Handling Holiday Custody and Visitation

Things always get more difficult around the holidays.  People who are thinking about divorce don’t really tend to take action at this point; for the most part, they keep it together for their families through the holiday season.  But for the people who have an existing divorce or custody case, it tends to become more emotionally charged as parents face the possibility (or the probability?) of spending at least one major holiday without their children. It’s a daunting thought.  As a mom myself, I can’t imagine spending Thanksgiving or Christmas without my son.  I also know, though, as an attorney, that it happens.

When relationships don’t work out, children split their time between their parents.  (Like the kids in Talladega Nights say, “TWO CHRISTMASES!”)  For families who are lucky enough to live nearby, sometimes the day can be split in half—with one parent receiving the morning, and the other parent getting the evening—so that they can both see the kids on the holiday. For families who don’t live as close, there are distinct challenges to managing the holiday season—and the feelings that the parents experience on being separated from their children.  It’s not possible to split the day if you don’t live nearby; or, maybe you do live nearby, but you choose to travel to out of town family to celebrate.

Either way, you face a challenge: change your plans, or work your life around your plans.  Either way is certainly totally fine, but there are definite challenges either way, especially if it’s your first holiday season without your children being able to be with you for every moment gingerbread-filled, pumpkin pie covered moment.   I get it.  That’s tough.  It’s so, so, so difficult to imagine a major holiday without your kids.  But, in reality, when things don’t work out with your child’s father, it’s an inevitability.

Unless, of course, you can manage a way to be around each other and share the holidays moving forward (which becomes more and more complicated once you meet new people and bring potential stepchildren into the family, etc), there’s a definite very strong possibility that you’ll find yourself without children on one or more major holidays.  It’s not just Thanksgiving and Christmas (or Hanukah or Kwanzaa), either—it’s Memorial Day, Labor Day, 4th of July, Easter, Halloween, birthdays (the kids, yours, your child’s father’s), Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and so on, ad nauseam.

Some holidays are easier to do without than others, but keep in mind that some of the lesser holidays are often points that are accompanied by extra days off school, too, which makes traveling for long weekends and other types of things a possibility, too.   There’s going to have to be some sharing that takes place.  And sharing means that there will be times that you’ll have to do without.  And that’s tough.  No way around it, that’s tough.  And, even if this is the first time you’ve experienced this feeling, you’re in it for the long haul.

How can you make coming up with a holiday custody and visitation schedule a little easier?

Well, a number of things can help you manage the holiday blues that you might be feeling.  After all, this is the most wonderful time of the year – and it should feel that way.  If this is the first of many holidays, you’re going to want to find ways to cope.

1. Find some new holiday traditions.

In my family, we always celebrated Thanksgiving the day before Thanksgiving, and did a big Christmas Eve dinner because it didn’t get in the way with what my grandparents planned for the actual holidays.  Growing up, I honestly came to look forward to our day before Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas Eve dinner because it was my most immediate family.  We didn’t have to work too hard at it, we could just be together and enjoy it.

My mom created those traditions so that they wouldn’t interfere with my grandparents traditional plans, and it was nice because we were able to do everything separately, in its own time, without the time crunch.  It wasn’t all concentrated on the same day, either, which really let us enjoy the day.  And—bonus points—it prolonged the holiday, too!  Even now, all these years later, I take off work the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to go cook with my mom, because that’s our tradition.

It’s been nice with marriage and babies, too, because I have kept the same traditions with my family, and I’ve been able to offer my in-laws the prime Thanksgiving and Christmas Day real estate that keeps them happy, too.

Do whatever you want, but be creative.  Come up with solutions that make it work for you and your new family, and allow you to meet your priorities (having the holiday experience that you want) while respecting your custody arrangement.  Think long term, not short term.  You can learn to be happy with something different than what you’ve had before—and maybe, like in my case, even be happier with it because you’re not dealing with so many competing demands (or making your kids deal with so many competing demands) on the holiday itself.

2. Think about your family, and come up with a solution that works for you.

If you really think about it, some holidays are more important than others.  For many, its Christmas as the be-all, end-all, but not always.  Some people get really crazy about Halloween and others travel for the 4th of July.  Maybe it’s not even a holiday technically, but a certain time of year where your family gets together for a family reunion.

Now, think about your child’s father’s family.  What is special to them?  What celebrations are their favorite?  You may think you don’t care, but you should—because any amount of compromise on your part will likely show him that everything doesn’t have to be a knock down, drag out fight.  In my experience, people who fight about everything fight about everything.  It all becomes a matter of “principle.”  If he stopped you from taking the kids to the beach for your family’s beach week, you’ll throw a fit at Halloween to make sure he doesn’t get all the time he needs to take them trick-or-treating—even though you know how much he has always loved Halloween.

Fighting, quite frankly, begets more fighting—while compromise begets compromise. Show him you’ll compromise.  Show him that what’s important to his family is important to you, too.  Who cares if it really is?  By showing him you care about his traditions, he’ll likely show you more understanding, too, and make way for the traditions that are most important to you and your family.  It takes time, but you can pave the way to more peaceful holidays year round if you are careful now.

3. Remember that a holiday is so much more than a date on a calendar.

Regardless of what happens on December 25th, Christmas time is a season.  It’s a series of memories.  Any holiday is like that, really.  You have power over the calendar, and over the memories that you make with your children.  If you’re okay, they’ll be okay—and you owe it to them to be okay with the way your family is changing.

The transition is difficult for them, too, you know.  You have to show them that it’s okay.  That they can be happy.  That you’ll celebrate the same old traditions and you’ll come up with some new ones, too.  This year, December 25th might seem like the loneliest day in the world to you—but so much of that is attitude and how you choose to face it.  Easy for me to say?  Well, maybe.  But everything is a choice, and I think, for the sake of your kids, it’s easier to choose to be happy.  To bake the cookies.  To take the Advent calendars to and from both houses.  To decorate trees.  To pick out ornaments.  To cook the traditional recipes.  To love each other and find ways to celebrate Christmas (and any holiday or any season) in your own ways.  It isn’t easy, but it is possible.

4. Come up with a custody and visitation schedule now.

Whether you choose to work with an attorney to come up with a comprehensive custody and visitation agreement, litigate in court (though if you don’t already have a court date set, you won’t be able to get one before the holidays), or come up with something between yourselves, now is definitely the time to act.  By getting something in place now—even if it’s difficult to talk about—you’ll remove some of the uncertainty from the situation, which is often a big part of the reason why people fight.  By at least coming up with a plan now, you’ll figure out what’s happening, and that can go a long way towards helping you prepare emotionally for the difficulties that will bring.  Family is messy.  Family is hard.  (Did you think it was going to be easy?)

But there are ways to deal with your feelings, and ways to make sure that your kids are taken care of in the meantime.  It can feel overwhelming, now, in October, looking forward to November and December, and imagining how different this holiday will be from all the others—but if you start now, you can come up with a custody and visitation plan that takes the holidays into account, and at least helps you figure out how to navigate this tricky new landscape as conveniently as possible.  For more information or for help coming up with a custody and visitation schedule during the holidays and any other time throughout the year, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.

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