Planning for Holiday Custody and Visitation

Today is Halloween which means, to me, at least, the kick off of the holiday season. From here on out, it seems like everything is holiday themed. And, don’t get me wrong, I love it. I love every single minute of it. This year, in fact, it’s even more special to me, because I’m pregnant with my first child.
I’m not due until March, but in a lot of ways my life has already changed. It’s amazing how fast that happens, isn’t it? How quickly you can go from “I can’t imagine how I could go to a wedding and not have a drink!” to “Did you QUADRUPLE wash all those veggies? I can’t ingest ANY pesticides!”
In my first trimester, I began to worry. I guess that’s what they mean when they say that you become a mom the moment you find out you’re pregnant. I was amazed at how easily the worrying came to me. I would think, “I’m sick, so that means my baby is healthy. Awesome.” And then, five minutes later, “I’m sick. There must be something deeply, profoundly wrong here.” I’d alternate between feeling like Mother Earth and confidently telling people my body was meant to do this to hysterically crying that I just knew I’d never be able to make it through. The worry came easily, especially before I could feel baby move. I used to think how unfair it was that so much could be happening just underneath the surface, but I was more or less oblivious to it all—even whether my baby was okay or not. The worry comes so easily and, I am told, it never goes away.
Of course, being pregnant—and all the emotions that involves (and, for me, that’s a LOT of emotions)—really hits home in a lot of ways, considering what I do every single day. Divorce and custody cases are pretty run of the mill for me; I handle stuff like that every day. I talk to people, literally, every day about their cases and what to expect and the choices they should be making.
I think the holidays make everybody feel a little extra emotional, though. There’s a lot of importance attached to these rituals, and the family time involved. And, when mom and dad separate, whether they were married or not, tensions rise—especially during the holiday season. It seems like the first holiday season post separation is often the most emotionally charged. Everyone wants the kids for the first Thanskgiving or the first Christmas post-separation, and they don’t wany to have to share. They know all the things that they’ve always done, the different little family traditions, and they don’t want to give them up. They don’t want to not be a part of them. They don’t want to imagine their children going to paternal grandma’s on Christmas Eve, like always, and not being able to join in, too. So much is changing and, especially at the holidays, it’s hard to accept the new normal.
Around the holiday season, we see a lot more incoming calls and emails frantically asking us about emergency petitions for custody and visitation. The trouble is, it’s not just at our firm—it’s at family law firms all across the country and state. The courts get bogged down with people requesting “emergency” hearings for custody and visitation during the holidays, so it’s difficult (if not impossible) to get a date before the holiday season is over. (Besides, it would have been difficult anyway, because the court dockets are often backed up 6 or 7 months at a time, so the people with court in December filed their petitions back in June or July!)
To the extent that you can, though, avoid court. To do that, now is the time to start talking about what you expect custody and visitation to look like during the holidays. I know it’s not easy, but the more you and your child’s father discuss what the holidays are going to look like, even beginning now, the better for both of you. You’ll save time, money, and frustration—and, trust me, the holidays really aren’t the time when you want to feel frustrated, exhausted, or overwhelmed with all the bickering going back and forth.
If you’re hoping to make the 2016 holiday season one to remember, follow these 4 tips when it comes to managing holiday custody and visitation.

1. Plan holiday custody and visitation in advance.

I know it’s hard, but begin to talk about your plans now. If you don’t already have a signed separation agreement, you’ll want to get something worked out now, so that you both know what to expect ahead of time. A lot of fights can be avoided by setting up reasonable expectations. You know already that you both want to spend time with your child(ren), so why not start talking about it and figure out ways that you both feel like you get valuable time with them during the most important times? Especially if you live locally, feel free to think creatively.
Sometimes, we have moms and dads who switch the kids in the middle of the day, so that they open presents in the morning at mom’s house, and then have Christmas dinner at dad’s. Or vice versa.
Talk. You may fight about it, but that’s okay. Take some time to cool off, and then talk about it again. You’ve got some time before Thanksgiving, so you’ll work it out.

