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December 19, 2015

A Case Against Holiday Time-Sharing for Divorced Parents

A standard parenting scheduling in Texas splits up the three major holidays of the holiday season: it gives one parent Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day with the children on even years and Christmas on odd years, and the other parent gets the reverse schedule. For the parent getting the children during Christmas, it’s actually a fairly long stretch that goes from the Friday the children are let out for winter break from school until noon on the 28th, with the other parent getting them until they return to school (which is usually shortly after New Year’s).

Given the length of the Thanksgiving break, it’s a roughly even apportionment of time over the holiday season — but for many of the parents who don’t get to spend Christmas with their kids every other year, it can be a lonely experience and one of the most acute reminders all year that sometimes, divorce doesn’t feel fair.

Some divorced parents work out a plan in which, every year, some part of the Christmas Eve/Christmas Day holiday is spent with each parent. If both parents are spending the holidays in the same town, it’s theoretically a matter of arranging pickups and dropoffs and keeping communication lines open.

But we ran across an article from Ipswich, Mass.-based lawyer Susan Willis that makes a compelling case for keeping the holidays separate for mom and dad. She notes that, “based solely on couples I’ve worked with, the ones who most often end up back in front of the judge to alter the holiday schedule are the ones who try to divide holidays.”

According to Willis, what attempts to be fair ends up being perceived by one parent as unfair every year. She notes:

What starts out with the best of intentions can end up with one parent feeling slighted if they perceive their time with the children to be shorter than or less valuable than the time allotted to their ex. In a worse case scenario, this can result in an annual dissatisfaction around the holiday that is invariably communicated to the children, ruining the holiday for them as well.

Perhaps worse than that is the shared schedule puts the children in bad situations. For example, they end up sitting at two Thanksgiving dinner tables and aren’t hungry for more food at the second dinner. Or, the entire day is spent opening presents. That can be overwhelming to younger children, particularly at the end of the day. 

She sees the splitting of holidays as something that actually minimizes conflict and allows for the best experience for parents and children. (Of course, if the family celebrates a holiday spread out over multiple days, like Hannukah, that can and should be apportioned evenly and fairly.)

She points out:

In my opinion, alternating also works better than sharing holidays because it helps families to accept the reality that things are different now. That does not mean worse. Just different.

Accepting the new reality helps parents develop new holiday traditions that can be just as meaningful as the traditional ones (e.g. opening presents when they come to Dad’s house for New Year’s). It also forces parents to put their relationship with their children during the holidays first, before meeting extended family obligations.

One of the things I always tell clients is that a divorce agreement has to not only be one that works for your family now, but five-to-10 years from now. If the holidays are important to you, then it should not be a detail of the agreement to be glossed over. Many couples think they can work it out on their own. The divorced couples who can do that are few and far between.

The “not worse, but different” idea is a difficult but important concept for divorced parents, and it can especially be a struggle if it’s a new divorce. But if parents focus on creating new family traditions, and making Dec. 28 just as special as Christmas, that can be even more beneficial for kids — and parents — in the long run.


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One Response to “A Case Against Holiday Time-Sharing for Divorced Parents”

  1. Syd Sharples says:

    I appreciate what Willis is saying. I find a good strategy to be erring on the side of rigidity and caution, dividing the holidays in by-the-book fashion. It’s always my hope (and he hopes of my collaborative teammates) that the decree becomes a default schedule for when things can’t be worked out. When it comes to holidays, travel plans arise, traditions change (as they always do in a divorce) and relationships often thaw. I spent Christmas with my ex this year, and would never have dreamed such a thing possible when we divorced years ago. And the point that kids can feel like shuttlecocks during a holiday with lot of back and forth is a good one. Sadly, parents need to consider prioritizing their kids’ needs to minimize transitions ahead of their own (understandably strong!) desire to see their children on the special days.

    As for the uneven division of time per Texas Family Code, I found as a divorced parent that sometimes the front end was longer, and sometimes the back end was. As a collaborative professional, I often find my clients gravitating to the idea of splitting the break in half.

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