Determine Your Holiday Child Custody Schedule Sooner Rather than Later
During each one of the 21 years I have practiced as a family law attorney (since leaving the practice of psychology), the period of time between Thanksgiving and New Years in my particular field of law is often slow. Why? Because very few people are inclined to start new family law cases during the holidays. The one exception, however, which has kept me busy over every holiday season are the last-minute holiday child custody conundrums.
Whether it is the father who needs an extra day of custody in order to match the round-trip tickets he has already purchased, or the mother who is trying to “keep up” with the gifts that the father is giving. Then there is the parent who is concerned his/her child isn’t going to cooperate with the custody schedule. Yes, there are far too many people who encounter a variety of problems around the holidays. With that in mind, I suggest four items parents prepare for to ensure that peace and harmony prevail and that the Yuletide season be as calm as possible.
1. Don’t Wait Until December to Figure Out Your Holiday Child Custody Schedule
Nothing is worse than leaving the exact holiday child custody schedule “up in the air” until December; then trying to negotiate a schedule on a race-against-time basis. If you are already divorced, or in the process of getting divorced, one of the first things you should have is a written agreement detailing when you have the children during the week, days off from school, and of course, the emotionally-charged holiday season. The more detailed the agreement, the better. This agreement should clearly spell out the winter break. Here is an example of such a clause in your agreement:
“The winter break shall be defined as from 3:30 p.m. on the last day of school before the break to 3:30 pm on the Sunday before the first day back at school. Each party will have one-half of the winter break—with Mom to have the first half in odd-numbered years, and to have the second half in even-numbered years. Dad shall have the second half in odd-numbered years, and will have the first half in even-numbered years.”
If you are a parent who has not yet committed to such a detailed schedule, get started right now. The closer you wait until December, the harder it will be to negotiate. With court calendars running six to eight weeks behind, the holidays may occur long before the judge can put a custody schedule in place.
2. Don’t Try to Match Your Ex-Spouse’s Plans, Just Be Happy With Your Own
No two parents are ever going to have identical plans for the winter break for a number of reasons. First and foremost, ex-spouses typically have different access to funds to pay for vacations and/or have different ideas about how much money they should spend on vacations with the children. Whichever parent you are, whether you are the parent with nearly unlimited funds, or the parent with a strict budget for vacations, it is best to ignore whatever you ex is planning. Instead, focus on your time, and your plans, and what you would most enjoy doing with the children.
Let your ex-spouse do and spend whatever he/she wants to. The more you dwell on your ex’s plans, the less likely you are to be happy with yours. Winter break is an ideal time to catch up with your children; spend quality time with them, even if it is simply “doing nothing” time. Children can be overly scheduled. Simply relaxing and hanging out means quality time and that offers value to all of you as a family. Whatever you choose, the mere fact that you made plans, and then executed them, is more than enough to satisfy your children. They too are looking forward for that same catch-up, quality, and possibly “do nothing” time with you, too. With that in mind, pay careful attention to the next suggestion.
3. Let Your Children Have a Say in your Together-time Plans
Your children probably have opinions about how they’d like to spend their winter break. After all, it is their break from school, just as much as it your break from work. You should think about asking them what they are interested in doing. Even better: to avoid run-away expectations, do some research in advance and present two or three alternative plans which you have already priced and found acceptable. Let them have the final say on what plan you ultimately put in place. Kids like that! They want to be included. It makes them feel powerful, especially when they are being shuttled back and forth between parents. This precludes them from complaining because they were part of the “choice” process. That way there is not a whole lot of basis for blame.
4. Don’t Worry About Who Your Ex-Spouse is Going to be With When the Your Children Visiting
In most cases, your ex-spouse is going to make reasonable choices about which of their friends and relatives they are going to have your children around during the holidays. Really; truthfully, you need to recognize this, and honor this. Constant nit-picking and micro-management over who your children spend their time with when they are with the other parent is not fruitful. In fact, this dynamic distracts you from the parenting you should be doing.
If you are spending most of your energy trying to prevent your children from being with your ex-spouse’s family, you probably don’t have enough energy left to enjoy the time you have with them. Only if your ex-spouse has a sibling who is a substance abuser, a verbal abuser, or whose name can be found on a sexual predator list, should you speak up and complain. Remember that you are always setting an example for your children. In light of that reality, always stop and ask yourself, is what you’re complaining about a personal beef or does it have real merit?
In sum, keep in mind what the season – that winter break – represents. It is a time for “goodwill and good tidings toward all humankind,” including your ex! Isn’t that the most important thing to teach the kids? It may mean you foster a sense of “giving” as you go about negotiating your agreement.