Updated: Sep 13, 2022
Families across the Western world are deep in negotiation about how they will spend the Christmas holiday. For any family, it gets complicated, especially when not everyone lives in the same town or region (or, indeed, country).
For separated families, it gets a whole lot more difficult, and if parents both have new partners…
In my days as a lawyer, I could have run an office sweepstake on when would be the last enquiry from a parent who had failed to reach agreement with his or her ‘ex’ on where their children would spend Christmas and who should be responsible for transport etc. The answer would almost always have been a date after the 20th December.
Last minute enquiries to mediators are rarer – perhaps reflecting the fact that parents who would approach a family mediator are likely (on balance) to be more sensible than those that turn to the law, and will probably not leave such matters to the last minute. They might also have a better approach to such matters.
So, what makes a good Christmas plan for a separated family?
Let me make some suggestions:
It focuses upon the needs of the children, rather than the parents’ convenience and wishes. Think about what your children need. They need, perhaps more than ever at Christmas, not to be worrying. Often children, especially young children, will worry about the parent they are not with, so build in some means of communication for your child with her other parent, especially on Christmas Day.
It reflects the generosity that is traditionally associated with Christmas, when our eyes are lifted above our own interests and look to meet the needs of others, including our child’s other relatives and friends.
It gives each child space for special times with each parent, where that parent’s full attention is exclusively focused upon that child.
It acknowledges that children get tired and that, when they get tired, they can be miserable little horrors – so it makes sure that time for chilling out is included within the busyness of the season.
Parents recognise that it isn’t a time for competitive parenting. Family mediators often hear parents express concerns about the amount that the other parent is spending on the children. Often parents spend more than they can afford because they want to make amends for the hurt that they feel their children have suffered as a result of the breakdown of the marriage. Occasionally, parents are concerned that their children will not love them if they do not buy them expensive gifts. On rare occasions, parents will but expensive gifts simply to damage the children’s relationship with the other parent. None of these are good reasons for over-indulging children. Ideally, separated parents should work together and agree (and stick to) a budget for gifts at Christmas (the same applies to birthdays) that both can afford. Actually, children need and want your attention – your attentive ear and empathy – far more than they want or need material goods.
The children understand the plan and know what is happening and when – the only surprises they get are those that come in wrapping paper.