Holiday Parenting Time Struggles

Posted on Nov 17, 2021 by Katie Carter

If it’s your first year dealing with a new coparenting arrangement through the holiday season, you’re not alone. Each year we hear the same things, over and over again, from the moms who are having to experience navigating a new normal at the so-called ‘most wonderful time’ of the year.

In a lot of ways, I imagine I know how you’re feeling. My husband works in a field where he’s gone for half the year, so he misses literally every other Christmas. In the years that we have him for Christmas, I’m filled with Christmas cheer. In September, I’m decorating, making hot cocoa (even if it’s 85 degrees out) and screening Christmas movies with my kids.

In ‘off’ years, I struggle a little bit. I’m still excited, and I do all the things for and with my kids leading up to the holiday, but I just don’t feel it as much. It doesn’t feel as joyful.

I have not had the experience of waking up on Christmas morning without my children, or of having nowhere to go and nothing to do on Thanksgiving. But I’ve worked with a lot of women, and I’ve crafted a lot of custody agreements that have given a lot of really careful thought to the holidays and exactly how to handle them. Incidentally, I do recommend that you give it a bit of thought yourself, too.

Coparenting always comes with its share of struggles; there’s no getting around that. You’re learning to navigate something completely foreign, and it doesn’t come gracefully to most parents. It’s definitely learned.

But to the extent that you can give your family arrangement a little thought and then spend some time devising a schedule that will work for you, it’s definitely going to be time well spent. I can tell you that no two families are the same, and no two sets of concerns – surrounding the holidays or vacation or literally any other issue related to custody and visitation – are exactly the same. Neither are the solutions, which can be as simple or as complex or as infinitely varied as the families creating them.

Custody and visitation are not ‘one size fits all’ propositions. What works for someone else may not work for you. But maybe consider some alternatives.
What if you trade Christmas (or whatever other important religious or cultural holiday that is important to you) for something else?

Is the magic of Christmas morning the most important thing to you? Suggest an arrangement where you get all of the Christmases, but he gets all of something else that he really enjoys – Halloween, or the 4th of July, or every year on the third week in June when his family travels to the Outer Banks.

What if you take Christmas morning, but he picks up the kids on Christmas afternoon every year?

If he’s not religious, or comes from a family with a different religious background, you could trade. You get all the Christmases, he gets all the Yom Kippurs.

In general, we advise that parents come up with a plan for dealing with a lot of relevant holidays – Thanskgiving, Christmas, Easter, etc – because they often come along with corresponding breaks from school. There’s no question that the school calendar favors the Christian holidays, but this isn’t a policy discussion – it’s a custody one. Even if you’re Jewish or Jehovah’s Witness or something else, you’ll still want to divide the school breaks.

Add in your own holidays, too. If you are Jewish, or Muslim, or whatever else, include your specific holidays – and figure out a plan that accommodates them, regardless of what the school calendar prioritizes.

What if you alternate years where you take the entire winter holiday break from school?

Not everyone is local. We have a significant military presence in our area. If your family isn’t local, then splitting December 25th in half may not make sense.
For some families, the best arrangement is to divide the entirety of the break up. Maybe it feels terrible in the years that you don’t have your children, but then on the years that you do, you can spend the holidays 100% in the way you want. If you need to travel to see family and want to maximize that school break, the holidays can be a great time to do it.

It’s also worth considering the fact that things may change later, when and if you become involved in a new relationship. Custody and visitation is always modifiable based on a material change in circumstances, so you can certainly agree to something that works now without giving a though to a hypothetical family later, but it’s worth considering the flexibility that having all of a holiday might give you.

I’m not saying it won’t still be hard in the ‘off years’ (or maybe it won’t be – because you could always go to the Caribbean!), but maybe that’s a trade off worth making? No one can say but you, but it’s definitely worth considering.

There’s always the tried and true ‘split the break’ 50/50 arrangement, too!

In our form custody agreement, we split the Christmas holiday – with one parent getting the first half, up to noon on December 26th, and the other parent getting the second half. The second half is longer, and includes New Year’s Eve, which is supposed to (at least partially) make up for not getting Christmas.
It gives you some time to travel, though not as much as if you had the entire break, and each parent gets a holiday. Maybe New Year’s Eve isn’t a traditionally child-friendly holiday, but, hey, you could always establish some new traditions!

Suggest an arrangement where you keep the time that’s most important to you.  (But don’t forget what might be important to him!)

Don’t get so hung up on having it all that you forget to think about which part is most important to you. For a lot of families, it’s not even Christmas Day – it’s about Christmas Eve! Maybe you’d rather get Christmas Eve every year because of a family dinner that you traditionally celebrate, or a Christmas mass you prefer to attend, or even because your family opens all the non-Santa presents on Christmas Eve night!

Maybe it’s something totally different. Maybe you love Boxing Day! (Probably not – that’s not even a thing here in the US, but I’m just making a random suggestion.)

Consider what’s really important, and feel free – I give you permission, in fact – to make it all about that one tradition, if you think you might enjoy it more or have more freedom to relax into the coparenting arrangement that way.

Make your own, new traditions.

Now is a time to think about creating your own traditions, too. SO WHAT if what you did as a family when you were a kid was different? SO WHAT if you did it a particular way while you were married?

Your reality is your reality, and your holiday plans should reflect that. I always tell my husband that a holiday is more than just a date on a calendar, and its SO TRUE. What if you cancelled Christmas and made it December 26th at your house every year? You don’t have to compete with your child’s father just to get a particular day on a calendar! Or maybe it’s December 26th just in your off years, it doesn’t even matter.

You can make cookies and leave them out for Santa. You can watch holiday movies. You can send letters to Santa telling him about the change in date – hey, maybe Santa’d even appreciate it, because he has a lot on his plate on Christmas Eve.

At the end of the day, Santa doesn’t make the magic anyway. YOU DO. That’s true for everything, from the magic of your summer vacation plans, to the excitement of the Tooth Fairy, and a really special birthday cake. Holidays everywhere – no matter your religion or marital status – are made special by the moms who love their kids so darn much that it just…overflows.

I’m not saying it’s easy. But I am saying that you have some choices here, and, even though you’ll have to live with them later, you can still make holiday magic.
For more information, or for help setting up a parenting plan that addresses your specific holiday concerns, give us a call at 757-425-5200.