In the practice of family law, I sometimes have to remind myself that I am a lawyer, not a therapist. I do not have a counseling degree and I am not a mental health specialist, yet there are many times when there seems to be a crossover. This is most apparent when it comes to dealing with the holidays: emotions run high and egos are easily bruised over what is supposed to be the season of goodwill towards all.
When parents are developing a parenting plan, I ask many questions around holidays. I point out that it is best to have the discussion in advance, rather than waiting for the emotions of the season to bubble up. I’m never sure which holidays will be trigger points — I have heard spirited discussions over Halloween. The strongest emotions, however, are often over Christmas. While Christmas may be a major religious holiday for some, the secular Christmas is important to many as well. I remember a couple working collaboratively on scheduling every Jewish holiday; when they had addressed them all, one of the parents said, “What about Christmas?”
Over the years, I have worked with parents on various strategies for dealing with shared parenting. Whether you’re advising clients in family law matters or dealing with some of these issues in your personal life, let’s consider these best practices:
- Put your own ego aside. Make it about the kids. This is not a time to keep score. There is no way to divide the time equally, so decide what is best for the children and work out a plan around that. Be open-minded and ready to think creatively about compromises that can satisfy everyone.
- Consider the rest of the family. While grandparents and extended family are not a part of the legal process, give some consideration to the grandparents, aunts and uncles, and yes, even the step-parents. If Grandma Smith has always gathered the family at her house for a holiday dinner, wouldn’t it be a disservice to deprive the children of that event? Perhaps you can develop a new tradition, such as volunteering as a family at a soup kitchen or shelter.
- Avoid competing over gifts. It really isn’t about who buys the most expensive gifts; quality time is remembered more than the latest electronic device. If money is tight, find new ways of honoring each other. If the other parent has, in your opinion, gone overboard on the gift-giving, be gracious. Don’t try to compete — you are not trying to buy love.
- Don’t get hung up on the calendar. You can have a just-as-wonderful dinner the night before or after a holiday. Or make up a unique, brand-new holiday for you and your family.
- Don’t play the martyr. Your sad face will not endear you to anyone. Find something good and don’t guilt-trip the kids. Talk about the good times you’ve had, or will have when you are together. Find a way to do something without the kids when they are with the other parent.
- Don’t put your adult children in the middle. It is not unusual for an adult child to host the gathering with the expectation that both parents and their significant others will attend — and be gracious. Try it. It really can work.
If you find yourself alone for the holidays, it is equally important to plan some personal strategies to stay positive.
- Have a gigantic self-care day. This can range from a massage and spa day to a stay-in-your-pajamas-and-read day. Stock up on comfort food, DVDs and books, or whatever makes you feel luxurious. One client recommended going for Chinese food and a movie.
- Adopt another family. One of my clients found a family in her neighborhood that was unable to fly home to their family. She “adopted” them and became their unofficial grandma. Be open to joining others at their celebration. Put the word out to your spiritual community or even business associates; you may be truly surprised what turns up. Many people like to include unrelated individuals to the family celebration, because it makes the rest of the family behave better.
- Don’t force yourself to socialize. If you truly want to be alone, it’s okay to give yourself permission. But make it a conscious choice. This could be a perfect day to start a new tradition just for you: write a letter or journal entry about the year that is coming to a close, create a list of personal goals for the coming year, or write some affirmations to remind yourself of all the positives in your life.