(As featured in Muddy Stilletos)
With Christmas around the corner, many parents will be thinking about the arrangements for their children this year.
It is fair to say that the magic of Christmas, for most parents, centres on the enjoyment that their children experience over the festive period. From leaving snacks out for Santa and his reindeer on Christmas Eve to waking up (at an often unearthly hour!) to excitable children on Christmas Day, every parent would, in an ideal world, spend every Christmas with their little ones uninterrupted.
For separated parents, that is often not possible. Whilst some do choose to spend Christmas together as a family despite being separated, most have to deal with the unenviable task of dividing up the festive period so that each parent can enjoy at least some Christmas magic with their children. Of course, it is not only each parent who wants to spend time with their children, but wider members of the family too such as grandparents, which can often further complicate matters.
Given the various competing arrangements at Christmas, resolving who your children should be with and when can be very difficult and we often receive enquiries from parents who simply cannot agree.
The starting point in relation to any child arrangements where both parents have parental responsibility is that arrangements should be agreed. Where parents cannot agree and have exhausted options such as mediation to try to help them to agree, either parent could make an application to the court for it to decide on the schedule of care for the child.
With Christmas now less than one month away and our court system severely overburdened, the prospect of having the court decide the issue of Christmas in time for this year has long passed. Whilst there may still be time to use other helpful options such as mediation, most parents will now need to focus on trying to break the deadlock directly with their co-parent.
Here are some top tips for those in that position.
There is no time like the present. As you have probably already experienced, finding arrangements that work for the whole family are likely to result in significant back and forth. Time is running out. Rather than have discussions with your ex-partner via email, consider other options such as a face to face or telephone discussion. With a bit of goodwill, you are likely to be able to cut through matters far quicker than by trying to communicate in writing and, as we all know, it is all to easy to misinterpret emails, which can make things even more difficult.
Rather than focus on what you (or wider members of your family) may want, put yourself in your child’s shoes. Given the choice, most children would want the opportunity to spend time with both of their parents over Christmas. Equally, be mindful of the practicalities of any arrangements. On the basis that young children will likely be up very early on Christmas Day, arrangements under which they are expected to move between homes in the late afternoon/early evening may not be suitable. They will be exhausted. Whilst older children may not struggle with tiredness, they will likely want to relax with full bellies in their new comfies as opposed to getting in the car to travel to their other parent’s house. We have all experienced the Christmas afternoon slump!
Try to put yourself in the other parent’s shoes and think long-term too. What were the arrangements last year? What will the arrangements be next year? Can you break the deadlock by agreeing that, whatever the arrangements are in 2021, they will reverse in 2022 and alternate thereafter? Whilst this may lead to disappointment for one parent in 2021, it will give you the opportunity to plan following years and ensure the run up to Christmas in future is filled with festive cheer and excitement as opposed to difficult discussions.
Many parents agree, for example, that their children shall spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with one parent, followed by Christmas afternoon and Boxing Day with the other parent. This then alternates each year. Other parents decide not to split Christmas Day and instead agree that their children shall spend the 24th and 25th of December with one parent, with the 26th and 27th of December with the other parent, again alternating each year. Arrangements like this are likely to be considered fair and child-focussed by the family court.
Whilst there are many tried and tested schedules for Christmas that we see very often (such as those referenced above), there is no right answer. It is about finding arrangements that work for the whole family and, most importantly, your children. That is what a court would try to do if you and your co-parent were unable to agree, but, ultimately, no one knows your children like you do.
With this in mind, consider other special occasions throughout the year such as birthdays, New Year or Easter. Might it be that your co-parent will agree to your proposed schedule over Christmas if you ensure the children spend New Year and/or Easter with them?
Once you have reached an agreement on what the arrangements should be, record them in writing so that you limit the opportunity for disagreement moving forward. Entering into an agreement such as a parenting plan can be very helpful and assist with promoting trust and confidence between co-parents. Drafting such a document in January can also be very helpful to focus the mind and ensure that the arrangements for the rest of the year, to include the division of the school holidays, are not left until the last minute.
Finally, once you have your agreed arrangements in place, let your children know what the plans are and deliver that in a positive, child-friendly way. All that is left to do then is stick to the plans that have been made and avoid any last-minute changes or time-keeping issues, so that Christmas can be enjoyed by the whole family – and most importantly, the children.
If you have any child arrangement issues that you need help with then please do contact a member of the Family team.