The pandemic has put additional pressure on many couples and families, leading to increases in separation and divorce. Relationship difficulties may have been exacerbated by financial or childcare stresses associated with lockdowns. Increased, or enforced time together, may have led cracks in relationships to widen, perhaps with devastating impact.
Being a separated parent can be especially difficult at times like Christmas, since it often has very strong family associations, or poignant reminders of family togetherness. Being apart from your family, on a day like Christmas Day, can intensify feelings like loneliness. Navigating Christmas, as a separated parent, might take a lot of extra planning.
There is no right or wrong way to approach Christmas. It might help to have the desire to negotiate a fair distribution of your children’s time with you and your ex.
Perhaps your goal, if things are still difficult between you and your ex-partner, might be to try to arrange Christmas such that your children get to spend as much time as possible with each of you, with as little conflict as possible.
What that may mean, in practice, is that you put the needs of the children first. Depending on their age, it may be hard for them to express what they need in terms of time with each of you. This may require you to put yourself in their shoes, recognising that they love each of you and that they will not want it to feel like you are competing to spend time, or do activities with them.
That said, if your children are old enough to voice an opinion, then do explore their preferences for how and where they want to spend time over Christmas.
Bear in mind that they may not be able, or feel comfortable, to admit that they do or don’t want to be with you or their other parent, since they may feel divided loyalty to you both and may not want to hurt your feelings or the other parent’s feelings.
It may require real delicacy to help them express what they want. You might find that you need someone who is a little more independent to facilitate them to say what way they’d like to spend Christmas.
If direct discussion with your ex-partner is impossible, then do seek mediation or a neutral third-party to assist in the planning. Whatever arrangements get agreed, it is important to ensure that everyone is clear about what they are. Be careful not to criticise or undermine the other parent, in front of your children, even if you are dissatisfied with the final plans.
It can be difficult and distressing for children to hear one parent putting down the other, since they love you both.
Younger children may need some kind of visual cue, like a calendar or timetable, to help them to structure the holidays and make the plan more explicit and predictable for them. Older children may just need reminders of impending transitions from one house to the next.
It could be easy to feel a “kids-sized” hole in your day or your week over the Christmas period and so, irrespective of Covid, it may be crucial that you gather some social support for yourself, with friends or family, to avoid potential isolation or loneliness.
Recognise that you will possibly feel sad, and may even need to give yourself the permission to do so. Not being with your children may feel hard and you will probably miss them, or some family traditions that you used to have. It may help to talk to others about how you feel.
It may also be tempting to ask your children about how they got on with the other parent. Even though your intent may be innocent, and you are genuinely just checking that they enjoyed themselves, it can feel like an inquisition to some children who can subsequently be stressed that they will say the wrong thing and get the other parent into trouble. It may be safer and wiser to simply welcome them home, comment on how they appear to be (in a good or bad mood) and then focus on the plans now they are with you.
Sometimes parents may want to compensate their children for the perceived disruption that the separation may be causing.
You might feel responsible for any upset that the separation causes, or that it is especially hard or distressing for them to be moving between you and their other parent. Overdoing Christmas gifts is not the best way to try to repair any emotional disruption that your separation is causing your children. Nor is it likely to assuage any guilt you may feel.
Children don’t need more toys or tech from you and may not be any more satisfied or happy because they are receiving lots of gifts.
If you can squeeze some extra time off work, that may be more valued by your child than any gift. Invest more in the time you will get to spend with them, perhaps using that time to plan some new traditions for you and them that might brighten up every Christmas into the future.