Q: I'm a recently (11 months ago) divorced dad of a 9-year-old girl. Our custody arrangement is for her mother and me to alternate holidays. My divorce was amicable and my daughter has been doing very well this year. This is supposed to be my year having her for Christmas (her mom has Christmas Eve). But my daughter has been asking if she can please have Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with her mother. I understand that this first Christmas apart is difficult for her, and I'm willing to sacrifice my time if it's in her best interests. Should I give up Christmas with her? Or is this the time to hold this boundary?
A: First, thank you for having an amicable divorce and making your daughter’s emotional needs a priority. I know that not every parent is able to do this, but children thrive and avoid significant emotional trauma when their parents are able to cooperate and compassionately communicate.
This is tricky, because you want to satisfy your child’s desires. She wants to be with her mother on Christmas, and it is normal for children to want both of their parents present on a big holiday. And maybe you feel a little guilty about splitting holidays. Your mind tells you it’s not your daughter’s fault that she cannot have her mom on Christmas, and you want to make her feel better about this divorce. These are normal feelings for a newly separated family. You want your daughter to be happy and say you are willing to “sacrifice” for her happiness. And maybe that is the right option, but let’s look at some other factors you need to consider.
Your family is new to co-parenting, and you are going to run into a million small and big decisions like this one. On one hand, you want to honor your daughter’s feelings and make her feel emotionally and physically safe. But on the other hand, you cannot let all the parenting authority, rules and boundaries go because you and her mother are no longer married.
When co-parenting, upholding boundaries and established agreements is just as important as having a compassionate connection. While it may feel good for everyone concerned when you allow your daughter to stay with Mom for Christmas (daughter gets what she wants, Dad doesn’t feel guilty, Mom sees daughter for Christmas), it could start to create some real problems.
If your 9-year-old thinks that whenever she wants to change the agreement for a significant date, she can request that and make it happen, this gives her a lot of power. She may not be aware of the consideration, thought and time you and her mother put into creating this schedule (nor should she be aware of those things, that’s not her responsibility). But she will learn that this schedule is flexible, and can be shifted based on her feelings and desires. Here are the issues that schedule changes can introduce:
1. Your daughter may feel free to shift many or all of the previously agreed upon schedules if you grant this request for an important holiday, leaving your co-parenting life feeling more like improv theater than a structured agreement. Let a Christmas slide, and your daughter may think other dates could be just as easily changed.
2. You may start to feel resentful if your daughter appears to prefer one parent over the other. For instance, you may currently understand that she wants to see her mother on Christmas, but what about spring break? Summers? Will you be as understanding about those dates? Moving your boundaries too much weakens her expectations of predictability, strengthens her ability to call the shots and can quickly build bad blood in the family, especially between you and your ex.
3. Moving this date so early in the separation doesn’t allow your daughter to get used to the idea that she will have to split her time. Sure, she may understand the idea conceptually, but she hasn’t yet grieved and accepted the divorce and what has changed as a result. As her parent, of course you don’t want her to grieve, be sad, miss the other parent, or cry. But you cannot co-parent without some tears. The very idea of separation means that there is a loss, and it cannot be avoided. It is best to help her walk into the grief with support, understanding and plenty of compassion, as well as some creativity. Support and compassion don’t often look like completely changing your schedule.
As much as I love boundaries, I also believe in being reasonable and kind. So are there other choices that will allow you to uphold the boundary while honoring your daughter’s wish? Could Mom come over in the morning to open gifts and have a little coffee and breakfast? Can you stop by Mom’s house in the afternoon?
Yes, you are splitting the holiday, but unless there are conflicting stipulations in your custody agreements, you can choose to be civil and understanding. You can decide to celebrate the day together, even for a little bit. If you feel that your daughter is showing signs of depression, anxiety or trouble at school, you may want to consider moving the boundaries, but since you don’t mention any red flags of these kinds of problems, proceed with your boundaries while keeping an open mind. Good luck and happy holidays.