Holidays just aren’t the same without family. Whether opening presents on Christmas morning, gathering around a Thanksgiving table, breaking fast during Ramadan, or lighting the candles on a menorah, the moment is meant to be treasured with your closest loved ones.
For divorced parents who share custody, holidays are even more precious; often, they don’t get to spend them with their children nearly as much as they would like. Without building a reservoir of shared memories around the holidays, children and parents may find themselves growing emotionally apart. Not to mention, days that should be joyful might become sources of loneliness and sadness.
However, not all hope is not lost. A divorced parent who desires more holiday time with their children has options. Depending on how well you get along with your former spouse, there are solutions that fit most situations. Some may require going to court, but others merely involve more communication and planning. Holidays and school breaks are considered “special” parenting time and normally supersede regular visitation schedules.
Here is a list of possibilities to consider. Consult with your attorney about the best approach for you, and communicate your plans with your children and take their wishes into account.
- Joint celebrations: If you have a friendly and cooperative rapport with your former spouse, you may consider celebrating the holidays together in order to allow both parents to enjoy them with the children and create a sense of family unity. Be mindful, though, of how you, your ex-spouse, and children may approach the situation emotionally. Children should not be misled into thinking that a joint celebration means their parents are “getting back together.” (A former spouse should not be under the wrong impression about that either.)
- Creating a shared holiday calendar: If you get along reasonably well with your ex, try developing a shared calendar that outlines holiday time, school breaks, and other special occasions. That way there are clear expectations about what days or slots of time children will spend with each parent. Note that an informal calender is not legally enforceable. If the relationship between you and your ex-spouse deteriorates and the other parent does not honor the calendar, you may need to seek legal help in modifying your custody agreement.
- Planning in advance: If you are creating a calendar, the sooner you start planning, the better. Planning well in advance allows both parents to coordinate schedules, make necessary arrangements, and inform their children of the upcoming holiday plans. This proactive approach minimizes last-minute stress and disappointments.
- Compromising: Ideally, holidays should be a time for generosity and forgiveness. They should not be for punishing your ex-spouse. Be respectful of your ex-spouse’s family or religious traditions and the days that are most meaningful to them, and try to be accommodating. Expect the same respect and consideration in return.
- Splitting holidays: If ex-spouses live close enough for this to be feasible, sometimes a good solution is to break holiday periods into two parts. For instance, one parent may have children for Christmas Eve, and the other may spend Christmas Day with the children. Halloween activities often span multiple days, with some neighborhoods holding events and trick-or-treating on Oct. 30 and others on Oct. 31. Many religious holidays also spread over multiple days. Or a single day, such as Easter, can be divided into morning and afternoon activities.
- Alternating holidays: Another approach which might be more appropriate when ex-spouses live far from each other is to alternate holidays and alternate years. For instance, one parent may get Christmas one year with the children, and the other parent gets Easter, and then the next year, the schedule would flip. That way children can fully experience both parents’ holiday traditions, although on a staggered schedule. Alternating holidays can also simplify travel planning.
- Custody modifications: Sometimes informal arrangements are not sufficient for ensuring you get enough holiday time with children. In those instances, formal custody agreement modifications may be required, which might need to be approved by a judge. You should consult with an experienced attorney when considering this solution, and their services will likely be needed to ensure the process goes smoothly.
- Mutual agreement: Ideally, you and the other parent will be able to negotiate successfully and come to an understanding about how holiday time can best be reallocated. While you may still be required to submit these changes to a court, they are usually approved if both parents agree on the changes and they are in the best interest of the children.
- Mediation: If parents are unable to reach an agreement on their own, they can seek the assistance of a mediator. Mediation involves a neutral third party who helps facilitate discussions and negotiations between the parents to find a suitable resolution. This is usually less time-consuming, costly, and stressful than petitioning a judge for the requested modification.
- Court petition: If mediation fails or if one parent is unwilling to cooperate, the parent seeking the modification can file a petition with the court. They will need to provide valid reasons for the requested change, such as changes in work schedules, relocation, or the child's own preferences as they grow older. Changes in circumstances including living situations, employment, health or other factors that address the child’s well-being can also be valid reasons for a court-imposed modification.
- Make the time you do have count: Seeking a custody modification may take time, and you may miss out on some of the holidays you wanted to spend with your children. While you’re waiting, focus on quality over quantity. Engage in meaningful activities, foster unique special traditions, and create lasting memories that children will cherish – whether or not they fall on a specific holiday. If you aren’t able to have your children for Christmas, for instance, why not create your own version of Christmas on a different day? Quality time often has a more profound impact on children's well-being than extended hours of presence.