The holidays are a time where most everyone focuses on their kids – getting their pictures taken with Santa, making Christmas cookies and homemade ornaments, and shopping for presents (my favorite part obviously because it involves shopping). If you ask most parents what was the best day of their lives, they answer the day their child or children were born. Now that I am a parent, I can absolutely agree with this statement because my daughter is literally the best thing that has ever happened to me.
When great parents are in the midst of a divorce or custody dispute, they can somehow be transformed into controlling and vengeful individuals who use their children as pawns against the other. They tell their children too much about “adult business,” and blame the other parent to the extent that the child begins to view him or her negatively (i.e. “I’m sorry Tommy, but Christmas will be slim this year since your father never pays his child support and can’t seem to keep a job for more than 2 weeks.”) People will fight for everything under the sun and often use their children as an excuse for their behavior, saying that they “need” this or that for little Tommy or Susie, when in reality it is nothing more than an old set of dishes that were packed away in the basement.
I routinely tell clients that it’s not what you want, it’s not what your spouse wants, but it’s what is best for the kids. If I had a dime for every time that someone came to my office and insisted on “50/50 custody” I would be enjoying a cocktail in Hawaii on Christmas instead of dressing my child in 12 layers of clothing to drive to my aunt’s house 30 miles away.
When a couple is together, they set up their households in a certain fashion and divide responsibilities between themselves in a particular way. Sometimes this means that mom does the majority of the child care while dad brings home the bacon. As more households now have two incomes, parents often split the child rearing responsibilities more equally, but when the relationship falls apart and a divorce is filed, one parent may not have the resources or appropriate residence to continue doing what had traditionally been done in the past. What worked while the parties were married often does not work when they divorce.
I completely understand people’s hesitancy towards change, because I am not a huge fan of change myself (it’s practically catastrophic to me every time Target rearranges its store layout). That being said, change is inevitable and a lot of good can come from it. I would rather see a child grow up in two separate, yet loving households, than continue to live in a dysfunctional but “nuclear” family. The end of a relationship, whether the parties were married or not, can be completely devastating to both the parents and the children no matter what their age, but you can and should minimize this for the kids.
If the children ask what is going on, do your best to try to answer questions with your spouse together and reassure them that mom and dad are going to continue to work together to co-parent them. Set up the same rules and routines in both households and keep the lines of communication open so that the child doesn’t start to take advantage of one parent’s weakness or guilt about the marriage not working out. Buying tons of gifts for the kids will not make up for the fact that their parents are splitting up, and keeping things as normal as possible will help them get through the divorce. If you’re really enjoying your new found freedom, remember that Tommy and Susie don’t need to see every date you take to the various holiday parties.
Be willing to try temporary arrangements for custody and parenting time so that the children can grow accustomed to living in two homes and not seeing mom and dad every day. Don’t demand joint physical custody just to control your child support obligation – in a lot of cases, couples can deviate from the recommended guidelines and agree on reasonable support. Blaming the other parent for taking all of your money and “blowing it on who knows what” is not something you should tell your kids, but I can guarantee that children hear this all too often. Keep your financial problems neutral as to who caused them, and leave them out of all conversations if at all possible.
Complain to your friends and family when the kids aren’t around and try and let your kids be kids as much as you can. Everyone hopes to relate to his or her children, and to be considered a friend in their eyes. The best way you can do that is to be a parent first when they are young and need direction, providing them with as much love and security as you can while being respectful and polite to the other parent, as hard as it may be. You certainly don’t ever want to have to explain to your child why your name is on Santa’s naughty list.