Holiday visitation: loving your child more than you hate the other parent

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.

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  • Well said!

  • California observer

    I’ve been in exactly this situation for six years, and on several occasions my kids’ mother has had me over for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and we’ve behaved well. But I’m not sure it’s an unalloyed blessing, because the kids have learned over the years that their mother is an unpreditable volcano, and they always have some trepidation when she and I are together (those explosions, after all, are the reason we aren’t together any more). I’m not sure if the Potemkin Village show of togetherness is worth giving them the anxiety about a possible disaster on an otherwise fun day.

    Family togetherness and the appearance of amicability is certainly a worthy goal, but the law is not so much about goals as about enforceable laws (so I hear), and I cannot imagine how a court could monitor whether the level of conflict — whether subtle or overt –is worth the extra physical togetherness. Absent a good way of monitoring, it would seem risky to force together parents who have already gone through the enormous effort of a divorce just to NOT be together.

  • It’s certainly a worthwhile idea to propose something like this to those parents who can handle it, but in practice they often work well enough together that none of these things are an overwhelming issue. They’re the type that can share a birthday party or hold two separate ones without considering either an overwhelming issue.

    However, I have a lot of clients who just need distance and clear rules. They can’t be near each other. Sometimes even the passage of time doesn’t make it better. Sure its bad, but one screaming match on Christmas with some tag team from the Grandparents would be worse.

    We now entering a world where divorce is so normal that many families have generations of experience with it. Odd and even Christmases may be normal and acceptable to them.

    Clear, simple rules and distance have a beauty to them I appreciate.

  • mlramsdale

    I encourage my clients to have in agreements that the child will be with the parent the child is regularly scheduled to be with on kids’ bdays and parent bdays. Children don’t need to have their birthday schedule be about the parents. I tell my clients, just celebrate the child’s birthday when the child is with you – this lucky child gets two birthdays. I am all for including the other parent if it doesn’t create more stress for the child, but I don’t think it should be mandated.

  • alma

    nice words thanks allot

  • stacey

    I understand the idea. I think thats an amazing quality to have as a parent. Inevitably, some human beings actions are worth punishment by the law. Child abusers people with diagnosed mental issues, anger problems are definitely a different situation(the list goes on). I feel like if a parent wants to be a whining, miserable, rude annoying person to the childs other parent, that parent will regret it and will see what it can do to their children;anxiety, stress and what not. Which brings us back to the point Gregory Foreman is making. Love your child more than you hate the other parent. Grow up and open your eyes. Be bigger than the other person. After all if they have any sense they wont be able sleep at night of rest their heads on their pillow without apologizing to their kids about how they acted that day. Talk to them and never stop, dont shut your children out or let them ever feel like its their faults or that their alone or un-loved. Point blank. Stick it out dont let your views and experiences hinder your children from everything the other parent has to offer. Im twenty five years young and I truly understand this. I find it sad that people blame other people for the things they say and do. I can imagine that for one to actually go out and do it this for their child is hard and they could find a million exscuse to justify that its a bad idea.. I also feel like this could effect the child negatively at certain ages if the parents argue and bitch in front of the child. But make it ok, make it seem normal and natural and I feel like after awhile the kids will appreciate it and the parents will get better at it. I just have to mention the point of this article again LOVE YOUR CHILD MORE THAN HATE YOU HAVE TOWARDS THE OTHER PARENT. I just hope and pray every child can see both parents on special occasions, holidays and birthdays.
    *”Only in a ‘perfect’ world.”*

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