Even when divorcing parents have a good working relationship and plan to use an online divorce service to manage and uncontested divorce, they often worry that children will associate bad feelings and memories to the holidays if they separate during a holiday school break. These fears are realistic; children’s memories of the actual separation are often vivid and long-lasting. If the children associate hurt and worry with a particular holiday, they may experience an “anniversary reaction” each time that holiday rolls around. Additionally, the children must cope with the immediate separation while apart from the support of school friends, teachers, and school routines.
Yet separating over a holiday period can make sense. School and work demands to slow down, giving family members time to move, to spend time with each other to debrief what is happening, and to engage in enjoyable activities that reassure the children that love and fun will still be part of their lives together. The holidays may also enable the children to spend time with their extended families, providing additional support and feelings of belonging during a tough time. And if parents are so conflicted that they cannot forgo arguing and sniping at one another, separating may allow the children to enjoy the holiday without having to cope with their parents’ tensions.
Balancing these factors when making a decision isn’t easy, but consider how one couple managed. Shortly after Thanksgiving, they told the children that they were separating and divorcing. From then until several weeks after school resumed from Winter Break, they ‘bird-nested:” the children remained in the family home and the parents rotated in and out on a three-day/three-day schedule. The father took the children to his family’s home for several days prior to Christmas to spend time with their grandparents and cousins, then returned to the family home where he and the mother celebrated Christmas together with the children. Shortly after Christmas, the mother and children took a short ski trip with her sister and her sister’s children. The parents also arranged for the children to spend time with school friends, setting up outings and sleepovers. There were moments when the children felt sad and angry that their parents weren’t together, but overall the plan worked well. The children’s time with their extended families provided support as well as needed distraction. The bird-nesting arrangement buffered the children from a dramatic change at the outset, allowing them to remain in their home with familiar toys, bedrooms, and routines. Celebrating Christmas together reassured the children the parents would set aside their differences for the children’s sake. And from a practical perspective, the plan gave each parent time to make arrangements for the final separation in January.
The parents’ plan worked well because they did not view separating as an all or none decision. They found a third way: a creative transition plan that accomplished multiple goals. They started the physical separation without exposing the children to abrupt changes, provided the children the support of extended family and friends, maintained a Christmas tradition of celebrating together, and arranged distracting, enjoyable activities. Their lesson to us: A third way is often the best way.