Finagling the finer details of the holidays with my ex-husband is nothing new: This year marks the 5th we’ve been decking our respective halls in anticipation of the most wonderful time of the year. But this year, suddenly, the task feels rather frightening. Last month, in fact, I’m sure I sprouted a myriad of gray hairs as my kids — ages 13 and 16 — divulged details of their dad’s decision to host Thanksgiving dinner with guests from three different states. I listened carefully, gulped hard, then breathed an enormous sigh of relief when those plans fell through. Now, the next wave of holidays is fast approaching and, suffice it to say, our latest custody agreement does not include a section called, How the kids will spend New Year’s Eve during a global pandemic.
Clearly I am not alone. Still, COVID-19 is forcing parents to confront first-time considerations and make complicated decisions regarding their children during the holidays — decisions which, when made across two households, become even more complex. Add a pair of tech-savvy teenagers who are tapped in to social media (hello, frightening news articles galore) and turned on to staggering statistics (yes, your kids likely know WAY more about the current coronavirus numbers than you do) and celebrating Christmas is starting to feel like a veritable shit storm around here. So what should separated and divorced parents keep in mind during seasonal festivities this year?
“The obvious, cookie-cutter answer is that the kids need to be the priority,” family law attorney Robin Lalley of Sodoma Law York tells SheKnows. So, I’m taking family traditions — those that existed for us as an intact family unit or those that have blossomed since we separated — into consideration. In short, now is a terrible time to deviate from the norm.
That said, flexibility is key. Lalley advises parents against getting so stuck in their respective positions — and “the way things have always been done” — as that can create further obstacles. Case in point? “Trying to hammer the other side to get what you think the kids want [can create] a situation where the kids are…having to choose between mom and dad,” Lalley explains.
This approach — at a festive time when wishes for the year ahead are brewing — can lead to disaster. The worst-case scenario is “not only are the kids not getting to do what they want, but now that they feel like they are in the middle, it ruins the holidays for everybody,” says Lalley. She remains firm in her stance with clients: Prioritize not only what the kids want to do, but also consider the impact if you continue to fight with the other side about what is or is not happening.
I get it: Kids don’t want to be in the middle of a grown-up argument. Still, they have opinions and voices. And in many states, including Massachusetts where my kids and I live, minors have the right both to weigh in and disrupt the status quo — or at the very least, not to go along with it. Still, there arise time-sensitive wrinkles that need to be ironed out, especially this year (remember the aforementioned turkey-dinner disaster that was just waiting to happen?). Rather than dreading that these requests may arise — particularly changes in scheduled parenting time that might be necessary to get over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for Hanukkah — you should fully expect that they will, and remain focused on your kids’ joy in the process.
“The quicker the communication, the more helpful,” is Lalley’s best rule of thumb. “It would have been great to have had these conversations back in October, when people didn’t feel the pressure of the holidays… but in circumstances like [the current pandemic]”, last-minute changes might be unavoidable. And if co-parents can’t figure it out?
“Under these circumstances, we have to give clients tough advice: You have a custody order or a custody agreement that sets out the schedule; follow it,” says Lalley. Is this approach unfair? It can certainly seem so, especially for teenagers who — even with parents who live in the same house — might rather hang with friends than attend great-aunt Edna’s New Year’s Day brunch. Again, Lalley encourages parents to allow kids to express their concerns, “especially if they are of a suitable age or maturity [as this communication might cause] the other parent to take pause, or take some precautions.” Still, in Lalley’s experience, the stance communicated from judges to family law attorneys, especially this season: Follow the court order.
So I will. At present, my daughters are spending Christmas Eve with their father (and his girlfriend and her daughter, who are traveling from Michigan); they will come to my house on Christmas Day at noon, and we will enjoy some low-key time together before heading next door to my parents’ house for a quiet dinner. My kids are no dummies: They know this arrangement brings with it risk, even if the out-of-state visitors get COVID-tested prior to their arrival as planned. My 13-year-old worries about passing along the virus to her aging grandparents; my 16-year-old’s fears stem from sickness interrupting her job as a ski instructor at the local slopes. And thankfully, in my family’s case, if either kid changes her mind, their dad is (usually) understanding, albeit disappointed.
As the countdown to 2021 nears (hallelujah!), we are staying focused on the opportunities for merrymaking — regardless of the global pandemic.
Maybe you’re not so keen on letting your kids do the communicating? No worries; just remember: “attacking and contentious [communication] 9 times out of 10…is going to go nowhere; the other side is going to react poorly just because it is seen as an attack,” Lalley cautions. Instead, send an email and “attach the latest news article that shows numbers are rising… [refer to] directives from governors in individual states.”
With all the good that stands to come in the New Year, don’t position yourself to be queued up for family court come January.
“These are great conversations for [separated and divorced parents’] individual attorneys, because they know the judges” and thus know how each judge will view your individual case, says Lally. So, for the moment, as parents, do your due diligence “to make up time, to shift things around… really make [the holidays] focused on the kids.”
They won’t be little for long and, while you might not miss the holi-drama, life will eventually get back to normal — which, if I remember correctly, can be a bit boring.
These are some of the best face masks for teens — whether or not they’re shuttling between homes.