visitation and the holidays – practical tips

The holidays are rapidly approaching.  They can be joyous events or they can be the worst time of the year if you are in or recently completed a custody battle.  One of my readers, who has experience in these matters, has some great ideas on how to begin to heal the wounds and provides some good practical tips for the holidays:

Non-Wicked Step-Parenting For A Harmonious Family Life

My husband and I have a yours, mine and ours family.  I have sole custody of my two kids, ages six and eight.  We have a four year old together, and my husband has an eight year old son, also.  When he received primary custody of his son, it was the beginning of November.  That’s right before the holidays, and he and his ex-wife were not on friendly terms at all.  That holiday season was very hard on all of us; none of us was willing to be cooperative, or even civil, with each other.  We all became angry and argumentative over the smallest details of the custody order.

Five years later, we’ve learned a thing or two about working together and getting along.  Since then,  I’ve become the main person responsible for communicating with his ex-wife.  She and I get along well now.  So, I don’t mind being the middle woman, because our whole family is a lot happier when we don’t have any disputes over my step-son.

For all you newly divorced or separated parents out there, I know how stressful and sad it is to face the holidays with a court ordered schedule that’s probably not what you want.  In fact, you may be dreading negotiating the court-ordered holiday schedule.  You may be feeling a sense of loss over the idea of not having your child on the actual holiday.  Perhaps you wish that your ex would be open to some flexibility in the holiday (or even the regular) schedule.  The good news is that, by exercising a few simple strategies of kindness and consideration, you can greatly increase the likelihood that your ex will work cooperatively with you!  The following are some things I’ve learned over the last five years of navigating the Standard Possession Order alongside my husband.

1. Be the bigger person.

One of the hardest parts of sharing custody, at least in the beginning, is being nice to your ex. This is especially true if your ex is not so nice to you.  Nothing brings about bad blood like a custody battle, and if your separation is recent, you and your ex are probably still harboring a lot of anger and resentment toward each other.  At this point, it doesn’t really matter who’s right and who’s wrong; each  of you believes that you are right and neither of you is likely to change your mind about that.  And that’s irrelevant to the matter at hand; there is always more than one side to a story.  But if you want to make any progress toward getting your ex to agree to a change in the holiday schedule (or even the regular visitation schedule), you’re just going to have to let go of being right and be the bigger person.

Don’t engage in any arguing, accusing or nit-picking with your ex.  Be calm, polite and fair with your ex, no matter how much he or she may try to provoke you or how upset you may be with him or her.  If you don’t feel that you can be the bigger person right now, consider asking someone else to be the bigger person in your place; to be your “point person”.  Perhaps your new spouse/significant other or a relative can do pick up or drop off, or take calls from your ex.  This was my role in the beginning because they just couldn’t get along.  Now it’s just out of habit.

Turn these transactions with your ex into friendly, positive experiences during which small talk can take place and little tidbits about your child can be shared.  A cute story about something your child did or a quick overview of your child’s weekend goes a long, long way toward making the other parent see you (or your designated “point person”) as an ally and feel included.  If having a “point person” makes it easier for these positive exchanges to take place, then go for it!

2. Make a peace offering.

Once you and your ex reach at least a semi-peaceful relationship, it’s time to make a peace offering.  If you want your ex to work with you on occasional schedule changes, you need to demonstrate your willingness to cooperate and follow through with an agreement.  Whether you’re the custodial or non-custodial parent, find a little leeway in your visitation schedule to offer the other parent a “freebie”.  Maybe you can offer to drop your child off at a time when your ex would normally have to pick her up, or offer to meet your ex halfway if you don’t live near each other.  You might offer to let your ex pick your child up early, drop him off a little later, or allow your ex to take your child for a couple of hours on a special occasion.

Personally, I’ve invited my husband’s ex to our other kids’ birthday parties, I’ve taken my stepson to her children’s birthday parties, I’ve dropped in on her with my stepson when we just happened to be in the area anyway, and I’ve met her at various times and locations convenient to her.  I really don’t mind; the person who benefits the most from all my efforts is my stepson!

Make your peace offering something that your ex will appreciate, and then follow through with it.  This will demonstrate your ability to be reasonable and cooperative, and will prove that you keep your word.  Your ex will remember that and be more likely to return the favor.  In fact, give yourself a two or three “freebie” head start before you ask your ex to return the favor; especially if you are the custodial parent.  If you are the custodial parent, bear in mind that the non-custodial parent may resent your asking for even a small change to the schedule and may view it as a ploy to shortchange them out of some of their time with your child.  Keep the balance between “freebies” and requests slightly generous in your ex’s favor as a gesture of good will.

