Separated Families at Christmas

For many Christmas is a time of relaxation, good food and good family company. Finally a chance to catch up with loved ones after a busy completed year. But for others it signals a logistical and emotional nightmare, as shared contact between separated families is managed. If a negotiated plan is not in place, disagreement and conflict between ex-partners can cause Christmas to be a time of anxiety and frustration, in which inevitably the child is caught in the middle of.

So how can this situation be managed and the stress minimised as much as possible? I can only share our experiences in managing this time with my eldest son’s biological family. When I first became his step-Mum, there was no formal plan in place for the care of him over the Christmas time. Furthermore, his birthday was two days after Christmas, which made it an even more concentrated time of anxiety, as it felt like we had to have a highly concentrated period of contact with his biological family than we would normally have. This said, initially, my husband would simply agree with his ex-partner to her requests, in order to keep the peace and avoid any unpleasantness for our son. But this also meant that our son did not experience Christmas with one half of his family, which was a significant loss for him in terms of his childhood. So, as many parents would try, we began to look for a middle ground……a way to carve up the day so that it had some air of fairness and so that our son could feel he was experiencing how both sides of his family celebrated the day. This was always a cause of great stress in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day. What was deemed ‘fair’ was always from varying perspectives, and when having to deal with an ex-partner with their own agenda, this made for a worrying time. It created conflict between myself and my husband, as we debated how to manage the communication around the time. And this was before we had even begun our holiday!

Despite plans being agreed to, the greatest source of stress was the inevitable contact with my sons biological family on the day. Where most of the year we tried to void any concentrated form of the family, suddenly we were having to collect our son from a place where the entire family had congregated! We all had to be nice and pleasant at the point of pick up……despite the preceding disagreements and arguments from throughout the year. It was all about ensuring our son didn’t cotton on to any animosity between his loved ones.

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What made the pick ups and drop offs even harder, however was dealing with the ex-partners inability to be on time. More often than not, we were spending much our Christmas Day waiting. Waiting to have lunch as we waited for our son to arrive and be apart of it…….or waiting for our son to get his things ready as we picked him up, despite knowing of the time we were due to arrive. Or waiting for a phone call to pick up our son which came an hour or two hours after the agreed time. A relaxing Christmas did not seem quite the same. Instead we always had one eye on the clock……and a knot in our stomach knowing we would need to be managing contact at some point in the day.

Another trickle-on effect in having to manage contact between two separated families over this time, is the limitation this puts in being able to travel away to visit other family out of town. In the initial years of becoming a step-parent, this meant if I wanted to spend time with my husband, son and young daughter, it meant my parents had to travel to us, and not vice versa. They lived a five hour drive away and we were not able to do what many families could by saying ‘we’re spending Christmas away’ this year. It became 3 families to juggle….not the usual two. And it was the third family that would have the most to say if they got to miss out on seeing their son/grandson over this holiday time. And while I tried hard for it not to bother me, it did. A family I would have nothing to do with, or nothing in common with, other than my love for their biological son/grandson, were dictating to me when I could see my own family at Christmas time. While I didn’t make this an issue to anyone on the outside, it certainly stewed and stirred on the inside!

The best thing we ever did as a family was create an agreement thought the Family Court. For most people this is a daunting thought – to go to court. But as someone who has come out the ‘other side’ I could, without a doubt, state I would do it again. This process resulted in a very transparent and fair agreement on the arrangements for both Christmas and birthday contact…..and went further to ensure other holidays, such as Easter, long weekends, Mothers Day and Father’s Day etc were explicitly understood. And there were inevitable consequences if one or the other party refused to follow the agreement. Yes, it was expensive, and yes, the stress was excruciating. But what followed was far less stress over the time that mattered.

A further preventative strategy we employed to avoid the anxiety at the point of picking up and dropping off our son was to ensure we were the one doing the transporting. We offered to drop off AND pick up. This meant we footed the bill for the petrol, and the time spent in a car on Christmas Day…….but it also meant we had control over the time. We were able to minimise down our ‘wait’ time, as we were not left wondering when our son was ever going to arrive. And when contact was particularly strained between my husband and his ex-partner, we employed the assistance of family members who were happy to do the drop and pick up for us. We chose family who we knew would not engage in conflict or would not be confrontational, and that would, at all times, be mindful of the ears and eyes watching the change-over. Someone that would ensure our son would continue to be protected from adult conflict. (This usually meant someone of whom the ex-partner was a little intimidated by). All we then waited on was a text to say he had been collected and was on his way. We could breathe easy and look forward to the remainder of our Christmas Day.

So if you find yourself having to manage these additional stresses at the holiday time, it is well worth looking into creating a more formalised and structured agreement between the parties involved. When it is clear and spelt out on paper, it is far less likely to be argued with. If you find yourself having to wait or be inconvenienced unduly, try to become proactive, offering to do the transporting yourself. And in a worst-case situation, look for support within your immediate family – have someone available to assist with the pick ups to minimise your stress, and ultimately any trickle-on effect to your children. These are just some ways we have found got us through potentially stressful moments over the holiday season when managing separated families.

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