Plan your Christmas as a divorced parent now!
Yes, it’s just turned November, and there are weeks to go. I know you don’t want to think about the C-word yet. And yes, with England following Wales and Scotland into lockdown you’re unlikely to be feeling jolly. But the key to a smooth, happy Christmas when you’re getting divorced is planning. So you need to plan your Christmas as a divorced parent now.
Plan your Christmas as a divorced parent: the child arrangement order
I’m putting this upfront because it’s urgent! If you need a child arrangement order to ensure your ex sticks to agreements over the children, you need to apply now. You may already be too late for this year, but it’s important to get one in place for the future.
A child arrangement order is a legally binding decision about where your children spend their time. As with all family decisions in divorce, the courts will decide what they think is in the children’s best interests. Be prepared that the court decision might not be your ideal outcome – and you will have to adhere to it.
So if it’s possible to come to a decision with your ex without resorting to a child arrangement order, do it (read the next section for alternatives). But if you’re in a high conflict situation and it’s likely your ex will not abide by an agreement you reach together, you need a child arrangement order. These can take months – but without safeguarding concerns they usually take six-eight weeks. You can find out more about the child arrangement order process here.
Plan your Christmas as a divorced parent: the children
This year Christmas is likely to look very different due to the lockdown measures in place. We can be fairly certain children will still be able to move between parents homes, as long as it is safe to do so.
If you can avoid relying on a Child Arrangement Order, then do. One way or another though, you will need to agree who sees the children when over the Christmas period. There are a few different ways you can do this, each with their pros and cons:
- Set time aside to meet (via zoom if lockdown prevents face to face). This has the advantage of you creating a plan together. The drawback is that you may end up going round in circles or discussion escalating into argument
- Put a proposal together to send to your ex as a starting point. This can be helpful if you put something together that comes across as fair and child-centred. It gives you a starter for discussion, and means you set the tone and direction. On the other hand, there’s a risk your ex sees it as you trying to control the situation and becomes obstructive
- Work with a mediator. Working with an impartial third party is likely to keep the discussion focussed and calmer. It increases the chances of you achieving an outcome you’re both happy with. But you will both need to agree to mediation in the first place – and it costs money.
However you do it, you need a plan. There are many different ways Christmas could work for you – none of them right or wrong. Some families decide that one parent has the children over the Christmas period, then the other has them for the New Year. And swap over the following year. Or you might decide that the children are with one parent on Christmas Day, and the other on Boxing Day. Or even split Christmas Day itself.
As you think about Christmas, put the children at the heart of your decision-making. If they are old enough, seek their opinions. Though you and your ex will need to make the final decision. Make sure you communicate clearly and simply with your children, and let them know that, whatever happens, next Christmas is likely to be different to this one.
Plan your Christmas as a divorced parent: the money
Many people have been hit hard by lockdown. And separation or divorce often leaves parents worse off as well. So if you’re feeling anxious about how to manage the Christmas spending, you won’t be alone.
First of all, remember that money can’t buy happiness. It’s tempting to think that the most magical Christmases have the most extravagant presents, lavish food and high-ticket adventures to see Santa. But often, Christmas can be over-stimulating and stressful, for children as well as adults.
Many of us came out of the first lockdown in spring realising it’s ok to do less. And it’s ok to spend less. So rather than focussing on cramming Christmas with as many presents as possible, think about what (Covid-compliant), low-cost activities you can plan in now. Christmas baking doesn’t need to cost much. A winter walk to gather holly to decorate the house can get the Christmas spirit going for zero cost.
When it comes to spending, the magic is in sticking to a budget. Consider all your Christmas costs – presents, food, decorations, travel (if allowed). Set yourself a realistic budget now if you haven’t already. And make sure you stick to it. By starting now you can spread the cost over weeks, and gradually get what you need without a panicked overspend on 22nd December.
Plan your Christmas as a divorced parent: spoil yourself
When you’re separated or newly divorced, Christmas can be a particularly triggering time. You may be grieving for the perfect Christmas you’d dreamed of before marriage – that never came to pass. You may be mourning happy Christmases of past years, when things were good with your ex. Either way, it’s healthy to acknowledge the sadness. It’s ok to grieve for what you’ve lost.
But it’s also healthy to focus on what you have. What can you celebrate this Christmas? What are you grateful for, despite separation: time with your children, your health, a circle of good friends? I certainly recommend you take a moment to celebrate yourself and your bravery – the decision to divorce is not easy. But you know it will lead to brighter days ahead, however hard things feel right now.
So what do you want and need this over this Christmas period? Take some time now to envision it for yourself. It’s all too easy to lose yourself in a Christmas whirlwind of meeting other people’s expectations: buying unnecessary presents for extended family, creating more ‘magic moments’ for the children, sending cards to people you haven’t seen in decades.
You can decide right now to rewrite your Christmas story this year – on your terms. What do you want Christmas to be like? If you get clear about it now you can make a plan that suits you. You can set aside the time you need for the activities that will bring you happiness. You can eat the food you want to eat rather than slave for hours over a turkey that no one really wants. And you can put your own needs first rather than pleasing everyone else.
Here are some phrases to try on for size:
“I’m not buying gifts this year.”
“I’m not doing the work’s Secret Santa.”
“I’ll be spending Christmas Day on my own in my PJs in front of the TV and I can’t wait.”
“Me and the children are going to the beach on our own.”
Think about what you want and need and plan your next few weeks accordingly. You may love a big turkey, or buying presents for everyone. And that’s absolutely fine too! Just be clear about why you’re doing it. You’re a person too and you have the right to relax and enjoy Christmas just like everyone else.
Plan your Christmas as a divorced parent: time-off your divorce
The divorce process isn’t the most relaxing, is it? So, if you can, take some time off! This isn’t about burying your head in the sand and pretending it’s not happening. It’s about making the decision, now, to get everything in order so you can have a couple of weeks in December when you have a holiday from your divorce.
It’s just like planning to go to Spain for a fortnight. You don’t just disappear off into the sunset. You make sure everyone knows you’ll be gone, and when you’ll be back, you set an autoreply on your email, you clean the fridge out so you don’t come back to mouldering veg and sour milk.
Start to get ready for a Christmas break now. Ensure you’re up to date with correspondence with solicitors or your ex. Be clear about when you are and are not available. Gather paperwork together in files so everything is updated and easy to find. Then you can feel safe to put everything aside for Christmas, knowing it’s all in good order when you’re rested and ready to pick it up again in January.
Feel like you need some support to plan your Christmas as a divorce parent? Want some help making the decisions that are right for you now? That’s what I’m here for. I have years of both legal and coaching experience and expertise to help you make smart choices, for Christmas and beyond.
To see how I can help you master divorce on your terms, just book in a free chat here.
Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is author of the Amazon best selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com