Because holidays and special occasions (such as birthdays) are traditionally a time for families to celebrate together, developing a post-divorce parenting plan for these celebrations can be a very difficult, painful, and contentious aspect of the divorce process. It is a balancing act between doing what is best for the children while simultaneously recognizing each parent’s vital role in their children’s lives, and their natural desire to share these special times with their children.
When parents hire attorneys to represent them in a litigated (contested) divorce, their attorneys, court personnel, and judges take control of the process, so there is little chance for open discussions between the parents. Consequently, there are limited opportunities to explore options, make compromises, and develop creative, flexible, and appropriate holiday schedules. Therefore, many litigated divorce agreements use a “cookie cutter” approach: holidays and special occasions are to be shared “equally and rotationally,” so that the children will be with one parent for a given occasion in odd years, and with the other parent for that same occasion in even years. This option often avoids open conflict between the parents, but it also fails to consider the family’s unique needs and traditions.
Mediation, however, is an inherently creative, imaginative, cooperative and flexible process. Even though the family has been reconfigured by the divorce, mediation encourages and empowers parents to develop a parenting plan that allows both the parents and the children to enjoy holidays and other special occasions with a minimum of stress while preserving prior family traditions, and even creating new ones.
The following pages describe some of the creative options that allow divorced parents to design a customized schedule for sharing holidays and other special occasions with their children. The examples that appear in the discussions below are from actual divorce agreements developed with my clients in my mediation practice.
The primary options to be discussed in detail below are:
(1) Equal and Rotational
(4) Add On
(5) Fall As It May
It is important to note that no single option listed above is “better” than the others, and no single option is preferable for every holiday and special occasion. A good parenting plan will often include a variety of the foregoing options in order to accommodate the different–and changing–needs and circumstances of both the children and the parents.
Regardless of what option(s) you may choose, keep your focus on what is best for your children. Some of the factors to be considered include: travel times to/from holiday destinations; maintaining contact with other family members (grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.); and the importance of preserving certain family traditions. Furthermore, the schedule should be focused on determining the time the children will spend with each parent, not the times when each parent will “have” the children. This is the reason that the term “parenting time” has largely replaced “custody” to describe the time that the children will spend with each parent.
Let’s start with a discussion of the “equal and rotational” option.
EQUAL AND ROTATIONAL:
An “equal and rotational” holiday schedule is the easiest and least contentious option for addressing holidays in a parenting plan. This is the option with which people are most familiar because it frequently is the default option when parents cannot compromise, cooperate, or agree upon a parenting schedule that might challenge a parent’s perceived “right” to spend time with (“have”) the children.
The “equal and rotational” schedule provides that the divorced parents shall alternate each holiday on a two-year (odd/even) cycle. Therefore, the children might be with the Father for Thanksgiving in even years and with the Mother in odd years. For example:
Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving shall be shared equally and rotationally, from Wednesday at 5:00 p.m. until Friday at 5:00 p.m., at which time the normal parenting schedule shall resume. The children shall be with the Father in even years, and with the Mother in odd years.
The beginning and ending times of this holiday (and all other holidays and special occasions) would be established by agreement of the parents. In the example above, the parents could agree that the holiday would end at 5:00 p.m. Sunday in order to allow the parent and the children to spend the holiday with family who live out of state.
When dividing the holidays using the “equal and rotational” option, it is important to divide the holidays as evenly as possible so that neither parent has most or all of the holidays in one year, but few, in any of the holidays the next year. For example, the parenting plan might provide that the children would be with one parent for Easter, but not with that parent for Thanksgiving in the same year.
One of the primary benefits of the “equal and rotational” option is that it reduces conflict between the parents: neither parent feels that their parental role has been diminished, or that they are less important than the other parent. Because holidays are divided equally between the parents, they do not have to compete against each other for time with the children, thus keeping the children from getting caught in the middle between feuding parents.
Another benefit of the “equal and rotational” option is that neither the children nor the parents totally miss out on the precious experiences and memories of spending holidays together. Over the course of its two-year cycle, the “equal and rotational” option allows the children to spend each major holiday with each parent, thus preserving each parent’s own family traditions and maintaining contact with each parent’s other family members. The frequency of spending those holidays with a particular parent has been reduced by half, but it has not been eliminated altogether.
Furthermore, an “equal and rotational” schedule avoids having the children switch between households in the middle of a holiday. These transitions interrupt the children’s activities, and cut short their time with that parent. Therefore, mid-holiday switches are often very stressful for the children, especially because transitions require travel time between households, time to adjust to the second parent (and possibly, that parent’s other family members), and to their separate activities and traditions.
However, although an “equal and rotational” holiday schedule may be the easiest and least contentious way to share holidays after a divorce, there are also some drawbacks to this type of schedule.
Perhaps the biggest drawback to the “equal and rotational” holiday schedule is that it can minimize important family traditions. For example, let’s say that the Father’s family of origin (parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, etc.) has always celebrated Thanksgiving with a huge family gathering, which the Father, Mother and their children attended every year, because the Mother had no such family traditions, no close relatives with whom to share the holiday, and therefore, she was indifferent about celebrating Thanksgiving. With an “equal and rotational” schedule, every other year the children would be with the Mother, who did not do anything special on this holiday. Had they been with the Father, the children would have been able to participate in the Father’s extended family celebration. In such a situation, one of the other options would be more appropriate.
Another drawback to the “equal and rotational” schedule is that the children can spend time with only one parent each holiday, but not with the other parent. This situation often leads to the children’s feeling guilty because they fear that they have “abandoned” the other parent, who may spend the holiday alone. Therefore, if you are the parent with whom the children are not spending the holiday, you should encourage the children’s time with their other parent, and reassure the children that you will be fine on your own. If the children are still concerned about you, remind them that you are looking forward to spending that holiday with them the next year.
An “equal and rotational” holiday schedule is simple, consistent, and balanced between the parents. It also is particularly appropriate with high-conflict parents for whom negotiation and discussion are very challenging. However, mediation allows parents to explore other holiday options that empower the parents to tailor their parenting plan to respect the unique needs and preferences of their family.
In my next post, I will discuss the mechanics, pros, and cons of the “exclusive” option for addressing holidays and special occasions in a parenting plan.
If you have any questions or comments about this article or my mediation practice, or if you have any issues that you would like me to address in a future blog post, please do not hesitate to contact me at: (860) 674-1788 or firstname.lastname@example.org