2. Take his preferences into account when you’re planning holiday custody and visitation. (Yes, really.)

In my family, we always did Thanksgiving dinner the day before Thanksgiving, and Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, because we were expected to join my extended family (on my dad’s side—you know, grandma, grandad, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc) for Christmas and Thanksgiving day. My mom started it when we were kids, and I remember her saying that she wanted time that was just for us.
Growing up, and even now, I always looked forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinners, because they were just us—just the way I liked it. Now, I always spend Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day with my in laws, who are happy that they get such valuable holiday real estate (and every year, without fail), but I know deep down that I get what I want, too: those day before dinners with my immediate family (which has now dramatically expanded to included my sister and brother in law, and two new baby nephews!).
For me, that’s what’s important when it comes to the holidays. Does your husband have something like that, too? Does he always open presents on Christmas Eve? Is there a big Christmas day brunch? What are the holiday traditions that mean the most to him?
Offer to give him time to do those things. It’ll mean a lot to him, and put him in a more conciliatory mood where the things that matter to you are concerned. Really want Christmas Day dinner? If you give him what matters to him, you’re more likely to get the time that matters most to you. Both want the same time? Trade, odd years it’s you, even years it’s him. Don’t want to miss anything? Ask whether you can still be included in special events, and feel free to invite him along to family events on your end.

3. Remember, when it comes to holiday custody and visitation: this is about the kids.

Building off of point number 2, when you take each other into account, you create an atmosphere that is healthy, positive, and festive for your children. If you’re happy, they’ll be happy—and the memories they make will be happy, too.
Most families don’t choose, after separation or divorce, to continue to attend family events together—but some do. If that feels right to you, don’t skip it just because you think it’d be weird. A lot about how this will all go down depends on your attitude and behavior in these first critical months. Let your mother in law know you’re here to stay. Demonstrate an overwhelmingly positive attitude that makes it patently NOT awkward to be around the two of you (the three of you, if you include your kiddo, too). If you don’t let it be awkward, everyone else will grow to think of it as the new normal.
Don’t be afraid to suggest something that works for you. Think about your family, and come up with creative solutions. Whether you celebrate on your own, with family, or with your child’s father (or some combination), there are really no rules here, except that you should always, always, always put the child first.

4. Girl’s Night Out is open to you!

Finding yourself alone this holiday season? Don’t watch Bridget Jones’s Diary and cry into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s for the umpteenth time. DO something! Get out there and meet people.
Our events series, Girl’s Night Out, is designed for women like you. If you’re going through a divorce or custody case, it can be hard to get back out there—but you’re not the only one going through this! Meet up with us at Girl’s Night Out for a girl’s only evening of fun. We’ll pay for the food and drinks, all you have to do is show up.
They’re happy hour type events, so they’re low key with no agenda. We invite all of our current, former, and prospective clients, and other people we know who we think are fun to hang out with. Who knows? You may meet your new best friend.
Even better? Every year, we host a Christmas Party! We just had our most recent event last week, at Cove Tavern in Newport News, but we’re looking forward to our next event—our Christmas Party at Pasha Mezze in Ghent on December 7. Join us!
For more information, or to go ahead and register to attend, visit our website by clicking here.  You can also join our girls only Facebook group (it’s private, so you’ll have to request to join) by clicking here.
The holiday season is hard, but if you get your mind right now, you can set yourself and the rest of your family up for a happy season anyway. Think about your new normal, and do what you can to set things up so that you’re all taken care of. These years matter so much, so make sure you take into account your child’s feelings about the transition, too. Create a unique solution that addresses everyone’s concerns and allows you all to grow together as a family—whether or not you and your child’s father are together as a couple.
For more information, or for help crafting a holiday custody and visitation agreement, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200. Happy holidays!

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