Co-parenting during the holidays can be a stressful experience. Before you are divorced, you may be negotiating parenting time directly, you may be mediating or litigating, or you unfortunately may not be able to see your children during this time. Hopefully, after you are divorced, you will have an agreement that provides clarity for what happens during the holidays, but it is important to be as flexible as possible considering changes to the family dynamic and the best interests of the children. As a divorced mom, a kid of divorce, and a family lawyer, I understand personally how difficult this may be. I’m not a stepmom yet, but my children already have a stepmom so, I understand navigating yet another parenting style. Many of us have blended families where we are navigating many different family demands which are emotional and may cause stress. Every holiday is a conversation and sometimes a negotiation regarding the logistics of parenting time. The more layers to the blended family, the more to negotiate. When you have multiple sets of grandparents, you, your ex, your significant others, your families, your significant others’ families, your children, their children, and potentially our children, there is certainly a lot to consider.
So, you are concerned about coparenting and scheduling the holidays, what should you do first?
- Review your agreement – Read it carefully. Although you could have sworn that last year the kids were with their Dad for Thanksgiving and it’s your year, you were mistaken. It happens. Think about what childcare issues you may have for any school breaks as well as the actual holidays. Check the school calendar. Schools often change their calendars during the school year and half days may become days off and you may need coverage for work or flex time if your kids are too young to stay home alone. Think about who is providing transportation and travel time during the holidays and transitions. Are there any changes that you should make to the written agreement (if agreed upon)? Consider your children’s developmental changes as well. It might have seemed realistic for transfers to occur at 8 am on holidays when you wrote your agreement, but it may not work when your kids are teenagers.
- Prioritize putting your kids’ needs first – What are their favorite parts of each holiday? Every family is unique and there is no one size fits all answer for your children. For Thanksgiving, is your new girlfriend or boyfriend cooking a tofurkey when your kids love turkey? Then, maybe switch it up and let them celebrate with your ex this year. My whole big extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins, kids, and grandkids) all get together after Thanksgiving for Cookie Day. We make large batches of many different types of cookies, eat soup, and spend the whole day together baking. The kids decorate their own sugar cookies with lots of icing. My kids love it so, prioritizing their attendance is important to me. We switched Cookie Day from Black Friday to Saturday to allow for easier attendance for family who had to work or travel. Can your celebration with family be moved? Can you figure out a way to share the holiday that doesn’t stress out your kids or involve too much travel or transitions? Can you celebrate Thanksgiving with a big lunch or even a big breakfast so, the kids can eat a big dinner with the other parent’s family? Is Christmas Eve the most important part of the holiday for your family? Then, maybe Christmas Day the children are with the other parent. Do you have the biggest get together on the last night of Hanukkah? When do you hold your Karamu for Kwanzaa? How do you make sure that the kids get to participate in these most cherished activities? Don’t put the children in the middle. Don’t make them decide. Make sure that they can communicate with the other parent on holidays.
- Plan Ahead and Communicate – Be specific. With whom, when, and where will pick-ups and drop-offs occur? Try to accommodate and compromise with your coparent. Communicate as soon as possible before the holidays. Continue to communicate during the holidays. Preferably put the communications in writing. If you are running late because of traffic, tell the other parent as soon as possible. Don’t plan on “making up time.” Don’t use the children as messengers. Consider what activities you might be able to do all together like ice skating with your ex, their kids, our kids, and significant others. If you can’t fathom that this year, it’s ok. Acknowledge and honor your feelings. You may be in a completely different place next year. After you and the other parent have made plans, communicate the plans with the children including travel arrangements. Be flexible if the plans don’t work out. Somebody might get sick (or quarantined) or travel plans could get cancelled, try to work things out based on these new circumstances. If you are unable to reach an agreement; then, follow your written agreement if you have one, or try mediation or coparenting counseling.
- Try to Coordinate Presents – Have a conversation about presents. Try to coordinate budgets and gifts. For example, no kid really needs two brand new iPhones. Don’t overcompensate or try to outdo the other parent. This may cause resentment or anger. You also don’t want to inadvertently not buy gifts assuming that the other parent is taking care of it. Talk about the number of gifts, how much to spend, and any items that are you believe are inappropriate or against your kids’ best interests.
- Start New Traditions – Consider volunteering or giving to charity for the holidays as a family. Let the kids choose the charity. Do something active together -polar bear plunge, hike, bike, or even play active video games together. Try going out to dinner instead of cooking in. Buy new holiday decorations. Consider holding your celebration on another day or at another time. Include downtime in your plans like movie marathon days in your pajamas. Holidays after divorce can be positive. There are even memes and movie references about divorce with the kids saying, “Yay, two Christmases.”
- Take Care of Yourself. Make plans with family, friends, or yourself for down time during the holidays. Do you want a self-care day, to go on a hike, or to sit in your favorite chair with a cup of coffee (or tea) and watch tv or read a book all day? Consider making a list of the things that you are grateful for. Gratitude can improve your mood and increase happiness. Could you volunteer or visit with a relative who also may be alone during the holidays? Consider counseling if you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious. Don’t create too high expectations on yourself. Very few days in life are perfect. Do your best and show the people that you love that you care.