This December, several thousand families across Scotland will be facing their first Christmas separated or divorced. It is hard for even the most relaxed family to get through to Boxing Day without some crisis, tantrum or disaster, but when there is the added pressure of a family living apart because of separation or divorce, the problems can overwhelm what should otherwise be one of the happiest occasions of the year.
Watching everyone else throw themselves into the preparations – the shopping, the planning, the general excitement – can put an intolerable strain on parents who can hardly bear to think of a Christmas where their family is no longer together. Any milestone in the first year is hard, but some lend themselves more easily to deciding who children will spend time with: Mum for Mum’s birthday, Dad for Father’s Day and so on. Christmas is harder.
It is possible, though, to plan Christmas, and other holidays for separated families, in a positive way. A few simple compromises can make the difference between a time remembered by all family members as happy and relaxed, or a nightmare of confusion, regret and guilt.
If you are a separated parent battling with the problems of making arrangements for Christmas which will be as harmonious as possible, this may help:
- If possible, make plans well in advance, so that everyone knows exactly what is to happen. If children are old enough, discuss it with them and try to accommodate what they want. Take account of other members of the family – grandparents and grandchildren need to be together too. When your children are going to spend time with their other parent, it is important for you to plan what to do while you’re alone. And make sure the children know – they shouldn’t have to worry about you being lonely and miserable.
- Communicate with the other parent about presents, and don’t compete, especially when some may be experiencing extra financial pressures. It is easy for the ‘absent’ parent to try to over-compensate with lavish presents, and children are not above playing parents off against each other to get their entire Christmas wish-list. Mum and Dad could buy larger gifts together. Less well-off parents can make sure their children realise that it is lack of cash, not love, that is the problem. (Grandparents, too, should remember step-grandchildren living in the same family as their biological grandchildren).
- First-time milestones like Christmas, birthdays and holidays can be tough, but there is only one ‘first time’ for all of them. Traditions and rituals might have been important in the past, but they don’t have to be copied slavishly in the new family situation. It may be the time to invent new traditions, which will become just as important in the future.
- Don’t make the sharing of time with children a battleground. Spending alternate years with each parent is one way of organising the time, but waiting a whole year to spend Christmas with Mum or Dad can seem a very long time. Being with one parent on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day and with the other on Christmas Day can avoid this, and most children will relish the idea of two Christmases.
- When children are spending time with you, make sure they know it is okay to ‘check in’ with their other parent.
- If your children don’t normally live with you, don’t expect a holiday visit to be perfect, and don’t try to cram too much in. They probably want to relax as much as you do.
- If making arrangements yourselves is too difficult, family mediation services can, and do, help.