The first holiday season after a separation can evoke a variety of emotions for both you and your children. Steeped as they are in memories and traditions, the holidays are likely to stir up feelings of fear, stress, and potentially even sadness. In episode 15, host Jaime Davis and fellow family law attorney Melissa Essick discuss tips for preparing and coping with the first holiday season as a separated/divorced family.
Note: Our Podcast, “A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction”, was created to be heard, but we provide text transcripts to make this information accessible to everyone. All transcripts on our website are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and could contain errors.
Jaime Davis: Welcome to Episode 15 of ‘A Year and a Day’. I’m your host, Jaime Davis. In Episode 14, I discussed how substance abuse can affect a child custody case with my law partner Carrie Tortora. In this episode, I will be discussing tips for handling your first holiday season following a separation with my colleague and fellow family law attorney Melissa Essick. Melissa is a board certified family law specialist and has practiced almost exclusively in the area of family law since 2004. Melissa is also professionally trained as a mediator in all family law matters and has been certified as a family financial mediator by the North Carolina Dispute Resolution Commission. You may recall that Melissa joined us on Episode 11 of the podcast to discuss the do’s and don’ts of navigating a child custody case. Welcome, Melissa.
Melissa Essick: Thank you for having me.
Jaime Davis: So the first holiday season after a separation can evoke a variety of emotions for both parents and their children. Steeped as they are in memories and traditions, the holidays are likely to stir up feelings of fear, stress and potentially even sadness. With this year’s holiday season fast approaching, we thought it would be a good time to discuss some tips to help you prepare yourself and your children for your first holiday as a separated family. So, Melissa, first I thought we could talk about tips for ensuring that your children have a positive holiday experience, post-separation. What do you think is one of those tips?
Melissa Essick: I think first, recognizing that this year is going to be different. Acknowledge that your children may be concerned, may have some anxiety about it, may be worried about how the holidays are going to play out and acknowledge that it’s going to be different. But in the same regard, you can still reassure them that you can make this enjoyable.
Jaime Davis: Right, because different doesn’t necessarily mean bad. It just means it’s not going to be the same as it was last year.
Melissa Essick: That’s right. And that’s hard for children to understand. Sometimes change does create anxiety. However, explaining to your children that you and your spouse or ex-spouse have discussed the plans and that, if possible, tried to assure them that they are going to have time with each parent to celebrate. It may be a little different than it was a year before, but they’ll still have time to celebrate with each parent.
Jaime Davis: Absolutely. I think it’s so important that both parents are on the same page about what the plan is going to be, because when they discuss that plan with the children, it’s very important to present a united front. I think comments like, “well, since your mom insisted that she have you guys for Christmas this year…”. You know, things like that are not helpful to the situation.
Melissa Essick: Even though that remark doesn’t sound directly derogatory. As a child, it may seem to suggest that you have negative feelings about the child either spending time with the other parent or about being separated in general. And so to the extent that you can try and have your conversations remain positive, hopeful and really focus on, you know, the traditions and the children’s best interests, that’s always best.
Jaime Davis: So let’s talk about traditions. I think for the first holiday, especially following a separation, it is very important to consider the traditions that the children have been accustomed to throughout the parties’ marriage and to try to maintain some similarity to those traditions if you can. For example, if you always have Thanksgiving lunch with mom’s family and then you have Thanksgiving dinner with dad’s family, to the extent that you’re able to keep doing that the first year following a separation and even thereafter, that’s probably a good thing for the kids if they enjoy that tradition.
Melissa Essick: That’s correct. Certainly don’t be afraid of creating new traditions for yourself, and I think we’ll talk about that in a little bit. But if there is a way to maintain the status quo for the children, especially in that first year, I think that’s best. I actually am a child of divorce, and you a lot of the times we see in custody orders where parents will alternate holidays. And that works really well for some parents where in families where they will spend Thanksgiving, the entire Thanksgiving period from Wednesday through Sunday with one parent, and the next year alternate and spend it with the other parent. That didn’t work for our family. And so you have to really look at the specifics and what’s going to work for each family. It’s very case based, facts based. And in my situation, I really enjoyed having the same schedule every holiday where I would spend the morning with my mom and the evening with my dad and we created our traditions based on that. But you really have to look at each family individually. And it may be that some families have to travel out of state or out of town and that’s not possible to actually share or divide the actual day, the holiday. And in that, if that is the case, really be cognizant and aware of the fact that this may be the first time that your children are not going to spend the holiday with the other parent and recognize that might be sad for them. And it’s okay to acknowledge that with them. But I would say in that instance, make sure they have an opportunity either before or after the holiday to share with the parent that they’re not going to be with or even during the holiday itself, allow them to reach out either by Skype or face time or some other way so that they can connect and talk with the other parent.
