If you have separated during the last 12 months and you and your family are heading towards your first Christmas as a newly separated family, you and your former spouse may not yet have had a discussion about Christmas arrangements for your children. It may not have come up, you may not know how to raise the conversation, or you may just prefer to ignore it (don’t ignore it).
Even if you separated over 12 months ago, it can still be one of those tricky times of year that is not quite resolved and has a lot of emotion, tradition and sentiment attached.
And so, I really encourage you to start that conversation now – doing so will give you and your former spouse enough time to negotiate and compromise arrangements that you are all satisfied with, and which provide you and your former spouse plenty of quality time with the kids during this Christmas holiday period.
As you start to consider what arrangements should be made, remember that there are 6 weeks in the long school holidays and significant days include Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Years Eve and New Years Day, Australia Day – there may even be a birthday or two.
Before you raise the matter with your spouse, however – here are some things to consider:
- What is important to you?
- What do you think may be important to the children?
- What do you think will be important to your former spouse?
Based on these answers, what things are important to both of you, or only one of you?
What options you can propose to your former spouse that may satisfy these things?
For Christmas itself, there are many issues that you may find useful to consider, including:
- Are the children old enough to express a view about what they want to do? Have they expressed a view to you or your former spouse?
- If the children are very young, what is their usual day-to-day routine? Do you usually disrupt this routine for special occasions or maintain it?
- How and when does your family celebrate Christmas? And is this the same, or different to how your former spouse and their family celebrate Christmas?
- Whether your family celebrates with Christmas lunch or dinner, what time does that usually start and finish? And is it on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or Boxing Day?
- Do your respective families live relatively close or is there a big distance to travel (whether intrastate or interstate?) – and how will this impact on the time the children spend with either you or your former spouse?
- Is Christmas Eve more significant than Christmas Day to one family?
- What were the arrangements last year? If your respective families alternate Christmas, whose “turn” is it this year?
- Are there family members or loved ones for whom this may be their last Christmas?
- Do you want to alternate Christmas periods each year, or split the day – which will cause the least amount of stress to you, your children and your former spouse?
Remember that Christmas falls every year. An arrangement that alternates each year can be a useful solution.
For the school holiday period itself, give some practical thought to your work commitments and your former spouse’s work commitments – if either or both of you are in paid employment, how much leave do you each have – can you use it to share the care of the children? Can you speak with each other about how to juggle the long school holidays? Will you use vacation care or can a family member or friend help with childcare if you need to work? Who will pay for the care? How old are the children and how long will they cope with being away from you or your former spouse (for younger children, smaller blocks of time might be more appropriate than long periods). Will the children spend any length of time with a grandparent or other family member?
These are all important factors to take into account. Parenting is a juggle. Sometimes it can be harder to juggle when you have separated, but with some effective communication, I hope you can work out an arrangement that fits with your unique family structure.
What if you try to talk about the holiday period with your former spouse and they aren’t willing to negotiate or communicate with you? What do you do? Is the position your former spouse taking completely unreasonable? Is there any compromise possible? How about for next year?
Or are you stuck in an unworkable position?
You may have noticed some family lawyers are suggesting you urgently make your application to the Family Law Courts for parenting orders. They may tell you that if you miss the filing deadline, there’s no guarantee you will get a Family Court hearing before Christmas.
Sadly, at this time of year, there can be a last minute rush to have parenting applications heard by the Family Law Courts for the Christmas school holiday period before the Court imposed deadline in November.
Asking the court to decide where your children will spend Christmas and/or the holidays should be a last resort, except for cases where children are at risk of harm.
Rather than rushing off to Court (which I am certain won’t create a happy time for you, your children or your former spouse, either in the short or long term) I really encourage you to consider whether your disagreement (or inability to communicate) about parenting and custody issues can best be resolved with the help of a wise and trusted family member or friend who can be be independent and unbiased enough to help you both negotiate; or perhaps attending mediation or family dispute resolution is the right solution.
In mediation or dispute resolution, you and your former spouse are the ones who make the decisions about what the best arrangements are for your children – you have the opportunity to talk to each other and raise your views, with the help of an independent third person.
You and your spouse can talk about the things that are really important to both of you, and your children, in greater depth and detail than a judge will be able to consider in a busy courtroom, in a short timeframe.
One way to encourage your spouse to attend mediation or family dispute resolution with a positive mind-set is to say something along the lines of “Christmas is really important to us both and it’s clear we are having difficulty discussing and agreeing together so I have asked someone to help us , you will receive a call from [insert name of mediator here]”.
Doesn’t that sound much better than “I’m taking you to mediation?”.
I truly believe the best decisions are the ones made away from the family law courts, and by parents who are focussed not only on what is best for their children, but who are also focussed on a healthy future for the whole family.
Megan Sweetlove is a divorce lawyer and the owner of Sweetlove Family Law. Based in Crafers in the Adelaide Hills and also with consulting rooms just outside Adelaide CBD, Megan has worked with families who are experiencing separation and divorce for the past 10 years and is committed to assisting her clients find respectful outcomes to their separation, away from the Court process and with a focus on having a healthy future.
If you or someone you know needs assistance during divorce you can organise a complimentary 20 minute phone appointment with Megan here.
If you are considering separation or have recently separated, and you want to maintain your privacy, you may wish to clear your browsing history now if you are reading this article on your phone or work computer and other people have access to it on a regular basis.