Holiday Custody and Visitation

Posted on Nov 13, 2023 by Katie Carter

The holidays are a tough time in general, but they’re even tougher if you’re new to the whole separation and divorce thing.  The first set of holidays is, I think, the hardest, but that doesn’t mean that each year doesn’t present its own difficulties.

My advice with respect to holiday custody and visitation is the same as in almost every other situation: get it in writing and in as much detail as possible.

The way I see it, most disputes around custody and visitation come up when people don’t know what to expect or are disappointed.  Uncertainty and disappointment around your arrangements should be carefully avoided because the drama surrounding them can run both the holiday and, if it goes on long enough or spreads far enough, can even irreparably damage your already-tenuous relationship with your coparent.

Thing #1: Approach the situation with kindness, flexibility, understanding, and respect.

If you haven’t reached any agreements regarding custody and visitation, I have a few thoughts that I hope will help.  But, most of all, the best thing you can do is to approach holiday custody and visitation with an open mind – the way, ideally, you’d appreciate any disputes that come up in connection with your divorce and custody case.  The kinder, more understanding, and more flexible you are, the more that kind of behavior will be extended to you in return.

Don’t you hate that advice?  Sometimes I hate giving it.  I remember getting it myself, from my mom.  There was a kid on the bus who was mean to me, and I found it pretty intimidating.  I asked my mom what to do and she gave me some sort of ‘kill him with kindness’ stuff that, even then, made me roll my eyes.  But I tried it, because I didn’t know what else to do, and the meanness wasn’t stopping.  For a while, it really didn’t work.  I think he was confused.  But, slowly, over time, he did start to leave me alone.

At the time, I blamed my mom for giving me bad advice.  But now I think about the situation a little differently.  Sure, he didn’t turn around overnight; that’s not really in a bully’s nature.  But he did, slowly, end up leaving me alone.  It wasn’t immediate, but it did eventually go away and stop being a problem.

I don’t think you can expect that, if you bring a kind, flexible, open mind to your holiday custody and visitation negotiations that everything else will just fall into place.  On the other hand, if you come in with a rude, domineering, or possessive attitude, I do think it’s quite possible that everything will fall quite quickly OUT of place.

That’s actually how quickly a lot of these disputes fall apart – one bad thing, and the other side gets offended and then, suddenly, were trading blows, exchanging the child with dueling recordings, at a police station.

No, it’s a more gradual approach.  It may not turn him around overnight but, slowly, so slowly, you can help show your child’s father a better way.  So, thing #1 is always to approach the situation with kindness, flexibility, understanding, and respect.

Thing #2: Remember that a holiday is more than just a date on a calendar.

 Just because you don’t get December 25th doesn’t mean that Christmas is ruined.  Thanksgiving doesn’t HAVE to take place on the fourth Thursday in November.  The traditions that have existed up to this point can be modified.  New traditions can be created.

Also: there’s no rule that both you and your child’s father can’t be included, if that’s something that you are able and/or willing to do.  There really aren’t rules; there’s just situations and ways to either work through them…or not.

Work with what you have and make it special.  For your own sake and for the kids’ sake.

Thing #3: Consider what’s most important to you and draft your agreement to reflect this.

Does his family open presents on Christmas Eve and then go to midnight mass?  Does your family do a huge brunch extravaganza?

Though most families alternate so that each parent gets either Thanksgiving or Christmas in a given year and pass off on odd and even years, there’s no rule.  You can come up with an arrangement that gives you both the parts of the holiday that mean the most to you, if you live close enough together and come to an agreement about what that might look like for you.

The whole ‘kill him with kindness’ comes into play here, too, I am sorry to say.  I find that holiday rituals often mean a lot to people, and so they can respond particularly emotionally (and sometimes irrationally) about those dates.  If you KNOW that Christmas Eve is a huge deal to him and you give him Christmas Eve, how do you think he’ll feel?

You should come up with the arrangement that works for you.  Maybe your family’s Fourth of July picnic is huge, or you do a week in the OBX every June.  Find out ways to both respect the longstanding family traditions (and, by extension, your child’s relationship with your coparent’s extended family).  It’s a way to build a bridge that can lead to long term positive, successful coparenting.

Thing #4: Remember that what you come up with can be modified.

None of this is set in stone. You can change things later!  Sometimes, it’s a good idea just to give something a try, but keep an open mind and revisit it if it doesn’t work out or if the situation changes.

Chances are good that one or both of you will remarry.  You may even more closer or further away from each other.  School schedules, sports, extracurriculars, camps, or travel arrangements might mess up things that used to work.  If you keep it cooperative, you’ll have a much better ability to modify later.  Sure, you can always litigate and modify, but that’s kind of a last ditch effort.

Thing #5: Consider your travel arrangements.

While you may wish that you could share the day with your soon to be ex spouse, that may not be possible, especially if your extended family is far away.  Make sure to take into consideration how you’d like to spend the holidays, or even what changes you might make to what have been your long-established previously existing holiday arrangements.

Maybe you used to eat with his family for Christmas dinner, but now that you’re separated (and divorcing), you’d rather go see your parents in Texas.  In that case, you probably won’t want to do a Christmas Eve/Christmas morning split; you’d end up traveling on the holiday and miss most of the time in both places.

In the event that travel is involved, it’s a better idea to divide the winter holiday from school in larger chunks to give yourself more time to travel between places that may be geographically distant from each other (or even avoid the busiest or most expensive travel days).  You may find that you don’t see the child (or your child’s father doesn’t see her) until the 27th or 28th in some years (if, say, you split the break in half), but if, on balance, this makes sense for you, it’s something to consider.

Thing #6: Make a plan for years when you don’t have the child.

I really can’t stress this enough.  As much as you need to make plans for your new normal, you also need to account for the actual holiday-day, especially when you don’t have parenting time yourself.  Your first Christmas alone doesn’t have to be a sad occasion!  I mentioned coming up with new traditions, but I don’t just mean traditions that relate to the kids.

If you have a divorced girlfriend, try to get your kids on Christmas in the same years so that you have the same off years.  Meet new friends.  Come up with a plan with your own immediate or extended family.  Find something fun and meaningful to do that makes you look forward to the day, rather than dreading it and feeling sorry for yourself.  And then, when you have your child back, be prepared to make whatever time you do have as special for her as it would be on whatever holiday day.  (After all, it’s so arbitrary!)

There’s never any one size fits all.  It’s a question of knowing your family – both your immediate one, including your soon to be ex – and how your previous arrangements fit in with your vision for the future.  Things will definitely change over time, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  If you set up a positive relationship now, the door will be open to make changes if/when they are necessary later on.

For more information or to schedule a consultation, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.