It’s meant to be the happiest time of the year, but for separated parents it can be the most-feared. Up and down the land they’ve been taking a half-interest in the festooned store shelves and online shopping offers that have sprung up since October - around the time decorations started appearing everywhere.
For a significant subset of the UK adult population the garlands and ribbons trigger major anxieties, as thousands of divorced couples began pondering plans for the children this Christmas: The ‘where’, the ‘how long’, and the travel arrangements – not to mention the finances that can cripple bank balances at this time of year.
It all adds up to the uncomfortable fact that many families in every corner of the country are dreading the festive season, and with good reason.
It’s when supermarkets start playing the festive music, and Christmas trees pop up in shops, that parents who’ve tried not to think about this year’s arrangements find they have no choice. They know that previous settlements, sometimes imposed by divorce courts, no longer work now the child is growing up.
So some weeks ago our professional mediators began the annual round of assisting parents make arrangements for the forthcoming holiday period, helping them work out a Parenting Plan.
Experience tells us that parenting arrangements that work well most of the year are often exposed as not fit-for-purpose when the Christmas holidays loom.
There’s turmoil for pick-ups and drop-offs when children need to visit relatives they haven’t seen for the past year. Then there’s piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of where the children will spend which days during the holiday period. These headaches can cause long-standing resentments to resurface, heaping huge additional pressure during an already-stressful time of year, with the children caught helplessly in the middle.
Instead of the joyful December memories we want to help create for our kids everyone ends up having a thoroughly miserable Christmas, the type of which cannot be compensated for by even the most lavish and expensive presents.
We know that the last thing many separating parents think they want is to sit down together and look for common ground. Yet a Parenting Plan is a simple tool and is easier to achieve than many people think. Agreed by both parents, it covers how the children will be supported and cared for and is tailored to the family’s own unique circumstances. It will cover areas including:
Its value is highlighted at this time of the year, as it can help ensure parents agree arrangements that not only suit them both that, crucially, also ensure the child has a positive and enjoyable Christmas.
One way of looking at it is for parents to adopt a festive ‘ABC’ approach:
Accept that, while your own relationship is over, your child’s interests come first this Christmas
Believe this Christmas that both of you can be good parents, even though you live apart
Chart the way ahead, negotiating your way through December differences
Like other Family Law readers mediators are looking forward to Christmas and the break it brings, and we tend to see these things with a slightly different eye to the bulk of the population.
Like many in associated professions, we know the Christmas breather allows us a vital recharge of batteries for the challenges we face on our return. Most significantly, preparing for the fallout from the January hangover that leads to an upsurge in demand for divorce and separation services after Christmas proves the final straw for many strained relationships.
Here’s to a happy Christmas to family law practitioners everywhere: make the most of the respite.