A Christmas where mummy and daddy don't argue is top of children’s wish list
‘It can be lonely for the mammy and the daddy who doesn’t have the children on Christmas Day,’ says Rita O’Reilly, manager of Parentline
A successful Christmas Day is where the children have a really good day and that doesn’t mean they have to see both parents, it just means there is no conflict. Photograph: iStock
The season of peace and goodwill can be the most challenging flashpoint in the calendar for any separated parent who celebrates Christmas. People get so hung up on who is with who on December 25th.
“There is so much energy focused on that one day,” says Geraldine Kelly, director of children and parenting services at One Family, the advocacy and support organisation for one-parent families. “We keep saying it can be the 24th, the 25th, the 26th – you can spread it out and children are actually okay with that.”
Approximately one in four families with children in Ireland is a one-parent household. Last year there were 4,314 applications for divorce, according to the Courts Service 2015 annual report – a 9 per cent increase on the previous year. And applications for judicial separations were up 11 per cent, at 1,419.
The post-split scenario can range from a couple still grimly sharing a house out of economic necessity to at least one of them happily starting a new family elsewhere, with many variations in between. So, in the world of separated but shared parenting, is there a standard by which to measure a good Christmas Day?
“A successful Christmas Day is where the children have a really good day and that doesn’t mean they have to see both parents, it just means there is no conflict,” says Kelly.
The problem for the children is when the conflict between their parents manifests itself in front of them, agrees family law solicitor and mediator Deirdre Burke. “That wrecks Christmas; that is the bottom line.”
Advanced planningAgreeing plans well in advance should minimise the potential for conflict, although there is no accounting for the effect of excess emotions and alcohol at this time of year.
There is no template for who should do what when, apart from the requirement to fashion a conflict-free celebration for the sake of the children. Some can do it in the same room with a smile, for others it may need a third-party go-between so they don’t have to lay eyes on each other.
“In really good situations, the parent who has custody of the children allows the other parent to stay overnight and wake up with the children. That’s the best scenario,” says Burke, who is based in Arklow, Co Wicklow.
Next best is the other parent coming around for breakfast or having an hour or two with the children on Christmas Day. Another common solution is to alternate Christmas.
“If a judge is going to impose a decision and you are not deciding it for yourselves, it’s likely that the judge will order for Christmas to alternate,” she explains. “If you have the children for Christmas Day this year, your ex will have the children for Christmas Day next year.”
Courts, ideally, would prefer to leave it to both parents to agree rather than dictating arrangements, says Kelly. “They like parents to get to the stage of good communication where they can actually sit and agree it.”
However, although rotating Christmas may sound fair it doesn’t always work out, particularly when children are younger.
“If it is a 70:30 relationship, most children will want to wake up in the house where they spend 70 per cent of the time on Christmas morning,” says Kelly. “That’s very difficult and dads will feel they get the hard deal.”
But it is not about you as a dad, she stresses, it is about what your child needs.
“Children don’t want to be packing up their toys at lunchtime to go to a different house or, worse still, not being allowed to bring their toys to another house. That is really hard and it is often what happens – ‘what’s in this house is for this house and what’s in the other house is for the other house’ – whereas in actual fact they belong to the child at that stage,” she points out.
Horrendous experienceBurke recalls one “horrendous” experience she had in the district court a few years ago, which involved a case where there were four young children who had never spent a night away from their mother and the couple couldn’t agree access for Christmas.
“The judge ordered the children to go to the non-custodial parent from the morning of the 23rd right the way through to the 27th. He just got fed up with them. He obviously thought my lady was being unreasonable as he went completely against her.”
That is the risk you run in leaving it to a court to decide, she points out. She ended up having to make a Circuit Court appeal just before Christmas to overturn that decision. However, “in the main the judges get it right; they tend to split it”, she adds.
While asking Santa to deliver half a child’s presents to one house and the other half to a second home is just about acceptable, provided the requests are evenly divided, spitefully muddling communications with the North Pole to the extent that replica Santa lists are delivered in two houses is not.
“It can be very confusing for children,” says Kelly, who has seen it happen. It’s far worse than children having to go to another house to open the rest of their presents later in the day, which they won’t question.
What you definitely don’t want is a Garda squad car pulling up at the house on Christmas morning because of a dispute over access, which is not unheard of, according to Burke.
Access daysThis year Christmas Eve and Christmas Day fall at the weekend, a time children in separated families often spend with their fathers. If there is a straightforward weekly rotation agreement and access falls on that day then, technically, the woman would be in breach for not giving the access but men cannot presume that normal arrangements will apply, she warns.
Christmas access needs to be planned separately and Burke would always make sure that any long-term agreement between couples would make provision for such special occasions. However, for couples appearing before district court judges back in, say April, Christmas may not be their mind when a weekly access rotation is decided.
“So you have to be awake when you’re making these applications or otherwise you will be back into court to sort it out,” she says.
Eamonn Quinn of Unmarried and Separated Parents of Ireland (USPI) has had men asking him whether they can get a court order to compel their former partners to stick to the normal pattern of access through Christmas this year. He tells them no court can pre-empt that a woman would deny access and his advice is to try to reach an amicable compromise.
He suggests the father take the children from, say, 10am to 4pm on the Saturday, Christmas Eve, giving the mother the chance to prepare the home and dinner.
“Then leave the children back to the mother to have them in their home environment and then maybe resume access again from 3pm on Christmas Day until 3pm on St Stephen’s Day.
“Children would be heartbroken at not seeing their own mothers on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day but I wish some of the women out there would realise how heartbroken the children are at not seeing their father,” he remarks.
