Last year, shortly before imposing a criminal contempt sentence on a mother who had repeatedly and blithely interfered with my client’s visitation, the judge asked her: “Do you love your child more than you hate the other parent?” I have practiced family law for sixteen years, yet the question was initially shocking and I continue to ponder it when I reflect upon my past and think about my present custody disputes. While no parent would answer that question out loud with a “no,” too often parents in custody disputes act in a manner that suggests otherwise. Nowhere is this more apparent than the three days that create more custody conflict than any other: Christmas, Thanksgiving and the child’s birthday. These are the days when family seems most important, both to parents and to children. Yet we force children and allow parents to divide family on these days because the law does not demand that parents get along with each other on these days.
The family court almost uniformly alternates those three days: giving one parent Christmas, Thanksgiving or the child’s birthday in even numbered years and the other parent that same day in odd numbered years. However, if there are three days in a year when, I suspect, most children would like to see their parents together and getting along it would be those three days. I suggest that parents who truly love their children more than they hate the other parent might find a way to be civil and together with the other parent on those three days.
Numerous studies show that it is not merely the fact of divorce that generates psychological distress for children, but, more importantly, how the child’s parents handle the post-separation conflict that determines the child’s level of distress. Parents who are incapable of being together and civil to each other three days a year fail to love their child more than they hate the other parent.
The family court can shape as well as reflect expectations. In my 16 years of practice I have observed shifts from routinely granting fathers every-other-weekend visitation to routinely granting them more visitation. I have observed a shift from ignoring the effects of secondhand smoke around children to concern over secondhand smoke. The family court could create a similar shift on expectations over Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthday visitation by merely changing its order from alternating the right to have the child on these days to the right to host the child these days, with the expectation that both parents could be together with the child these days. I could even envision a culture in which family and friends of divorced parents know that they have to invite both parents to a Christmas or Thanksgiving celebration if they want either parent to attend because the culture’s understanding is that this is how separated parents spend these holidays.
I acknowledge that an order requiring estranged parents to be together and civil three times a year could lead to Jerry Springer levels of animosity and conflict. However, I sometimes ponder that people rise or fall to meet expectations and if the law’s expectation was that they learn to get along on these three days they might surprise us. Further the law would communicate to parents (and their children) that we expect parents to act mature and get along when it is “family” time.
Some of my favorite custody clients were parents who were willing to include the other parent on big family events. Such graciousness communicated love to the child and demonstrated maturity. Too often parents in custody cases communicate hate and demonstrate immaturity and later complain that they are paying a therapist when the child reaches middle school. I would encourage all my custody clients (and any parent reading this blog) to consider including the other parent in their Christmas celebration; your child just might think better of you and I would think that trying to be a peacemaker on Christmas captures the true meaning of the holiday.