This is the time of year when separated fathers need to consider how to handle Christmas with their kids. Here are some tips which assume the traditional arrangement, namely that the children live with their mother. However, in the opposite scenario, these tips can also be helpful to separated mothers whose children are with their fathers.
Talk to your ex. Organising Christmas satisfactorily when people talk to each other is difficult enough - if they fail to communicate at all, it's likely to be a mess. If you and your ex are not on talking terms, perhaps a mutual friend/relative could help. Do not use the children as negotiators or go-betweens: they should not have to carry this responsibility. And if at all possible, keep solicitors out of it - little if any peace and goodwill can survive their incendiary letters.
Work out the where, when and how. Can both parents be in the room when the children open their Christmas presents? If not, when and how will you give them their presents? Where will you meet them? If either or both of you has a partner, will/should the partner be present? This needs working out between you and it needs mutual respect in the conversation.
It doesn't all have to happen on Christmas Day. If you can't be with the children on Christmas Day, perhaps they can be with you on StStephen's Day. Perhaps the children might have a Christmas celebration at your place before Christmas Day by agreement with the other parent.
Consider extended family. Grandparents matter to children so try to arrange for them to see both sets of grandparents.
Avoid jealousy among half-siblings. If your children are living with half-siblings from your ex's new relationship, could you include presents for these other children as well? Children are children after all, and this could be a smart move to help cement relationships all round.
Respect the live-in parent's opinions on presents. If you want to give your child a smartphone and the live-in parent thinks this is a bad idea then it's important to respect the opinion of that parent and not to undermine her. This is not a time for getting into a competition with the other parent.
Consider what you can preserve from the past. If you recently separated, think about what sort of activities the children are used to at Christmas. How much of this could they still do with cooperation between both parents? Visits to grandparents might form part of this tradition, for instance.
What is the role of the new partner/partners? What involvement should the new partners have in the planning? What involvement should they have when you are with the kids on the day? Now may be a better time to work this out than the 25th of December.
Consider the children's needs. Will coming to you completely disrupt their Christmas because of distance, for instance? Will they have to miss their Christmas play or some other important (to them) event? If so, consider changing the arrangement to accommodate them.
If it all breaks down. If you simply cannot arrange to see the children, think of sending cards and presents. Take care of yourself on Christmas Day. There will be other days: keep yourself in good shape for them.
I would like to acknowledge that some of the ideas in this article came from the Family Mediation Service of the Legal Aid Board and others from the Equal Rights for Separated Dads website. It's an excellent website which I recommend to separated dads (and mums).
I am sorry if any of what I have written here is patronising. I have never been in the situation I am writing about and if I have struck the wrong note with those who are living through it, that's why.
However, I am well aware that Christmas is an emotionally difficult time for many separated parents. The key message is to start thinking about and planning the Christmas arrangements right now - do not wait until Christmas Week.
(This article is based largely on my That's Men column from The Irish Times Tuesday 8th November 2011)