Holidays are by their nature, challenging for divorced and separated parents. The family-focused activities present dilemmas: Which parent will host which activity; which parent will chaperone which event; which parent will have Santa visit? This month can end up feeling anything but festive.
“You couldn’t agree on things when you were married. Now you’ve got to agree to them when you are divorced,” said Edward Farber, a clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor at George Washington University School of Medicine.
Farber has been practicing for more than 30 years and his new book, “Raising the Kid You Love with the Ex You Hate,” (Greenleaf) is poised to be published next month. He said the key for ex-couples navigating the treacherous holidays is to keep focus not on each other, but on the child.
“Divorced parents sometimes think that having their child with them over the holidays is winning. The holidays are for the child, not for scoring points on your ex. Be flexible and responsive to the needs of your child.
“The holiday schedule your child needed when you separated may not be the same holiday schedule that works for her five years later when she is 13.”
In an interview this week, Farber went on to explain in more depth how divorced or separated parents might follow that advice. He also discussed what we have learned culturally about kids and divorce in the years he’s been in practice.
Excerpts of our interview are below:
JD: What are some of the biggest traps divorced and separated parents can fall into during the holidays and how can they be avoided?
EF: Frankly, it’s just hard for your child not to see both of his parents to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza. Spending Christmas with dad because your agreement says that’s what supposed to happen in even numbered years may work for the parents, but it can ignore the needs of your child.
Not seeing a parent at all over the holidays because of an agreement just leaves the child feeling empty and hollow. A pre-scheduled call to mom on the holidays and getting her boatload of presents is great, but spending the holiday away from mom entirely because it’s dad’s year to have the child simply underscores the split in the family.
If both parents are in town, let your child spend some holiday time with each parent. Develop new traditions. Christmas gifts can be opened in the morning in one house and late Christmas day in the other. Hanukkah candles can be lit right after school in one house and before bedtime in the other. Be flexible when it comes to family gatherings. Often when dealing with your ex around the holidays, what goes around one year comes around the next.
JD: What about faith — if the parents are of different faiths, how can conflict be avoided?
EF: Co-parenting means you are not always going to get what you want. But you need to remember this isn’t about you, it’s about your child. You no longer control the values and religious upbringing of your child all of the time. You share this control with your ex, someone you once loved, but now do not.
Create for your child as stable, harmonious and conflict free world as you can. If you practiced two faiths previously, allow that to continue. You have to respect the parenting decisions and values of your ex, even if that includes a religious belief different than yours. The differences in religious beliefs and practices will not create behavioral and emotional difficulties in your child, but conflicts between parents over those differences will cause distress. Tell your child, “Many people practice different religions. Your dad grew up celebrating Hanukkah. Your mom grew up celebrating Christmas. Both are important and all of your family want you to enjoy and celebrate the meaning and traditions of both holidays.”
The bottom line is that when adults fight — whether about Christmas or Kwanza or about organic or non-organic — and when they cannot together set consistent expectations that allow meaningful relationships with both parents, the child suffers.
JD: You have been in practice for more than 30 years. How do you think parents have gotten better at co-parenting? Are there areas where they’ve, in general, gotten worse?
EF: Real co-parenting as the cultural norm is a relatively new practice. Thirty years ago, children generally stayed with their moms and saw their dads on some weekends. Moms did most of the heavy lifting of child rearing and dads were often “Disney Dads” involved in mostly the fun and games activities. Moms made decisions about education, religion, extracurricular activities and social and moral development with dads having input on financial matters or major health issues. Dads often didn’t want or have the day-to-day responsibilities and decision-making roles, especially with young children.
Well, all that has changed. Joint legal custody — where both parents have to agree on major decisions in the child’s life, is the norm. Some forms of joint legal custody — where the child spends significant time living with each parent, are also far more common. But with more joint legal and physical custodial relationships can come more problems.
JD: If a divorced or separated parent were to take away one message from your book, what would you hope it would be?
EF: Co-parenting can promote positive growth and development in your child, even if co-parenting with an ex you hate. After divorce your child needs a meaningful relationship with both parents. She needs to see you and your ex parenting without conflict and together making important decisions in her life. You can effectively parent the child you love with an ex you hate.
Are you coordinating the holidays with an ex this year? What are your strategies?