It would probably have been sensible to write a piece about agreeing arrangements for the festive season in September, or maybe even August. Deciding then how children divide their time when they are off school and celebrations for Christmas or Hanukah, builds in enough time to apply to the court to resolve matters if all else fails. In reality, things do not pan out in that way, and it is in November that people's thoughts start to turn to the practicalities of how to divide the holidays and it is not too late to try to grapple with the arrangements if they are still undecided. But if you do not have time for a court application and cannot agree the arrangements, how can you tackle this?
Christmas is an emotive time and especially so if it is the first one for a separated family who have traditionally spent Christmas together in previous years. For one parent, they will be facing the prospect that they might not be there for their favourite parts of the celebration. Even when you have done it a few times, it can still feel like a bleak exposé of your new reality.
The important thing at this stage – as it is with all matters festive – is not to panic and to take stock. If there has not been any discussion about where the children are going to be, raise the issue now, as communication is key. Think through what methods of communication work best for you and your former partner. If email or text messages have led to misunderstandings in the past, then agree a time to discuss matters face-to-face or on the phone. It is also important to avoid having the discussion in front of the children or involving them in the negotiations.
If direct discussions are not feasible, then consider the possibility of mediation or having a round table discussion involving your solicitors. Mediation lends itself perfectly to the resolution of this type of dispute, which is often one of practicalities rather than of legal issues, as it allows for a discussion to take place in a cost effective way, including the exchange and evolution of ideas.
When approaching discussions with your former partner or mediation, the children need to be the centre of the discussion and the plans. But, what else should you bear in mind at this stage? Here are some suggestions of ways in which the discussions can be made easier:
- As the holidays are also going to be different for the children, it is important to think through what they might want and need. Quite often, children want to make sure that everyone else is going to be ok so that if they will be with one parent, they will want to know that the other parent is not on their own or unhappy. Give thought to how, as parents, you can reassure them, whatever the eventual outcome of the discussions.
- Think through the logistic challenges that sharing the children's time presents and plan very carefully for how handovers will work and where. If both parents will be staying with family at other ends of the country, this dictates how the children will need to divide their time. However, if both parents are living or staying within walking distance of each other, it becomes simpler for the children to wake up in one household and go to bed in another, if this is what will work best for them.
- Try to see Christmas as not just one or two key days but a week (if not longer) in which the children can spend time with both parents. The excitement children feel in the days leading up to Christmas can be used to the advantage of separated parents, giving you the opportunity to make this part of the holidays as important for the children as Christmas itself. Focus on the dates and be clear about when the children will break up from school and when they will go back to school. Plot the proposed arrangements day by day on a calendar so that everyone can visualise what has been suggested. This is often a useful exercise to undertake within a mediation session to enable both parties to focus on what the arrangements will be in practice.
- Plan long-term. If it is agreed that the children will be with one family this year, can it be agreed that the arrangements work in reverse in the following year? Alternatively, think about whether, if the children have spent Christmas with one parent, perhaps it can be agreed that they spend Easter with the other.
- Be prepared to compromise. Before going into the discussions think through the issues on which you could accept an alternative and the things that you consider to be set in stone. Ultimately, you, as parents, are the only people who can agree on an outcome that everyone can live with. Even if the agreement is not necessarily the result that you might have wanted at the outset of discussions, bear in mind that any decision imposed on you by a judge would be far more difficult to accept and to explain to the children.
- Finally, as if it was not tricky enough to try to agree the practicalities of how the children divide their time, try to agree what presents the children might receive from each family. In addition, it is sensible to have a discussion about what traditions you might want to both follow, or to support the other in following, with the children.
The discussions will not be easy but they are important to ensure that children have peace of mind and are clear in what the plans for their holidays will be.