Co-Parenting During the Holidays

November 23, 2023

I remember my first year of practicing family law; things like holiday schedules were immensely perplexing for me. For example, I had one case where the parents could not agree on how to share the child’s birthday. We appeared at a contested hearing over the birthday. I was shocked that something that caused the parents so much consternation could be resolved in one minute by the Judge who ruled: “Whoever has the child on his birthday celebrates with him. The other parent can hold a separate birthday party for the child during his or her parenting time. Guess how happy he will be to have two birthday parties? So ordered.” Done. There it is – two birthday parties.

16 years later and holidays are still tough to ferret out. Bonus parents come into the picture. Parents divorce, marry, divorce and re-marry again. Parents move. There are alcohol and substance abuse issues that were maybe hinted at before but are now fully mature and immensely problematic. Kids become teenagers and, hence, become addicted to their phones and bedrooms. Autism and related diagnosis become more readily apparent. So, where does one look for guidance? What are some tips?

I recently completed my second, 40-hour Family and Divorce Mediation Training with Mosten Guthrie. During this training, I was introduced to Susan Guthrie, Esq., and her Divorce & Beyond podcast, which offers a number of helpful episodes for parties with family law issues. One of which covers just the topic of holidays and is entitled “Happy Holidays? How Co-Parents Can Avoid Holiday Nightmares with Parenting Expert, Christina McGhee on The Divorce and Beyond Podcast.” The link to this podcast is below, but here are some key take aways that I will be sure to implement in my law practice.

Keep Emotions in Check

The focus is how to manage the holidays in two separate households. The first step is for the parents to keep emotions in check. Holidays are a stressful period, and a divorce or family law issues make them even more stressful.

How do you Keep Emotions in Check? Focus on the Experience

 The second step is to forget about being fair in parenting time, but, instead, be flexible. Focus on making meaning over the holidays. Focus on the experience. 

They gave an example of one year on and one year off years for Christmas and New Years; like the two birthday parties above. In the off years, New Years would be a big family gathering and their kids remembered this. Another example is if you live close, then let the kids go back and forth; but, they highlight not letting the kids drive the bus such as asking “who do you want to spend the holiday with?” Kids pick up on what they think the parent wants to hear, so the best way is to keep them from this situation by giving them options. Ask your kids “what about the holidays in the past were important to you?” Also, “what about the holidays in the future are important to you?” These are good questions to ask. 

Holidays are about Your Kids

The third step is to remember that the holidays are about your kids. Not about the adults, but the kids. The movie Split is referenced as an example of a child being excited about having seven Christmas celebrations. If you are a parent feeling conflicted, think about what the kids will remember in a few years: where they spent Christmas Eve or how their parents fought about where they would spend Christmas Eve? For more information about the movie Split, see the link below.

What about Gifts?

The fourth step involves gifts. Susan points out that gifts can be rife with issues, and she is correct. Where do the gifts stay? Where are they received? Susan and Christina talk about giving gifts without strings by being thoughtful about how attached you are to giving the gift you are giving. If you are struggling with where the gift will stay, then maybe don’t give that gift. Don’t set the other parent up either, such as with a gift of a pet that the other parent will need to care for. Have conversations with your co-parent about gifts, joint gifts and avoiding duplicating gifts. Susan references an idea of a combined pot of holiday gift money and each parent can shop from this account or one parent can do all of the shopping and divide the gifts between the two households.

Keep the stress from your child

The fifth step involves keeping in mind taking away the stress from your child. Map out holidays and school events. If both parents will be present at an event, plan out who the child will see first. For younger kids, a color-coded calendar was mapped out so the kids can “see” where they will go and when.

Bottom line: focus on the memories, not on the actual day

The bottom line, have alternate holidays if needed. Remember that holidays are about memories and not about a celebration on the actual day. This is a hard pill to swallow because I, myself, as an adult, am a stickler for holiday celebrations on the actual day. It feels sad to me to have an alternate celebration, especially because, growing up, my mixed family was able to have both parents, even those who were divorced or separated, present, together, on the actual day. But, as a kid, I also remember having multiple birthday celebrations with family all over California and loving it. So, maybe these ladies are onto something. As adults, we tend to be set in our ways; but kids have a more go with the flow attitude, are more resilient and open and probably will not balk at two or more sets of holiday celebrations spread out over multiple days. Especially if the focus of these celebrations is making the best experience possible for the children. Think about it. Listen to the podcast and let me know your thoughts the next time I see you.

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