The holidays are traditionally supposed to be all about family togetherness — a concept that can really sting when that family has been through a split. And if it’s your first holiday season as a newly separated or divorced person, it’s a complicated time, both emotionally and logistically.
Even a shared custody arrangement that works smoothly during the school year can be thrown into disarray by the holiday season and all of its demands. Maybe it’s the scenes in the twinkling, fireplace-lit TV commercials, maybe it’s your own memories of perfect, or less-than-perfect holidays past, but there’s a lot of pressure on parents at this time of year to come up with something “magical,” or at least memorable.
When I became a family law attorney, I got a front row seat to all of the strife that families go through over custody arrangements, and all of that seems to get magnified during the holiday season. But the truth is, it doesn’t have to be. With communication, advance planning, and a willingness to sometimes set your own emotions aside and let the better angels take the wheel.
Here’s my simple, four-point plan for keeping joy in the holidays, even after a divorce:
1. Hide the battle scars like you hide the gifts.
There’s plenty of time to argue all year round. But treat the holidays in your personal life as you would treat them in your work life: take the day off. Setting aside differences can be hard, but if there’s ever a time to take the high road, the holiday season is it.
Remember: holidays are not ordinary days; they’re supposed to be special. Even when you’re not getting what you want, take the message of Thanksgiving into your heart, and practice gratitude: be thankful for those things you do have. Some people are unable to even have children at all, so concentrate on the big picture.
2. Spell out a clear plan, and stick to it.
Decide who gets the children for which holiday as far in advance as possible, and understand what the expectations are for each parent. Often, sticking points arise because someone wants to make one. But maybe you can take turns, and say to your ex, Christmas can be yours this year, but it’s mine next year. It may be tough, but it doesn’t have to be a Greek tragedy. And don’t forget, Christmas is often more meaningful to kids than it is to parents. What’s important is to relax and do some fun things, even if they’re simple. In other words, you don’t have to spend an entire day trudging through an expensive, exhausting theme park. Sometimes, just relaxing at home while cutting out paper snowflakes and eating the whole box of cookies might make for a great holiday memory.
3. Have a fallback plan if something falls through.
Winter weather grounds airline flights, people get colds and flu. Job one is to be the parent who’s flexible and understanding (even through gritted teeth). Line up family or friends who can pinch hit as babysitters, or set aside a bit of emergency money to help cope with unexpected costs, like a flight cancellation fee. If these sorts of cancellations are a regular occurrence — maybe even the thing that led to the divorce in the first place — you don’t have to just put up or shut up all year round. But maybe just during the holidays, postpone your frustration. You can fight over it later. Being the parent who drops everything for the sake of their kids while your spouse has an unplanned diversion might seem like an unfair burden, but your sacrifices will be worthwhile, because kids deserve a holiday.
4. Broaden your view of the calendar.
Christmas is just one day. It may be tough to not spend it with your child, but if you can do a different December weekend with ice skating, tree trimming, or hot chocolate, those things will count in your child’s bank of holiday memories too. Or start now on advance-planning a weeklong summer camping trip. Don’t put too much emphasis on a single day; think of the holidays as an entire season, and more importantly, think of your relationship with your child as a lifelong affair.