Jaime Davis: I agree. It’s important to be considerate of the other parents contact with the children during a holiday. Bearing in mind that, you know, the next year you might be the parent without the children and if you want to be afforded that same courtesy, it’s important to offer it. You know, it doesn’t necessarily have to be time out of your holiday time per se. Maybe you offer up a different day where the other parent can celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas or whatever the holiday is. But it’s really important for the children to understand that they can be happy and they can celebrate all of the holidays with both of their parents. And that’s OK.
Melissa Essick: Absolutely. Yeah. The last thing you want is for your children to feel guilty in having an enjoyable experience with the other with the other parents. I would even encourage sending pictures, you know, and really getting the other parent involved and letting them know, you know, we are having a great time and I want to send you pictures and I want to show you that we’re having a great time because next year I would really like to have some pictures of my own from the children on Christmas morning or whatever the case may be. So, yes, absolutely. Be considerate of the other parent, but also considerate of the children. And and don’t try to make them feel guilty because they are enjoying their time away.
Jaime Davis: What’s the saying? Let happiness happen.
Melissa Essick: Right.
Jaime Davis: I think that’s so appropriate for this situation. If the children are happy, spending time with the other parent. Great.
Melissa Essick: Yeah. And that’s hard, I think. There’s a lot of emotions, especially in the first year of a separation. And I know that’s hard for whatever reason. Who knows why the separation happened? You know, there could be other third parties involved. There could be a lot of hard feelings towards the other parent. But to the extent that you can really leave the children out of that and really focus on what’s best for the children. You know, I think everyone is much better for that.
Jaime Davis: I agree. I think something else that is important for parents to keep in mind and we touched on this a little bit a minute ago, but, don’t place the burden of your emotions on your children. Like you just said, you know, there may be hard feelings toward the other parent for whatever reason, you know, separations unfortunately happen for a reason. And if that reason evokes negative emotions for you, don’t put those on your child. If you are not going to be the parent celebrating the holiday itself with the children, you know, it may be a sad time for you. This may be the first time that you’ve been away from your kids for a major holiday, but your kids don’t need to know that you’re sad.
Melissa Essick: That’s exactly right. Yeah. And I actually had a therapist tell one of my clients that and it was almost like a bell went off because she was telling the therapist, you know, I always want my kids to know that I’m going to miss them and that I wish I was with them on the holiday or I wish I was with them on the weekend custody that they’re with their father. And the therapist said that’s your burden that you need to carry and it may be harsh, but the children need to know that they’re loved. They need you to be encouraging about their time away and they don’t need to feel guilty that you’re gonna be home alone and sad and missing them. And so, you know, instead of saying, “I’m gonna miss you”, the therapist recommended saying, “you’re going to have a wonderful time. I can’t wait to hear about your trip and I’m gonna be right here waiting for you when you get back and we’ll have something fun planned too”, you know, try to take something that may otherwise be negative and spin it and keep it positive for the kids.
Jaime Davis: And kids are so perceptive. I mean, if they pick up on the fact that you are down and sad and stressed out about this holiday without them, they’re going to have a negative experience with that. And I think it’s appropriate to say, you know, “have a great time with mom or dad. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to be just fine. I’m going to hang out with grandma and grandpa”, or whatever fun thing that you have planned for yourself. And we’ll talk about some tips for how you can better your holiday experience if it’s your first holiday without your kids later on in the podcast, but I think that’s really important.
Melissa Essick: You want your children to be able to be honest with you and if they feel like you are not excited about their time with the other parents, they may not be honest and truthful with you. I had an experience where one of the clients that I have who’s a dad, he had taken his son out for a birthday get together and they’d gone to dinner and he had bought some presents for him and it got back to dad that the son said to mom, well, “I don’t know why we went to that restaurant.. That’s not where I wanted to go or I don’t know why he bought me that present. That’s not exactly what I wanted.”. And the dad told me, you know, I left this completely up to him, of course this was the restaurant you want to go to. Of course this was the presents that he wanted picked out, but he didn’t want mom to know, you know, what a great time he had with dad. And so you just you really want to be able to share in the positivity with your children in the holidays. And so just keep your children’s best interest in mind.
Jaime Davis: Speaking of gifts, what do you think about that? What should the two parents discuss in terms of gifts for the children for a particular holiday?
Melissa Essick: Well, this comes up often with Christmas, as you can imagine, especially when one parent is making the decisions as to what gifts they’re going to be buying for their children. And you don’t want to have a lot of duplicative gifts. I mean, you really to the extent that you can communicate and even if you say, you know, “these are some things that our son has discussed that he wants. Do you want to try and divvy some of these things up?”, and you can do that in writing. You don’t have to have a telephone conversation. You have to do in person. And you certainly don’t need to do it in the presence of your child. But, you know, just sent an e-mail that just, “I’ve heard him mentioned these things. Would you like to take some and I’ll take some?”. That’s just one suggestion. Some people really like to duplicate big items because they don’t want the child to feel like they have to take the gift to mom’s and back to dad’s. So that really just depends on what the item is and what’s going to work best for your household.