“Christmas is a lonely time and we have always advocated that children need presence not presents. Cards and gifts mean nothing if you can’t see your children.”
A separated father himself, his daughter is 18 now and last year was the first time he didn’t have a few hours with her on Christmas Day, because she had gone to an aunt’s house. But previous years he collected her at 10 or 11 on Christmas morning, he explains, and left her back at 12 or 1 for her dinner .
“It did me no harm and it did her the world of good” and they both have good memories, he says, of that ritual.
USPI used to organise a meeting on O’Connell Bridge on Christmas Day “to give men a focal point rather than getting up on a Christmas morning and being down and depressed and taking to alcohol immediately”, says Quinn. But when numbers dropped to as few as 12 it became “unsustainable”.
“It can be lonely for the mammy and the daddy who doesn’t have the children on Christmas Day,” agrees Rita O’Reilly, manager of Parentline. They recommend that, in such cases, parents would try to spend the day in the company of adults, avoiding other people’s children.
Button itFundamental advice to separated parents is “button it”, she adds. “This is about Christmas, the season of joy and goodwill and childhood. Don’t be competing with your spouse and, above all, don’t criticise what mammy or daddy did with the children.”
Brian O’Neill of Mediate Today in Blackrock, Co Dublin, advises couples to make sure points of tension between them don’t flare at Christmas and to be sensitive when handing over the children.
“If a separation has been anyway amicable, and most of mine would be, I do encourage that the spouse would buy some small gift for the other spouse, to be given by the children, particularly where the mother would be the main carer,” he says. “It’s a meaningful gesture by the other half at Christmas to show that the family is operating as a blended unit.”
If you have the children on Christmas Day, the other parent should have them on Christmas Eve, says Kelly. And if you are the one who is not going to have them on Christmas Day, do something really festive on Christmas Eve, making that your special day.
“It is about forming new traditions,” she adds, “instead of getting caught up with what we did as children 30 or 40 years ago.”
One Family has a helpline, 1890 662 212, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Parentline’s helpline, 1890 927277, will be open 10am to 1pm on Christmas Eve and back with the same hours on December 27th running until December 31st. It will be closed January 1st. See also uspi.ie
‘I will never understand men or women who make life miserable for one another. It’s sad, ruining children’s lives’ Louise Lawlor’s former husband has never missed seeing their two children opening their Santa presents on Christmas morning, even though the couple split up almost six years ago.
“The first Christmas, although we were separated, we were here, still together,” says Louise in her north Wexford home. “But after that it has never been any different.”
He arrives every Christmas morning from Dublin to see the children, now aged seven and nine, open their presents and takes a video of it – something he has done every year since they were born. He stays for a cup of coffee and then heads back to his new partner and their son. Then he usually takes the two children for a week from St Stephen’s Day.
“It works well and I am extremely grateful that he has never asked for the children on Christmas Day,” says Louise. “It would break my heart. I suppose he knows I am here on my own and I do appreciate that he has never demanded that he have them on Christmas Day.” Her biggest challenge is to keep the children in bed until he arrives.
After their marriage breakdown, they used a mediator when working out their own agreement on access and other issues and have never been to court. One day, she says, they will get around to divorce.
“Even though it wasn’t a nice break-up, to keep the children in a happy environment was the most important thing,” she says. “You have to let things go, not take things personally. You have to adapt to new relationships and somebody else coming on the scene.”
He usually has the children three weekends out of four and if something comes up for either of them, they try to give each other enough notice to swap.
“I will never understand men or women who make life miserable for one another,” she adds. “It’s sad, ruining children’s lives.”
Another Louise, who asks that her surname not be used, is not sure what exactly the Christmas arrangements are going to be for her nine-year-old daughter this year. Her father “is scheduled to have her Christmas Day but he is not talking to me at the moment”, she says. A protracted dispute over divorce proceedings has caused bitterness between them and he has withdrawn from communication with her.
“I am presuming he is going to buy his own presents for her. My daughter is aware she is going to him on Christmas Day, so he has obviously said it to her.”
Their daughter was only one when the marriage broke up. That first Christmas apart, “I didn’t want my daughter removed from her house because it is her family home and she is more comfortable there. So I asked if he wanted to come down Christmas morning or even stay the night; I wasn’t with anyone then.”
That paved the way for a couple of years when Louise would ring him as soon as the little girl awoke and he would make the 25-minute drive to the house to see her opening Santa’s presents.
“I would make a bit of breakfast and then he would take her off to his mother’s for a couple of hours and I would pick her up on the way to my mother’s.”
When she got a little bit older, he asked about having his daughter sleep at his rented accommodation on Christmas Eve night into Christmas morning. Louise’s counter offer was that he was still welcome to come down to the house Christmas morning every year and they would rotate having their daughter for the rest of Christmas Day.
“I didn’t want her going to him on Christmas Eve because, the way I saw it was she was more comfortable in her own home. I felt it was something I couldn’t let go.”
He accepted that “very reluctantly”. But from then on he bought his own presents and for the past three years he has shown no interest in seeing his daughter open Santa’s.
Does Louise ever consider if she is being unreasonable?
“I understand where he’s coming from, I really do, but if he was more hands-on with her throughout the year . . . he is selective in when he wants responsibility and time with her, so I don’t think it’s justified for him to take that one day from me when I do 99 per cent of her upbringing.”
Christmas was a big thing for Louise when she was growing up and “it is probably my and my daughter’s favourite time”, she adds. “I just feel it is something I can’t sacrifice.”