If you're a dad sharing custody after a divorce, birthdays and holidays can be tough, especially in the early days. But fathers, take heart. As each year passes, you and your family will become more comfortable with the new family structure and will create new rituals and ways to enjoy special times together.
Some families choose to spend holidays all together, even after the divorce. Usually this doesn't happen right away, but after a few years and time for healing, some parents are able to put aside their differences and enjoy time spent together with their kids. Some even blend in new partners and children.
First, after you and your wife separate, you should make a basic parenting agreement. Make sure your parenting agreement covers where the kids will spend birthdays and holidays and how the two of you will negotiate any changes. Without a plan, you leave a lot of room open for arguments with your ex -- and disappointments for your kids. Here are some other tips for making birthdays and holidays pleasant for everyone concerned.
1. Be Flexible
Where your children are concerned, the best present you can give your child is to head off conflict about special days like birthdays and holidays. The collaborative rule for you in this situation is adjust your agreements to fit your kids' needs.
For example, if the kids express a strong desire to spend a holidays or birthday with your ex, understand the importance of allowing them to do just that, regardless of whose time it is "officially."
2. Be Proactive and Plan Ahead
Always keep in mind that your new family arrangements require much more planning than when everyone was living under the same roof. One way to avoid disappointment is to communicate early and often with the children and your ex. Give your children's mom plenty of time to think about your proposals and to respond. And keep in mind that pushiness usually produces more resistance than cooperation.
3. Be Kind and Generous
Especially during holidays, keep any bitterness you still feel over the divorce between you and your ex. If you can't say anything nice, just smile. Avoid putting the children in the awkward position of taking sides. Be as generous as you can with your kids about their relationships with their ex and the rest of the family. Encourage them to talk about the gifts they received and activities they engaged in with other family members they see over the holidays. Let them know they can show happiness with both parents. Help your children shop for the other parent, as well as their siblings, grandparent, or stepparent.
4. Keep Your Word
Be particularly careful to follow through on whatever promises you make related to the holidays. It's extra important to keep promises to your kids around holiday times -- the holidays are a big deal for kids.
5. Include the Kids In Your Planning
Whenever it's reasonable, let your children help make the choices about when and where to celebrate the holidays, and with whom. However, before asking their opinions, make it clear that all plans must be cleared with everybody involved. This will help teach your kids to be part of the collaboration between you and your ex.
6. Create Two Holidays or Birthdays
Having two holiday or birthday celebrations for the children -- one at your house, one at Mom's -- is often a positive solution for extended families. Just make sure that the plans you make are collaborative and that they are made well in advance. This arrangement reinforces for the kids that they have two homes and cements new family rituals and holiday customs.
7. Avoid the Indulgence Trap
Many divorced parents, especially dads, are still reeling from their personal hurt and guilt over the divorce. They may be overwhelmed by these feelings and respond to the children's pain with too much money or too many gifts. Try to stay away from this unhealthy dynamic with your kids.
8. Take Care of Yourself If You're Alone
Holiday time can trigger a resurgence of memories and melancholy feelings, especially if you are surrounded by couples and families. As holidays or birthdays approach, if you know you're not going to get to see your kids, be sure to make your own special plans for the day.
9. Build New Family Traditions
Divorced parents, especially dads, often make the mistake of trying to duplicate exactly the pre-divorce family traditions, but you'll be much happier and more satisfied if you create your own traditions for your new family.
10. Nurture Your Blended Family at the Holidays
If you remarry or get into a committed relationship and your new partner has children, they will undoubtedly have their own ideas about how to celebrate holidays and birthdays. Discuss with your new partner ways that you can bring together the children from both sides of the family, and get all the kids involved with planning what you'll do together and incorporating everyone's traditions.
Birthdays and holidays are special times for you and your kids. Communicate clearly and stay calm and flexible, and your extended family will have something to celebrate.
For more about fathers and parenting after divorce, see Being a Great Divorced Father, by Paul Mandelstein (Nolo). And to learn how to create a win-win parenting agreement, get Building a Parenting Agreement That Works: How to Put Your Kids First When Your Marriage Doesn't Last, by Mimi E. Lyster (Nolo).