It is a strange time, for sure. The holidays are upon us, but COVID-related guidance has made the holidays for divorcing and co-parenting spouses even more challenging, with less emotional support from extended family members and friends due to the social distancing protocols.
The anxiety and confusion that the pandemic has created is reflected virtually everywhere. Parents who were disagreeing before the pandemic have now found new topics about which to argue.
Many clients in my family law practice are dealing with some aspect of significant stressors of this moment, whether it is financially driven, health related, educational issues including virtual or in person learning for their children, whether to attend or host gatherings with extended family members or not, whether to travel with children for the holidays and a host of other issues.
People rightly feel that life is out of control and uncertain.
And now, you are expected to navigate the holidays with all of this in mind!
Most days as a family law attorney, I work through these issues with my clients. So, here are a few ideas that I have found helpful with my clients to help you, your co-parent and your children get through the holidays as happily and as healthily as possible:
1. Figure out a specific plan for each of the holiday periods.
If you are already divorced and have a settlement agreement, refer to that document if you have questions regarding who has the children when, and for how long.
In my legal practice, I set out very specific provisions regarding the holidays, including who will have the children, when and where pick-up and drop-off will occur, and a requirement to share itineraries if the children are traveling with a parent. Typically, the “holidays” are alternated or divided by the parents every other year.
Of course, this year is going to be different. As you have likely experienced since March 2020 and hopefully before that, you are going to have to work together with your co-parent to figure out how to navigate this “new normal.”
If your agreement does not contain the level of detail you wish that it did, or if you are in the midst of divorcing and have no set schedule, it would be wise to reach out to your former or soon-to-be ex-spouse and discuss the holiday plans so that everyone can make arrangements, and the children are not left wondering how they will be spending their holiday and vacation time.
Keep in mind it is reasonable for each of you to have some holiday and vacation time. Communication, early and often, is key here. The sooner you figure it out, the better off you and your children, will be.
2. Put your agreements about these plans in writing.
Ideally, you can come to an agreement on what you are going to do, and put it in writing, preferably in a legally-sound document.
That said, even if you cannot get an official agreement drafted and signed, it is always a good idea to have the co-parent’s approval, or your disapproval, in writing in some way, whether it is a text or an email. Documenting the issue will be helpful if you are before a Judge or even a mediator.
Such documentation can be useful to demonstrate a pattern of behavior in litigation. It is also useful to have if you and your co-parent later disagree on the “agreement.”
3. Keep an eye on how the children are responding, and place their needs first and foremost.
Your priority should be your children’s health (emotional and physical) and welfare.
And no matter how carefully you plan your holiday arrangements, you may still face challenges regarding how the children respond to plans for the holiday season.
I work with many therapists as a part of my practice, and their consistent advice is to do everything you can to avoid conflict with your co-parent in the presence of your children, to always speak positively about the other parent, and, whenever necessary, do everything you can to put your children’s needs ahead of your own.
This may mean you have to sacrifice certain traditions, such as waking up on Christmas morning with your children so that their other parent can do so every other year.
Of course, this can be gut-wrenching, but it is important to remember that your child has two parents who are important to the child, and that children need to have access to both parents so long as both parents are appropriate with the children.
Further, each of you should have an opportunity to build new traditions with your children in a new family unit.
4. Give yourself (and your co-parent) a COVID-19 break.
The pandemic is making life more difficult, so give yourself, and your co-parent, some latitude.
And if you are feeling overwhelmed, reach out to friends and family, or a therapist or attorney if you have one.
Particularly, do not burden your children with your concerns. You are the adult and therefore, you should be dealing with the adult issues of school, scheduling and getting along with your child’s other parent. It is imperative that you and your co-parent present a unified approach to the children.
It might be difficult, but it is imperative to foster the relationship between your children and their other parent as your children are a product of both parents, and need both of you in their lives.
5. Clear, concise, calm communication is key.
If you take away one tip from this article, please remember that clear, concise and calm communication with your co-parent, while providing full transparency about plans, is going to go a long way toward successful co-parenting long term. And that will mean happier co-parents, and happier children, too.
I hope that you will enjoy the holidays and do the best you can to ensure that your children do as well, particularly as you all work through this challenging time, together.
NOTE: These opinions should not substitute as a diagnosis or as legal or mental health advice, as each case is unique. If you are facing a similar situation, please contact a mental health professional or family law attorney in your area.