For the first time in their eight years, Megan O’Donnell’s twin girls will wake up Christmas morning at their mother’s home.
O’Donnell is like thousands of families raising children while not in a relationship with the children’s other parent.
“We have been blessed because we (her and her daughter’s father) are friends,” O’Donnell said. “But I cried tears of happiness when they decided to be here.”
The holidays are a particularly difficult time to navigate for both parents and children in such households. Parents living this lifestyle say cooperation is key during the season of giving.
In Delaware, Family Court publishes guidelines setting definitions for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as nonbinding guidelines to be used when cooperation is beyond a child’s parents.
In terms of child visitation, Christmas day actually begins at noon Dec. 25. With Christmas Eve beginning at 6 p.m. the day before.
“The contact guidelines are merely suggestions,” explained Leslie Spoltore, partner at Fox Rothschild, LLP in Wilmington and a specialist in family law. “If the matter goes to court, the court is going to hear and take evidence on what is in the best interests of the children and fashion a custody order in their best interest.”
But negotiating beyond the basic recommendation of alternating holidays isn’t easy when the emotions of child rearing and the holidays come around, parents said.
“It can suck the joy out of the holiday,” said Sharif Green, of Wilmington, who has two daughters, one 9, the other 3, with different mothers.
Green said animosity between parents can breed cruel games with the kids stuck in the middle.
“The year before last, she wouldn’t let me see my daughter. We were not getting along well and I really didn’t care to celebrate the holiday at all then,” Green said.
Beyond withholding visitation, there are sometimes mind games that pit one parent as the bad guy in the child’s eyes as a holiday approaches.
These games not only damage the parent, but also hurt the kid, according to Wade Jones, who leads the Sussex County Leadership Committee for the Delaware Fatherhood and Family Coalition and is a behavior health consultant for the state working in middle schools.
“You are asking the child to address grown issues and they do not have the life experience to deal with that,” Jones said. “Most children tend to personalize it with them being a direct link to the breakup. I think you have some children that are torn with not wanting the other parent to know they had too much fun at the other house.”
Jones said he sees the pressure of the holidays on children as they think about how much time will be spent with either parent. This stress manifests through depression and other signs, Jones said.
“A lot of kids are torn with the type of emotion to show to the other parent because they are fearful of hurting their feelings,” Jones observed.
Both Jones and Lillian Rogers, who administers a six-hour parenting class mandated for divorcing families by Family Court, said fostering some sort of working relationship with the other parent is key to creating the best holiday environment possible for a child.
“I ask parents to really focus on putting whatever broke up their relationship on the side,” Rogers said. “Your focus should be a ticker tape running through you head with ‘what is the best interest of my child.’ If you feel like doing something to the other parent for spite, how is it going to effect that other child?”
This may mean disregarding previous traditions or your own holiday joy for what is best for the child, Rogers said.
“I’m the oldest of 12. I can recall the joy and harmony and spirit of Christmas. That is a great experience. Would I rather her have that and open presents with brothers and sisters or open up gifts here with just me,” said Jonathan Wilson, referring to his 3-year-old daughter Talina. “Co-parenting isn’t easy. You have to evaluate your feelings and keep emotions in check.”
Most often it means biting your tongue, said Adrianna Harris, Georgetown mother raising a 5-year-old girl.
“I just bite my tongue and act like nothing is wrong,” Harris said. “It is important to me. I just don't want her to have a bad image, I don't want to make him look like a bad person.”
That can be tricky, Rogers said, recalling calling up her friends and shouting at them to vent before her ex arrived to give the kids Christmas gifts.
“When all those feelings are coming, I would go out of earshot to a phone, call a friend and say ‘don’t even respond to me’ and I would go off,” Rogers said. “So when he would come, I wouldn’t have the compulsion to do that.”
Ultimately, breaking down the barriers stopping cooperation in the parent’s relationship is key to navigating the holidays and all other times, said Wilson, who is also the executive director of Wilmington non-profit Fathership Foundation, which focuses on male parenting education and support.
It takes time, Green said noting he and the mother of his eldest daughter have built an understanding through the years. But even as the years go by and estranged lovers hearts soften, it’s still difficult.
“The hardest part: the holidays are supposed to be for families, but when you experience this type of division, it kind of diminishes the concept of family,” he said. “It goes deep. It is difficult.”
Contact Staff Writer Xerxes Wilson at (302) 324-2787 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the Fathership Foundation visit:http://www.fathershipfoundation.org/.
For more information on the Delaware Fatherhood and Family Coalition visit:http://www.dffcdads.org/.