Legal Matters: Surviving the Holidays as a Divorced Parent

Thanksgiving table
Image via AdobeStock.

By Elizabeth J. Billes

Dischell, Bartle & Dooley Logo

The holiday season is officially here. How do you celebrate? Do you fight over the wishbone on Thanksgiving? Do you cook tasty potato latkes for Hanukkah or make cookies for Christmas? Are you worried that those holiday traditions will change because you and your co-parent are getting divorced?

Divorce is a time of change and transition. If you are going through the process, you are living it. It is not only a time of upheaval for you but also for your kids. What is something that is consistent? Holidays! Like them or not, they come every year. And at the same time, too!

The desire for normalcy is one reason why parents fight so hard for extra time with their children during holidays and other special occasions. People want to keep whatever part of their pre-divorce life that was good. For some, that is the memories they have made with their children during the holidays.

However, there are ways to survive the holidays as a divorced or separated parent, and no, I’m not talking about how to avoid the dreaded candied yams or fruitcake.

Here are my five tips for making it through the holidays as a divorced parent:

1. Don’t make the holidays about yourself.

Frankly, the holidays are about your kids. Not you. Make sure when you are making plans or, more important, denying the plans of the other parent that you keep this in mind.

While it is important that you get to spend time with your children during the holidays, try to arrange it so the children get to participate in an activity that they will enjoy, such as watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade with their grandparents over breakfast, while still seeing you for the afternoon. 

Don’t get blinded by your hatred for the other parent and hurt your children in the process. That is not a lasting memory you want them to have.

2. Keep the traditions of your pre-divorce holidays alive.

Frankly, I don’t think parties consider family traditions enough when preparing custody arrangements for holidays. It’s almost as if the separation has caused amnesia, and mom can’t remember that the children have spent every Easter hunting for eggs in father’s aunt’s backyard. So while it is important for the children to see both parents on major holidays, it is also important for those children to continue to experience family holiday traditions.

Remember, the children did not ask for this divorce, nor didn’t ask for their whole world to change. Why should they suffer because their parents don’t want to be together anymore? Instead, wouldn’t it be better to keep some parts of their lives as consistent as possible, especially when so many parts are in transition?

Therefore, any custody agreement should take these traditions into account. For example, maybe dad can have the children every Easter for the egg-hunting extravaganza, but mom could take them out to breakfast beforehand. That could be a win-win. And who doesn’t like winning?

3. Be willing to start new traditions for your post-divorce holidays.

While you and your co-parent need to keep some consistency in your children’s lives after separation, you must also recognize that this is not 100 percent possible. You and the other parent live in separate homes, perhaps with step-parents and step-siblings. As much as you try, there is no way to make life the same post-divorce as it was pre-divorce.

And you know what? That’s okay. Kids are pretty resilient. So while it is beneficial for them to keep some traditions of pre-divorce holidays alive, it is okay to start new ones. Intact families do that all the time too!

When preparing a custody arrangement, think about what holiday traditions matter to your kids and you the most. For example, is having pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day at Grandma’s house the highlight of the year for your co-parent’s family? Is your family wild about an Easter Sunday egg hunt? If so, make sure that your custody agreement accommodates these holiday traditions.

Then, when it is your time to see the kids on your part of the holiday, you can make a new tradition. For example, maybe accommodating your co-parent’s Thanksgiving custodial time results in you not seeing your kids until Friday. Why not have dinner, then? Or perhaps you can start a Black Friday tradition of shopping and brunch?

While it is important to preserve family holiday traditions, you can’t be married to the past when you are, you know, no longer married. This way, the children see both parents and experience something memorable with both of them — something old, something new.

4. Be flexible and communicate with your co-parent about the holidays.

No, I’m not talking about taking up yoga (although that might not be a bad idea!). The holiday season can be a time of fun, but it also can be a time of stress. Chances are, you are dealing with other family members’ schedules, school parties, and other non-routine obligations. Oh, Aunt Sue is serving Thanksgiving dinner at 4:00 PM instead of noon this year? The school party gets moved to Tuesday? Sound familiar?

These changes mean that your custody schedule may need some tweaking. Unfortunately, your custody agreement cannot address all these changes. It just can’t. Therefore, you and your co-parent must talk to one another and be flexible.

However, one of the most often cited reasons for divorce is communication problems. Therefore, it is likely that you and the other parent have a hard time speaking to one another in a productive manner. Does this apply to you? While you may wish to never talk to him/her again, that is not possible if you have children.

So how can you best communicate with your co-parent about these changes?

While texting is quick and easy, I find it leads to many unnecessarily acrimonious communication. It’s so easy to send off an angry text to your co-parent when they are late or haven’t packed your kid’s soccer gear. If you had to use a method of communication that took more thought, would you still send that text? Probably not.

Therefore, if you and your co-parent have difficulty communicating effectively, I highly suggest you look into using co-parenting software to help facilitate communication. This is particularly helpful if your co-parent’s mode of response is, well, no response at all. These programs also make you think about what you are saying to your co-parent because they require a few more steps than a text.

There are a few co-parenting apps on the market. However, I recommend the Talking Parents App and Our Family Wizard (OFW). Check them both out and see what works best for you. OFW does a few things. It allows parties to email, exchange documents, and share a calendar through a secure site that requires a login. It will even review your emails before you send them to highlight foul or aggressive language. Gmail doesn’t do that, does it?

Regardless of which method of communication works for you, use it. However, don’t use your children as messengers. It is unfair to your kid to be treated like the postal service. It only causes anxiety for them. Instead, agree upon the best way to communicate directly with the other parent and use it when schedule changes during the holidays arise.

5. Recognize that your children will spend part of the holidays away from you and be okay with it.

The cold hard fact of a divorce or separation is that you will not be able to be with your children 100 percent of the time. And because cutting your children in half is illegal, this fact is not going to change. This is particularly hard for parents to accept when it comes to holidays. Some of my clients can’t fathom not waking up with the children on Christmas morning or seeing them in their costumes only every other Halloween. However, this is a reality of divorce and separation. And it would be best if you learned how to be okay with that.

Some examples of how to deal with your emotions during the holidays:

  • Share updates and pictures from the holidays with your co-parent
  • Maximize your time with the children surrounding the holidays. For example, have them try on their Halloween costumes for you or reenact Christmas morning on December 26th
  • Don’t sit home alone and wallow. Just because you don’t have your kids doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go to Aunt Becky’s house for Christmas dinner yourself
  • Practice some self-care. You can’t pour from an empty cup
  • Think about how much fun your children are having. Remember, this is about them and not you. Knowing they are experiencing joy may make it easier for you to sacrifice holiday time with them.

I hope these tips are helpful this holiday season.

If you have a question about divorce, child custody or child support, don’t hesitate to contact me at 215.362.2474. Or send me an email.


Elizabeth J. Billies, Partner

Liz practices all areas of family law, including preparing pre- and post-nuptial agreements, obtaining no-fault and fault divorces, as well as litigating and settling equitable distribution, custody, and support matters.

Her clients value her collaborative and cost-effective approach to legal representation. Liz strives to resolve all matters expeditiously and efficiently while maintaining a high level of compassion and attention to detail.

If you have a divorce or family law question, please contact a member of our team or call 215.362.2474.

Stay Connected, Stay Informed

Subscribe for great stories in your community!

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Advertisement