Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How the Family Mediation Service helps separated Dads and Mums negotiate Christmas and other issues

Service also helps parents who have never lived together

(This is the text of my article on the Family Mediation Service which appeared in The Irish Times on 13th November 2007)

Christmas is more than a month away but for parents who don’t live together there is just a short time left to work out who will see the children and when, during what ought to be a joyful occasion.

What presents should be bought? Who should buy them? Should one parent buy an expensive present which the other parent has already told the children they cannot have? If the children are young enough for Santa to visit, who will be there when they open the presents, or will Santa have to visit twice?

Issues such as these can exceptionally emotional, difficult and painful at times like Christmas.

“I never saw my youngest child coming down the stairs to find her present,” said one father. “And I never had the opportunity to bring my children to my parents’ grave on Christmas Day.”

These are the sort of problems which the Family Mediation Service, part of the Family Support Agency, deals with all the time. The mediation service aims to help couples – married or unmarried – to settle issues between them when they are separating. These include the important issues of finance and property but also the important issue of the future relationship with the children.

The service also helps people who have never lived together to sort out parenting problems.

Parenting flashpoints
Potential flashpoints which parents living apart would do well to work out in mediation include communions, confirmations, holidays and even children’s parties, says Polly Phillimore, the service coordinator for the Family Mediation Service.

People working on separation or maintenance agreement may want to deal with these things later, but “later” could come sooner than they think and could find them unprepared.

In general, it is better to make agreements about such issues in the relatively calm atmosphere of a mediation session than on the other parent’s doorstep.

What works now?
The first step, says mediator and area-coordinator Sheila Healy, is often to “look at what’s working at the moment.” Who is involved right now with bringing the kids to school and getting them home? Who brings them to and from their extra-curricular activities? Seeing what contribution each parent can make to this in the future may allow the whole process to flow more smoothly.

Indeed, says Polly Phillimore, where parents make plans in this way, the children sometimes get to see more of both parents after the separation than they did before.

The same principle, of seeing what already works, can be helpful in looking at the issue of Christmas.

“It’s helpful for the parents to ask what are the family traditions?” says Sheila Healy. Do the children and the family always go to granny in the morning and then somewhere else in the evening? Do they always go to the graveyard at a particular time of the day?

“Can we build something around this?” asks Ms Healy.

“Families often have certain things they do that are key to their Christmas Day,” she says. “Perhaps all the family gets together in a particular house.” In such a situation might it be feasible for both parents to be there?

It can also help separated parents enormously if the grandparents can put to one side their feelings about one or other of the parents and can make them welcome at Christmastime.

On the question of Santa and presents, parents sometimes agree that both of them will be in the house when the children open their presents, says Sheila Healy.

Where there are two families and two sets of children involved parents may need to be aware of the potential for jealousy over presents between the two groups of children.

They need to work out issues such as how a parent will feel if the other parent’s new partner is there when presents are delivered. Again, these issues are better handled in the mediation room than on the doorstep.

Ray Kelly of Unmarried and Separated Fathers of Ireland talks of fathers who have no visitation rights on Christmas Day simply because the visitation days laid down in a court order don’t happen to include the day of the week on which it falls. If these matters can be sorted out in mediation, an enormous amount of conflict and pain can be avoided.

Always parents
The work which the family mediation service does in relation to children is based on the premise that the parents, even though apart, will always be parents.

The service was set up in 1986 and has over 14 offices around the country. Many of its offices have waiting lists and it may be difficult to get an appointment before Christmas at some of them – but issues concerning separation and parenting don’t vanish at Christmas.

There is more information on the family mediation service at www.fsa.ie and its headquarters telephone number is 01-6344320.

See Tips for making Christmas better for separated parents (below) for summary of points from this article.

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