Jaime Davis: And I think it’s important for families to remember that Santa can visit both houses and that’s OK.
Melissa Essick: Right.
Jaime Davis: There can be two Christmas mornings and they don’t have to look exactly the same. You can explain to your children, “hey, Santa knows about all different types of families and he can visit you at mom’s house. You can visit your dad’s house”, and you know, your child benefits from those. This is not to say that you should overindulge the child and go completely over the top, but you can make it a positive experience at both houses.
Melissa Essick: Yeah. I’ve never known any child that’s turned down two celebrations.
Jaime Davis: Right.
Melissa Essick: Two sets of presents. And so I don’t think this should be a negative experience for the children. And with most holidays, especially our November, December, January holidays, there’s so many. But with these holidays, there are a lot of opportunities to do things that don’t fall on the day of the holiday. For instance, you know, with Thanksgiving or Halloween, there’s lots of hay rides and pumpkin picking and those kind of things. And it doesn’t have to be that you celebrate the holiday on the day of. You could go out and see The Nutcracker, you know, before Christmas. There’s just a lot of options for you to have fun, create traditions, either old or new, and make this a fun experience for your children, even if you’re not gonna be with them on the exact holiday.
Jaime Davis: Another activity that you can do with your children leading up to the holiday is, of course, shopping for gifts for other people, friends, family members. And I think it’s really important while you’re doing that to consider helping your child pick out a gift for his other parent. It can send the wrong message if you’re out buying gifts for grandma and grandpa and everybody else and your child is unable to purchase a gift for his or her other parent.
Melissa Essick: Absolutely. And it’s it’s not about the other parent. It’s not about getting the other parent the gift. It’s about the effect that it has on your child when you don’t make that available to your children. Children just as much as adults love to give. And I know my kids when they, most the time, they can’t even wait to tell me what they’ve gotten me. But when they do, they are so excited to see me open their gifts that they got and that they thought about and that, you know, that they think they worked hard for. And so let your kids have that experience, even if it’s not you getting to give the gift. Let your children have that opportunity to do that with their other parent. And that goes for you, not just Christmas, but also, you know, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays for the other spouse. I think that’s just really important for your children. And and it shows them that you care about- you may have hard feelings toward your ex-spouse or their parent, but it shows that you care about them in some regard.
Jaime Davis: Right. And I think it too, it helps show the children the true meaning of the holiday season. I mean, if it is about giving and goodwill and all of those other sorts of very positive emotions, you know, you’re teaching your child that this is a great learning opportunity. And I also think it helps show your children that, you know, it’s OK to celebrate the holiday with both parents. It is OK to enjoy spending time with both of them.
Melissa Essick: Absolutely. I think that’s kind of the overall theme is letting them know they don’t need to feel guilty.
Jaime Davis: Right. So we’ve talked about tips for ensuring that your children have a positive holiday experience, post-separation. Let’s talk about some tips for making sure that parents are taking care of themselves and making sure that they also have a positive experience.
Melissa Essick: That is very important and a good point that you bring up. Your your mood is setting the tone for your children snd they need, like we talked about earlier, they need to know that you’re gonna be fine. I really encourage parents to surround themselves with family and friends and other support. You know, you don’t need to be sitting at home alone and depressed and moping and just focusing on the fact that you don’t have them. Try and stay busy to the extent you can and surround yourself with family and friends that will provide you a positive experience.
Jaime Davis: And along those lines, if it’s a holiday situation where maybe you don’t have your kids in the morning, but you’re going to get them later in the day, maybe you spend that morning getting ready for them, you know, preparing meals, getting gifts situated, whatever it is that you’re going to do to celebrate with them once they get there. Go ahead and get that stuff done. And, you know, that’s a fun way to spend the time away from them.
Melissa Essick: That’s right. Also, I’ve heard that people will go out and volunteer. You know, if it’s a if they’re not going to have their child, let’s say, on Thanksgiving, they’ll go out and and work at, you know, the Salvation Army or somewhere where, you know, they can just give back to the community. And it’s really bigger than yourself and reminding yourself of what the holiday is about and trying to focus on that rather than focusing on, you know, what’s different about your holiday, that year.
Jaime Davis: I think that’s a great suggestion. I actually had a colleague tell me that she was planning to help deliver meals to seniors for Thanksgiving because the seniors were also going to be alone. And so she was putting a very positive spin on the fact that she was going to be alone, she was going to actually go out and be with somebody else who was going to be by themselves as well, which I think is a great fulfilling thing to do for both people.
