It can be challenging for divorced parents to work out a parenting schedule at the best of times, so unexpected last-minute scheduling conflicts during an already hectic holiday season can create additional stress for the entire family, says Toronto family lawyer Gary Gottlieb.
The emotional aspect of holiday celebrations contributes yet another complication, especially when a divorce is recent, and the children are still getting used to their parents’ separation.
But there are ways to handle scheduling conflicts during important holidays and other special occasions that will ease the stress and create new traditions that work for everyone involved, says Gottlieb.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
Figuring out where and how children will spend the holidays can be complicated, but there’s really no magic to it, he says.
“It’s all based on cooperation. My advice to my clients is don’t sweat the small stuff. A kid never objects to having two Christmases or two birthday parties.”
If you and your ex can spend the holiday together without tension or conflict, you might decide to share the special moments, writes Ann Gold in a recent column.
“However, if your children pick up on your discomfort, it will spoil the festivities for them. Despite your best intentions, your stress could add strain and tension to your kids’ experience. Sharing the holiday only works for parents who are quite comfortable with each other, and not in conflict,” says Gold, author of The Parent’s Guide to Birdnesting: A Child-centred Solution to Co-parenting During Separation and Divorce.
Common types of arrangements
Parents should strive to be creative in dividing time with their children on special occasions such as holidays and birthdays and try to plan months—even years—in advance. Each should think about what’s important to them and how they want things to unfold. For example, one parent could celebrate with the children on New Year’s Eve and the other could spend New Year’s Day with them.
With younger children, Gottlieb says, many parents opt for a schedule where the kids spend the morning with one and the afternoon with the other.
“For older children, the most popular schedule for this time of the year is Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with one parent and Christmas afternoon and Boxing Day with the other parent,” he says.
On the other hand, if a family likes to travel during the holidays, splitting the day won’t work, “so you need to decide whether you’re the type that stays in town all the time to be with family or whether you travel,” he says. Families that travel can look at the option of doing one week on, one week off and then alternate in even and odd years.
“Some people find it more important to celebrate Christmas Eve, some prefer Christmas morning, and some have mixed traditions.” If the parents come from different religious backgrounds, “I usually advise my clients just to go by their own traditions,” says Gottlieb.
Give advance notice for travel plans
If one parent plans to take the children out of the province for the holidays, they must give advance notice, including details of the trip, location, and contact and ticket information. COVID-19 is complicating things even further now since some parents are opposed to their children travelling at all because of government recommendations against it.
A well-organized parenting schedule normally has the Christmas break sorted out by the end of September or the beginning of October, but sometimes, one parent wants to change the existing agreement a week or two before the holidays.
Gottlieb says the courts will usually deal with these matters if there’s an existing specified schedule and one parent wants to intentionally breach it, but it must be proven to be urgent. Last-minute applications are often rejected if the parties can’t show that they attempted to deal with the matter earlier.
Parenting plans should be detailed
When a parenting schedule is very general, it leaves room for debate and conflict between the parents, Gottlieb stresses.
“Rather than stating that the kids will split time over Christmas, the plan should precisely spell out which days and hours apply to each parent,” he says.
Gottlieb recommends creating a very detailed schedule that covers dates, times, pick-ups, drop-offs, and locations. And it doesn’t have to be carved in stone.
“If you’re finding that a schedule is not working, you can always tweak it, on consent,” says Gottlieb, adding that flexibility and an ability to compromise can help the process immensely.
Photo Credit: West End 61