From his first years, my son Nick had the most gruelling holiday schedule. From early Christmas Eve through late Boxing Day, he rode a whirlwind between our house, his dad’s house, both sets of grandparents and a stay at an out-of-town inn. When he turned 10, he said, “Mom, I want to stay home at Christmas and play with my new games and stuff.” In efforts to accommodate both families, my ex and I had flouted the first holiday commandment for separated parents: the holidays are for kids, so put them first.
“Kids should be the top priority at holiday time,” confirms Sandy Shuler, a social worker and certified family educator based in Calgary. “If there was ever a time for it, co-parents need to take control of their resentments and handle the division of time in a businesslike and civil manner.”
Andrew Murphy of Halifax, and his ex-wife have always put their 11-year-old daughter’s well-being first when planning their holiday schedule. “While we both want as much of her time as possible when there’s fun stuff going on, we simply work out—with her input as she’s grown older—what’s likely to be the most entertaining for her,” he says. “What works, really, is a lack of selfishness.”
Sonia Nicolucci, founder of RnR Parenting, a parenting centre in Aurora, Ont., advises parents to embrace their legal agreements but, if relations are cordial, to consider compromises. “Discuss what’s working and what isn’t working,” she says. And don’t leave the child’s wishes out of the equation even though the court settlements don’t usually address these. “Have a kitchen roundtable to talk about everyone’s wish list,” Nicolucci says. “Parents often try too hard to ‘make’ a perfect holiday, and forget to ask the kids and get them involved.”
When bad feelings persist between parents, a formal holiday schedule is important, says Eriks Taube, a Toronto father of three girls, ages 10, 12 and 14. “That way, the document is the problem, not the other person,” he says. And if you’ve reached the civil, collaborative phase, you can explain your scheduling preferences (such as you have tickets for a show for a certain time and date) and seek more give-and-take.
Parents can also make the holiday transition smoother by not competing for activities, adds Taube. “If Mom always did the ballet, let her. If Dad always did the ski trip, let him,” he says. To Taube’s relief, his family finally shifted last year from a complicated, court-ordered schedule to a simpler plan that gives each parent one full week with the girls. The new arrangement is easier says Taube’s middle daughter, Liva. “It’s better than the back and forth, back and forth between Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. I can just chill, but I miss being all together on New Year’s Eve.”
For Craig Saunders, a Toronto father of an eight-year-old son, things have always been simple. “Our son spends one week with each of us and we alternate years for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” he says. “Some people put an awful lot of weight on the day itself, but if my son and I have to celebrate a couple of days early or late, it’s not a problem.”
Nicolucci suggests that recently separated parents may want to establish new rituals—with the kids’ full input. If you always spent Hanukkah together as a family, ask your children what they would like to do on the specific nights that you are together now. If the family used to go skating on Christmas Eve, ask the kids if they want to do something else, like see a holiday movie. “Ask them if they want to have a ‘breakfast’ Christmas or if they just want to hang out and make popcorn,” she says.
If you’re facing a split holiday for the first time, heed the advice of Sara Lawson, a Toronto mom who shares holiday time with daughter Maggie, 6, equally with her ex-husband. She suggests having a plan that kicks in the minute your child leaves, such as dinner with friends. Last year when Maggie was scheduled to sleep over on Christmas Eve at her dad’s house, Lawson thought she was cool with it. “But when he took her away right after the church pageant, I wasn’t prepared for the sadness and melancholy that overwhelmed me on the church steps.”