That time of year has crept up on us again: the Christmas lights are being lit in the high streets; the big retailers are vying for the most popular Christmas TV advert; the gift lists are being written; the food ordered and so it goes on. The countdown begins.
"Christmas is all about the children". How many times have you heard that? And indeed it is or should be: the youngsters are looking forward to the school holidays, the Christmas plays, the pantos and, of course, the pile of presents Santa is going to leave them under the tree.
But for adults too, this time of year is synonymous with the harmonious coming together of family and friends. And with that come the expectations for the "perfect" family Christmas often mixed with wistful reflections on the year just gone and hopes for the New Year to come.
This time of year can be particularly tough then if you are separated parents or if you are parents on the brink of separating and trying to hold it together for that one last family Christmas. How can you navigate this time of year and all the emotion which comes with it to make it as positive and joyful a time as is possible for your children and for you?
Discuss and agree the time to be spent with each of you and try to do this as early as you can and be accommodating and flexible. Share time in a way which suits the children and works for them. That includes agreeing sensible and workable logistical arrangements for travelling between homes. Don't forget also to think about a back-up plan if say there are transport strikes or weather disruption particularly if you live far away from the other parent or if one of you is unwell. Do remember that wider family, particularly grandparents, on both sides will want to spend time with the children and they with them, so try to work in time spent with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins etc. Write down the plan (and the back-up plan) in an email so that you both know where you stand, travel arrangements can be made and last minute misunderstandings and therefore potential flash points avoided. Once you have agreed tell your children the plan, preferably tell them together if you can.
Get professional help
If after early discussion you need professional assistance to help you reach an agreement there is still time to get it: you have time to attend mediation with a third party independent mediator or engage in the collaborative process (a holistic approach where both of you and your respective specifically collaboratively trained lawyers all sit down together to discuss and commit to reaching an agreement with the children's interests at the forefront of the discussions). There is still time to agree arrangements with professional assistance if you need to, but you need to make those discussions a real priority.
Ditch the blame game
Put to one side (and keep to yourself) any negative personal feelings you may have for the other parent. If your children are young, you are going to need to co-parent and communicate positively for some years to come. If you have teens you will already know how sensitive and insecure they can be about just about everything. So in each case, do your very best to focus on your children's feelings this Christmas and protect them from any parental animosity.
It's not a competition
Don't try to out-do one another on presents and don't duplicate. This can have the negative effect of making a child feel guilty that s/he has received a "bigger" or the same present from one parent and so has to "hide it" from the other. Instead encourage your children to write a list and give it to you both and agree between you who buys what. One way is to agree the joint purchase of the main "big" present (in my experience there's always at least one!) and then arrange a time when together you can give these bigger presents to the children. You can agree not to duplicate the other gifts and instead you could perhaps each do your own Christmas stocking of the smaller gifts to give to the children when they are spending time with you individually. You could make this your new positive tradition.
Time for you
If you are apart from your children this Christmas Day, and especially if this is your first Christmas Day apart from them, be kind to yourself. Do not underestimate the range of emotions you may feel as the situation can be sad and distressing. It is important to talk to someone about your feelings and if necessary seek professional therapeutic support. On the day, see if you can spend time with relatives and friends. You may have friends in the same situation as you, so perhaps plan to cook a Christmas lunch together or even, if affordable, treat yourself to lunch out. The important thing is to make plans to be with others and not to be alone when the children are with their other parent.
Fiona Forsyth is a senior associate in the Family team at Russell-Cooke with 15 years practising experience in family law. She is a trained collaborative lawyer and mediator.