TWO SIDES OF THE COIN
Two Sides of the Coin is a series of articles written by Ian Steinberg, a matrimonial and family law attorney, in conjunction with an array of other professionals from different industries. The series provides insights into issues from the perspective of each party to a divorce. Each article provides readers with practice tips that are helpful when navigating through the divorce process.
Effectively Co-Parenting Over the Holidays
By Ian Steinberg, Esq. and Rich Heller
The holidays are supposed to be a joyful time filled with laughter and cheer. In real life, they are about family and let's face it, anything that has to do with family is complicated. While the expectation is that everything will be wonderful and fun, the reality of family dynamics make managing the unexpected a necessary part of the holiday season.
This time of year is even more complicated for a divorced (or divorcing) couple. Whether this is the first time that parents are celebrating the holidays without their children, or they have been doing it for a long time, there are challenges that may not exist during other times of the year. No matter if you are the custodial parent or non-custodial parent, it is likely that the holiday schedule, which is often different than the regular schedule, requires shuttling children to different homes and locations. This can lead to disagreements that may make the holiday season a bit less joyous.
In order to avoid spending time over the holidays in your lawyer or relationship coach’s office, consider these tips when navigating the world of co-parenting during the holiday season:
- Have a Specific Plan
One of the easiest ways to limit conflict during the holidays is to make a specific plan. There are many different and creative ways to create holiday parenting plans for the children. The more detailed, the better. For example, for the Christmas holiday, one parent can have the children on Christmas Eve and the other on Christmas Day.
No matter how detailed a separation agreement may be, the mechanics of transitions can be difficult. This is especially the case if extended families live far away, or vacations are planned out of state. While flexibility is always important for co-parents, it is even more important during the holiday season. If you are the parent who going to be with the children for a given holiday, it is important to understand that the transition may be more challenging than at other points during the year. If you are the parent dropping the children off for the holidays, make sure you do everything you can ensure that the transition goes smoothly, including packing the proper items and showing up on time. Collaboration will allow as much normalcy as possible for the children.
- Be Flexibly Minded
What does it mean to be flexibly minded? It means a willingness to give in even if it feels like you are the only one doing it. It is important to remember that “giving in” ultimately helps promote “the cause,” which is the well-being of your children. Does this mean you have to give in on everything? Of course not. Does it mean you have to compromise your core values? Definitely not!
What it means is that you are going to put the best interests of your children over a natural desire to want to be right or to win. Let's face it, as human beings we all love to win and many of us love to be right. But putting your children’s happiness over your own desire to be right will lead to a more cheerful holiday season.
Being flexibly minded also means looking for the win-win. Instead of looking at this as a situation in which both sides win, you should look at this as an opportunity to ensure that neither side loses. By way of example, if you are the parent with the children over Thanksgiving, you can work with your co-parent to find a win-win by carving out time for FaceTime calls or creating traditions that include both parents. Which leaves us to the next tip: create new traditions!
- Create New Traditions
Every family has its own holiday traditions that they enjoy year after year. While these traditions previously included both parents, it may be difficult for children to enjoy those same traditions that they have associated with the holiday season in their new reality.
A great way to get children excited is to create new traditions that will become part of your holiday plan. Whether it is baking gingerbread houses, watching a particular holiday movie, or dressing up in matching pajamas, these new traditions will help children transition into a new holiday schedule. You can create your own traditions with the children, or work together your co-parent to come up with ideas that can move from house to house. Creating new traditions will allow the children to make new memories in their new reality.
For example, in the Heller household a rebellion was brewing because Thanksgiving was always being celebrated in one parent's home. In order to fix this problem, we had a family meeting (including the children) where we discussed how could we celebrate Thanksgiving together without making it about turkey or Thursday night. It was the children who came up with the idea of having a special brunch where everybody could eat whatever they wanted. We traded turkey and stuffing for sausage, bacon, pancakes, waffles, and bagels. This became a new tradition that is still honored today even though the kids are now grown. It communicated our value about Thanksgiving, which is celebrating abundance with the people you love most.
- Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
You cannot over communicate when it comes to the holidays. While it may feel like overkill, it is especially important at this time of year to ensure that all the i’s are dotted, and the t's are crossed. Even if you have difficulty talking to each other, there are still ways to communicate. Shared documents are a great way to exchange all of the details of holiday handoffs, including comprehensive lists of what needs to travel with each child.
Good communication is really about planning. Creating backup plans is crucial, as even the best laid plans will break down somewhere along the way. Establish how you are going to communicate in the event there is a breakdown. Make sure that you understand your co-parent’s preferred method of communication, as some people prefer text messages and others prefer phone calls. Either way, getting on the same page is vital. By way of example, some people will follow a structure like this:
Emergency: Phone call or FaceTime
Urgent: Text Message
The more you define how you are going to communicate, especially during the holidays, the less likely that arguments will derail and otherwise happy time of year.
- Discuss Gifts Beforehand
Another area where it is especially important for parents to be on the same page when co-parenting during the holidays is gift-giving. If there are discussions about gifts you will give to the children in advance, conflict can hopefully be avoided. These conversations can include the type of gifts (educational, athletic, or otherwise), the amount that will be spent, and when they will be given.
Regardless of whether you are the monied or non-monied spouse, a conversation about gifts will ensure that one parent is not “showing up” the other parent. If you are the monied spouse, it might seem like a great idea to buy lavish gifts for the children. However, it is important to keep in mind how this will make your co-parent look to the kids. Will it make the lower earning parent seem inadequate, or will it seem like the higher earning parent is trying to buy the children’s affection? Either way, a united front is the best approach, and having advance discussions is the easiest way to achieve that goal. Doing so can also mitigate the risk of buying children the same gift, which will only serve to bring the separation to the forefront of a child’s mind.
- Control Your Own Emotions
Remember how everyone has high expectations of the holidays that are rarely based in the reality of family dynamics? You are not immune. Controlling yourself means first managing your own expectations. Expect there to be breakdown and you will not be surprised if it happens.
Be aware of your own triggers around the holidays and be prepared to step away from a negative situation. When you feel your emotions going from 0 to 60, you are probably feeling triggered. That's a great time to say something like "I am feeling a little hot under the collar, let me get back to this conversation in an hour.” Remember, we are never judged for our thoughts, it is our actions that people react to.
- Manage Your Relatives
The holidays are often spent with family members who travel from all over to be together. These family members may have varying opinions about an ex-spouse of their loved one. It is important to remember that even if the marriage did not end on a positive note, the children were innocent bystanders.
As such, it is important to ensure that relatives do not speak negatively about the mother or father of the children. If you are the parent who will be with the children over the holidays, it is important to talk to your relatives ahead of time to make sure they are on their best behavior. Set ground rules for your family members and make sure they play by those rules. It is never beneficial for the children to hear negative comments about their parents.
Whether this is the first time that a couple is spending the holidays apart or they have done it for years, keeping the children’s well-being at the forefront is the key to successful co-parenting over the holidays. By following these tips, you will set yourself up for a joyful holiday season.
Ian Steinberg is a matrimonial and family law attorney with Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (212) 867-9123. Rich Heller is a relationship coach and can be reached at email@example.com or (917) 309-9045.