiday falls in the homes of both parents. For instance, Christmas Day may be divided so that the kids have two Christmases, one in the morning and one in the later afternoon in order for the kids to see both parents on that day.
Although this may make no sense to the parents, family law professionals and the courts have determined that this type of arrangement works best for the kids. What this means to you as a parent, though, is that during the peak of your angst over the holidays you must deal with a custody transition, and the feelings of loss you may experience as the result of being separated from your kids for periods of time during the holidays.
Looking down the barrel of your first holiday season post-divorce can provoke some very dark and primal emotions. These feeling can be primarily attributed to one source, family. In this instance I use the word family to mean your current family that’s in shambles due to the divorce, your ideals and fantasies of what family should be, and your family of origin. Your ideal of what a family holiday celebration should be comes as a result of or reaction to your family of origin. You may long for the sense of family you experienced as a child and want the same for your children or wish to give your kids the opposite of the severe childhood holidays you endured.
In addition to the feelings of loss engendered by these family issues you may find yourself having to deal with a co-parent and their needs and demands and the logistics of a court ordered holiday parenting-time arrangement. This can make the holidays feel like an escalation of conflict or threat rather than a time of togetherness and sharing.
Another challenge is developing a plan for celebrating the holidays with your kids. Post separation, your previous family traditions no longer exist in their original form and you may find that you are having to wing it to get through when other families have a time tested holiday formula to turn to.
As the result it’s not uncommon for parents to become depressed or act out during holiday periods. Narcissistic parents will demand more time than the parenting arrangement calls for out of their sense of grandiosity and entitlement. They will devalue your ability to provide the kind of holiday experience that only they can. They will try to steamroll and threaten you into giving up some of your holiday time. If they are able to puncture your integrity and self-esteem they will prevail.
Depressed parents may become inconsolable or turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with their pain during the holidays. Children exposed to this may feel compelled to take care of that parent, possibly resulting in their own depression as adults. Obviously this is not a holiday tradition that you want your children to be part of.
Here are some ideas for dealing with holiday issues.
Yearning for or trying to recreate holiday traditions that existed during the marriage may be an exercise in futility. New traditions will evolve but don’t pressure yourself to establish them. Allow new holiday traditions to find their way into your life. The up side of starting over is that you’re free to exercise your creativity in celebrating holidays.
Be prepared to set appropriate limits if your co-parent attempts to encroach on your holiday time with the kids. Don’t be intimidated by your co-parent’s ability to outperform you in the material realm during holidays. Your kids need love and time with you more than any gift or toy.
If you are the parent asking for a change to the holiday schedule remember that you must respect the other parent’s legal rights to their holiday time regardless of your desires. If you believe that your children are at risk in the custody of the other parent during the holidays or your request to alter the custody arrangement is of a truly urgent nature then you should consult with your attorney regarding any legal options.
Be aware that each successive holiday will get easier. They won’t all be as difficult financially and emotionally as the first one.
Make a plan for dealing with difficult feelings during the holidays. Spend time with friends or family, plan healthy activities for yourself during the time that the kids are with the other parent.
Finally and most importantly, be safe, and self-protective. Remember that the added emotional energy around the holidays can exacerbate any interaction you have with your co-parent. In my latest book, “Change Your Mind, Co-parenting in High Conflict Custody Cases”, I focus on self-protection and safety and how crucial this is to you and your children. Make the most of your holiday time with your kids and don’t allow yourself to be provoked or intimidated around holiday custody issues.