My Irish Times That's Men Column published 3rd November 2009:
THAT'S MEN: Separated parents shouldn't leave it until the season itself to decide what will happen with the kids
THE EARLY arrival of Christmas advertising annoys many of us, but if you're a separated parent it brings an extra twist of anxiety.
I am sorry to add to the talk of Christmas, but if you are a separated father – probably living apart from your children – then you need to start thinking about and planning for Christmas now.
Christmas itself tends to stir up all sorts of emotions, including anger and loss, so don't leave it until the so-called festive season itself to address the question of parenting and what will happen with the children. Deal with it now, while emotions are calmer.
Hopefully you can talk to your ex about this. If you cannot talk to your ex, perhaps there is a mutual friend or family member who could act as a go-between. If not, then you will have to do the best you can yourself. If possible, try to keep solicitors out of it – an exchange of vicious solicitors' letters really isn't going to make for a happy Christmas for anyone.
Christmas is very problematic for separated parents because it is full of details, each of which carries an emotional charge.
For instance, what presents will the children get? Who will buy what? If one parent thinks junior shouldn't get an iPhone is the other parent willing to respect this?
How and when and where will the live-apart parent give presents to the children? Is it possible to agree that both parents will be there during the opening of the presents? If one of the parents has a new partner should that partner be there?
Suppose Christmas day is not one of the access days granted by the court? Can both parents agree that each of them will see the children nonetheless?
What about grandparents and other extended family? Can the extended family on both sides get to see the children over Christmas? How will that be done?
One way to address the situation, especially if you are newly separated, is to ask what sort of Christmas the children had in the past? What did they do? Where did they go? How much of this is it possible for the children to have this Christmas?
Are the children now in a "blended family"? In other words, are they living with half-brothers and half-sisters because of the break-up and a new relationship? If so, when giving presents can you avoid jealousy between the two groups of children, which could have repercussions after Christmas is over?
Many families have a tradition of visiting graves on Christmas day. Can this be done this year? And if so, how?
What will be the role of either parent's new partner? Should they be brought into the Christmas planning? Should they be there when the live-apart parent delivers presents?
You will notice that I have answered none of these questions. That is because there are no neatly packaged answers that will satisfy everyone.
Parents are going to have to do their best and to muster what sensitivity they can in dealing with what can be a painful time. It can be especially painful in the absence of sensitivity.
And friends and relatives also need to remember that this is no time to ratchet up the stress between separated parents.
I know there are parents out there who will use Christmas as another battlefield in the ongoing war against the absent ex. If you are that absent ex, you need to get yourself through this painful experience in a way that leaves you in as good shape as possible, for the sake of your future relationship with your children.
Most separated parents are more reasonable than this. But because Christmas is an emotional minefield, they need to start planning for it now. I would like to acknowledge that most of the sensible ideas in this article came from a conversation some time ago with workers in the Family Mediation Service, which is part of the Family Support Agency (www.fsa.ie). Those ideas that are not sensible came from me.
- Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book That's Men, The Best of the That's Men column from The Irish Times , is published by Veritas