Melissa Essick: Absolutely. That is that is wonderful.
Jaime Davis: Something else I think you can do. Let’s say that you don’t feel like being around a lot of people. You know, that’s not for everyone. Do something that makes you feel good. Practice an act of self-care. Maybe that’s watch a movie, read a book, take a hot bath, whatever it is that you enjoy doing that helps relax, you know, do that activity.
Melissa Essick: Yeah, absolutely. You need to take care of yourself. Have a plan. Have a plan B in case plan A does not work. Let’s say you end up at a family member’s home, and it’s just too much. You know, there’s a lot of questions and you feel like you’re being judged or they want to know why you decided to separate the holiday as you did. You know, you may want to have an exit strategy and have a plan B for a backup. As you know what you can do for the remainder of the holiday and it’s OK. It’s OK to not be ready to make that plunge in that very first year.
Jaime Davis: Absolutely. And I think, conversely, if you’re having a great time and you’re enjoying the company you’re with, maybe you’re getting to see siblings or aunts and uncles that you haven’t spent time with in years, you can have a good time and not feel guilty about it.
Melissa Essick: That’s right.
Jaime Davis: You know, don’t let the fact that your children aren’t there prevent you from having a good time and enjoying your holiday.
Melissa Essick: That’s right. Absolutely. And that kind of goes along with what we talked about, about providing a guilt free experience for your children, but also for yourself. And I hear that often with with parents. And that’s true for intact parents, too. And whenever you have intact families, whenever you have some away time from your children I often hear about parents talking about how guilty they feel or I should be there. It’s OK for you to have time by yourself and it actually, in my opinion, makes us better parents to have that alone time and that independence so that when we get back with our kids, we’re refreshed and we’re we’re ready to be the best parents that we can be.
Jaime Davis: I think another thing you can do if you are spending a holiday away from your children is to give yourself a gift. I mean, when you’re out there buying presents for everybody else, get yourself a little something. You know, you don’t have to buy a gift for your in-laws anymore, so just consider that your gift to yourself.
Melissa Essick: That’s right. And thinking about that also. You know, you don’t have to buy the in-law a gift. Come on. Take the negative and make a positive spin on it. Right? So maybe you also don’t have to listen to your ex-spouse’s uncle talk about politics. You know, and really just look at and try and focus on your blessings and things that you can be grateful for. Maybe, you know, some people I know have gratitude journals or gratitude jars that they like to just every day or so put in, you know, just a one line sentence about what they are thankful for. And so I do think the holiday season is a great time to really focus on the positive instead of the negative. And I know that’s difficult when people are going through a separation or divorce. But I think not only, you know, is it helpful for you as a parent, it rubs off on your children.
Jaime Davis: Well, I think too, especially the first big holidays following a separation are tough because you may have spent lots of time with your lawyer coming up with an agreement, a schedule, or maybe you went to court and a judge decided for you what that schedule was going to be, but you really don’t know how it’s going to work until you have to live through it that first year. And so if whatever the agreement is, whatever the schedule is, people do it different ways. Some folks alternate the holidays. Some folks share the actual holidays. Some people divide the winter break that coincides with the holiday. See if it works that first year and if it doesn’t work, if it has some logistical problems with it, you know, if you can discuss them with your child’s other parent and see if you guys can come up with a better plan for the next year. That’s the beauty of child custody. It’s not set in stone, even if you have a court order in North Carolina. Custody schedules are modifiable until your children turn 18. And so if it’s not working for you, it’s probably not working for the other parent either. So try to have that conversation and fix it.
Melissa Essick: Right. Absolutely. How many times have you heard someone ask you, “Well, what’s normal?”?
Jaime Davis: Wow. Yeah. All the time.
Melissa Essick: Right. And so I always put that normal in quotes for all of my clients. There is no normal. Every family is different. Every family looks different. And we all and we all have different traditions and different ways of doing things. And so don’t get bogged down in what your friends are doing or, you know, this other custody arrangement that you heard that someone else is doing. Really think about what works best for you and your family and let that be the focus.
Jaime Davis: Absolutely. Melissa, thank you so much for joining me today. I think this has been a great conversation about surviving that first holiday following a separation.
Melissa Essick: Thank you for having me.
Jaime Davis: I hope you all enjoyed this episode of ‘A Year and a Day’. If you have any suggestions for future episodes, I would love to hear from you. You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you like what you heard today, please leave us a review on i-Tunes. As a reminder, while in my role as a lawyer, my job is to give folks legal advice, the purpose of this podcast is not to do that. This podcast is for general informational purposes only, should not be used as legal advice and a specific to the law in North Carolina. If you have questions before you take any action, you should consult with the lawyer who is licensed and your state.