3. Ask humbly and you are more likely to receive.

When an occasion does come up where you want to ask your ex for a change to the schedule, ask well in advance and remember to ask politely!  Don’t demand or throw all of your “freebies” in his face as if he now owes you a favor.  A simple, humble, “Next month is such-and-such.  Would you mind if I picked Junior up a little early that day?” is all you need.  Don’t get angry or discouraged if your ex immediately says no; just let your ex know that you understand how important her visitation is, and you’re not trying to take that away from her, but it’s a special occasion and you would really appreciate it if she would consider your request.  You might give your ex some time to think about it and get back to you later.  You could also offer an even exchange; if you give me two extra hours, I’ll give you two extra hours.

The two most important points to remember are to mind your manners and not lose your temper!  Don’t blow all of your hard work in building a cooperative relationship by spouting off an angry or rude retort!  The minute you revert back to a hostile attitude, all or most of your progress will be lost and you’ll be right back where you started.  For example, I know of a father, and custodial parent, (ahem) who once negotiated with his ex-wife for several extra days with their son over the holidays, but became angry and rude with her when she decided that she wanted one more day before sending their son back home.  Naturally, she responded angrily and retracted her agreement.  Don’t let this happen to you.  Be willing to compromise and be appreciative of your ex’s cooperation.

4. Think outside the Standard Possession Order.

Whether you’re the custodial parent or the non-custodial parent, get on your ex’s good side by looking for non-traditional ways for your child to have contact with his other parent from your home.  Do you and/or your ex play video games online?  Let your child (if she or he is old enough) and your ex play online together.  You could allow your child to use your cell phone to send text or picture messages to her other parent, send emails from your account or chat via video conferencing.  My stepson especially loves online gaming with his mom and texting!

If you’re not equipped for some of those options, you can still have your child draw pictures to take to his other parent, write letters and mail them, or even send post cards.  Do you have a toddler or preschooler in day care?  If so, you may be familiar with the communication forms most day cares send home detailing your child’s day or week; you could also borrow that idea and keep a similar log of your young child’s activities to send to his other parent.

Facilitating communication between your child and her other parent this way not only racks up brownie points for yourself, but it benefits your child as well.  It sends the message that loving the other parent is ok and not a disloyalty to you.  Helping your child stay connected to your his other parent makes him feel happy, and using technology, especially, to do so makes your child feel cool and important.  Who doesn’t want that for their child?

5. Share your child virtually.

And speaking of brownie points, it never hurts to garner your ex’s alliance with photo-updates of your child.  Your ex will appreciate knowing what your child is doing, and seeing pictures of her smiling and having fun.  While you should always tread carefully where social networking websites are concerned, you can send pictures through email.  If frequency or file size are of concern, photo sharing websites are a great alternative to email.  Also, if you’re a blogger, you might consider sharing your blog with ex.  Of course, you should exercise the same precautions with your blog as you would with social media.

If all this seems like a bit much, you can use good, old fashioned snail mail or hand delivery to send pictures, samples of school work and other information.  The main thing is to include and inform your ex about your child is doing when they’re with you.  Wouldn’t it be great to receive the same from your ex?

Peace, At Last

One of the hardest parts of sharing custody is having some empathy for your ex, who loves and misses your child as much as you do.  In dealing with custody and visitation issues, it can be helpful to remember that these issues stem from the fact that you both love your child very much and because of that, this is just as painful for your ex as it is for you.  Fortunately, it’s within your power to make the situation easier by employing a little kindness and consideration.

It won’t happen overnight.  It took me the better part of year to win my stepson’s mother’s cooperation, and it was probably close to another year on top of that before she and my husband were on good terms.  So, don’t get discouraged; it’s definitely a process, but it pays off

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5 Responses to visitation and the holidays – practical tips

  1. Irene Garcia November 5, 2010 at 9:02 am #

    Wonderful article! Sure wish I’d had some of these tips 30 years ago when my husband and I had to deal with some of the very same problems. It really does take time and practice to stop the bad manners involved that seem to take over when having to agree to schedules for visitation. Your child’s feelings are the most important part of all of the negotiations. Children observe and sense the interactions, so yes, keep them civil and on a positive track. Thanks again for this article.

  2. Victoria Garcia November 17, 2010 at 10:18 am #

    Also would like to add that parents could invite each other and/or their children over for fun holiday activities, if you’re at that point where you are able to kind to each other. Even if you’re not quite there yet, an invitation to spend more time with your child can do wonders to thaw out the other parent, whether they accept the invitation or not.

    Last year, my step-son’s mom and I got together at her house and made Christmas tree ornaments with the kids using salt-dough. When they were done, we let the kids color them with markers. My step-son really enjoyed having all of his siblings together under one roof!

  3. Jennifer Driewer June 22, 2011 at 5:06 pm #

    I had this issue exactly!!!! Was so horrible!

  4. world wide web August 9, 2011 at 4:11 am #

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