Coparenting During The Holidays: A Survival Guide

Photo courtesy of cscott2006.

Having two homes doesn’t have to ruin the holidays for kids.

Every December, parents must tackle the challenges of planning for the rapidly-approaching holiday season. Studies show fifty percent of children born in the past decade have experienced the divorce of their parents, which means those parents face the daunting task of not only navigating the ever-present demands of the holidays, but of doing so while working within shared custody/parenting agreements. In addition many of those divorced parents have gone on to marry other divorced parents, which further compounds the situation. Trying to keep the holidays happy while coparenting can be difficult, but it is not impossible if parents keep a few key concepts in mind.

Own Your Attitude: Of all the e-card images people have posted on social media lately, one has been popping up everywhere. It simply says, “My personality is who I am. My attitude depends on how you treat me.” The popularity of this phrase indicates that many are living by this mantra–and that’s unfortunate. Instead, consider the words of pastor and speaker Chuck Swindoll: “We cannot change our past. We cannot change the fact that people act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude.” I came across this quote when my children’s father and I first separated and I have referred back to it many times since, through divorce and coparenting. It still resonates and is applicable to all areas of life.

Parents, you may not be able to control your former spouse, but you can choose to control yourself. Make the decision now that you will handle the holiday plans with grace and civility. There is nothing to be gained by becoming the Grinch who stole your children’s joy. Years from now, your kids will not be able to name most of the gifts you gave them, but they will remember how they felt during the holidays with you. Do you want those to be memories of love and laughter, or anger and negativity?

Photo courtesy of Broderick.

Don’t make sharing the holidays any harder on your kids than it has to be.

Flexibility is Key: Dr. Alan Ravitz, Senior Director of Forensic Psychiatry at the Child Mind Institute, offers some advice for putting children first: “Because parents are adults, they need to make sacrifices for their children.   And because children are children, they shouldn't have to make sacrifices for their parents. Think of sacrifices for the benefit of your children as holiday presents.” This is a crucial distinction parents often fail to make when caught up in their own emotions about “sharing” their children. No one really enjoys missing out on time with their children, but it is much easier to coparent when you can be flexible.

Instead of poring over your legal agreements and locking down every minute of your child’s life as “mine” or “theirs”, take a big-picture view. Focus on the few experiences that matter most to you; for example, decorating your tree together, building a snowman or going sledding, attending church, or whatever most helps you feel connected with your kids during the holidays. Then resolve that you will make those events happen somewhere in your schedule. Maybe you can’t get to Midnight Mass, but you can catch a service the Sunday before. Maybe you decorate the tree on the 17th instead of the 18th, or open presents on the 26th instead of on Christmas day. Does it really matter? Will your children be scarred forever? Of course not. Use whatever time you have with your kids to do those things you really want to do, and let the rest go.

Of course, this is a two-way street. As much as you have traditions you want to honor, so does your former spouse. In my case, my former in-laws have celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve going back the entire 20 years of my relationship with their son. On paper, our parenting agreement says we each “get Christmas” on opposite years. However, I always offer Christmas Eve to my kids’ dad. Not because I have to–because I want to. That is their tradition. Why ruin that just because I can? By the same token, though a different holiday, my parents always have a huge Fourth of July party, and every year my children’s father insists that they come with me, even if it’s “his” day with them. Do what’s right, because it’s right, and because it makes life easier for your kids.

Photo courtesy of cassie_bedfordgolf.

Kids First: This basically underscores everything that’s already been said, but it bears repeating. The kids come first. Period. As adults, we chose the mother/father of our children. Kids don’t ask to live in families affected by divorce; they don’t ask to be constantly pulled in two different directions. That’s why it is so important for parents to put their children first. If your child wants to give that handprint reindeer she made at school to daddy, let her do it. If your child wants you to take him shopping for a present for mom, take him shopping. Whatever feelings you have for your former partner, that’s your issue; for your child, they are their mother or father. Don’t make them choose or feel guilty for wanting time with both of you or wanting to do nice things for the opposite parent. Whether or not you get the paper snowflake or the letter to Santa, you get the memories of hugs and kisses and smiles.

Come Together: This last piece is not possible for every family; some have too much conflict or toxic patterns to be able to make it work. But for those who can, try to do even one thing together with your kids. My children’s father and I have taken them to see Santa together each of the five years we’ve been apart. Last year, that experience expanded to include their dad’s girlfriend and her son. It was one hour of out my life; why shouldn’t I give my kids that hour to see both parents in the same place, at the same time? We do the same for Christmas morning. As long as my children rush out, breathless to see what Santa has delivered, we will both be there, even if it means getting up at the crack of dawn to drive to the other’s house before the kids wake up. Will it always be this way? Of course not. Still, when it is possible, try to do something together, no matter how small. I’ve had several adults who were children of divorce tell me they wish their parents could have spent five minutes in a room together at some point during their childhood. Isn’t that a gift worth giving your child?

With divorce comes challenges, for parents and for kids. Coparenting is not always easy or fun; there will be sacrifices and there will be missed experiences. Even so, keeping the focus on giving your kids memories of joyous holidays should help you to stay in the spirit of the season.