This article is by Ben Parfitt, a freelance writer and former client of Sarah Jackson of BLB Solicitors. Here he describes his experience of child custody issues over the Christmas period.
I had a fairly clear set of expectations when I arrived at court for my custody case. My intention was never to block access, but to ensure that access was conducted in a manner that was safe.
The Cafcass report backed up every one of my concerns, and the recommendations felt fair (that the court ignored the lot of them is a separate story entirely). But the one subject that had never been mentioned was school holidays and, in particular, Christmas.
While I always ensured that I approached every decision throughout my custody fight from the angle of “what’s best for my daughter?”, as opposed to “what is it that I want?”, I shall admit that when it came to Christmas my thoughts were a little more self-centred. I looked after my girl the vast majority of the time. I put in the hard graft making sure she was clean and fed and arrived at school on time and was collected on time and did her homework and got to her dance classes and went to bed when she didn’t want to. I was the one who had to say ‘no’ and discipline her. Her mum’s time with her, which was limited back then, was more focused on fun and enjoyment.
So when it came to Christmas, ultimately, I felt that as I was putting in a lot more of the hard work, it felt only right that I would get Christmas. In all honesty I also think that’s probably want my daughter would want as well – and I think still is – but I’d be lying if I said that was the reason behind my position.
It came as a shock, then, when straight off the bat my barrister – who took absolutely no nonsense, I assure you – told me that there very little chance I would be awarded every Christmas. We were fighting to allow only alternate weekends (and one evening every other week) access, but despite this I was advised that it was not even worth fighting the Christmas argument. Even when absent parents have hardly any contact at all, I was told, Christmases would always be split or shared. I could have chosen to fight this, but was advised my chances of getting anywhere were incredibly slim.
There is in fact no provision in law for Christmas contact arrangements, with parents strongly urged to come to an agreement between themselves and courts only intervening when this has proved absolutely impossible. Obviously, this can be a huge challenge when animosity is strong, but nonetheless that is how it is.
So how does this work out for most families in this scenario?
Research conducted in 2014 found that 27% of divorced and separated UK parents take turns, with each having the child on alternate Christmases. Surprisingly, 23% actually spend their Christmas together (in the East Midlands this climbs to 35% and in London 32%).
In addition, 14% of families settle with kids spending at Christmas with the primary parent, while just 1% see kids spending Christmas with the other parent. 11% of separated parents each hold their own Christmas, one of which is of course not on Christmas day.
Other findings included that just 13% of people solicit their kid’s opinions when making a decision about Christmas.
The report also found that the biggest problem in making Christmas arrangements was remaining on good enough speaking terms to come to an agreement (41%). This was followed by the travelling distances involved, finding the money to fund Christmas, feeling the need to compete with the other parent and concerns about an ex’s new partner or existing children.
An ex’s propensity to ‘spoil’ a child with excessive gifts was the joint most commonly cited cause of arguments when it comes to Christmas, tied with the inability to agree upon a set of ground rules that is consistent across both households. Concerns about step-parents or step-siblings also ranked highly.
Coming to an agreement
If you’re in the situation where you need to come to an agreement on Christmas contact for your children, your main options are as follows:
- The child spends Christmas Day with one parent and Boxing Day with the other – ultimately December 25th is just a date, and there’s no reason why December 26th can’t be just as fun. It also means two Christmases for the kids!
- Splitting Christmas Day – the child could spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with one parent, and then Christmas afternoon and Boxing Day with the other. Travel times are a complicating factor here, but at least the roads will be quiet.
- Alternate – kids spend Christmas with one parent one year and the other the following year
- Try to make the arrangements as far in advance as you can, as doing so last minute can make the entire thing needlessly more stressful.
- As always, try and present a united front to your kids. Even if things aren’t working out as planned, always make them believe that the decision was made between the pair of you.
- Be positive – two Christmases and two families will almost certainly mean two sets of presents!
- Try not to control your ex’s time with your children. Christmas is very special for everyone, and unless there are genuine safety concerns, give them some space. It’s very unlikely any irrevocable damage will be caused in the space of 24 hours by your kids spending time with people you don’t like.
- Don’t race to outspend your ex at Christmas. Presents are exciting but cherished memories come from good time spent together. Just make sure you and your kids have a wonderful time together. Play games. Wear a silly hat. Throw a brussel sprout at a cousin. Draw on grandad’s face when he falls asleep on the sofa.
- It’s about your kids. There will probably be a wide network of families who all have their own wants and interests, but it’s unlikely you can please everyone. Focus just on pleasing your kids, however, and you won’t go wrong.
The first Christmas I had without my daughter was devastating and, frankly, I hated every moment, just as I will hate it again next year. There’s no real way around it. I coped with it by eating a really quite criminal amount of chocolate, thinking about how great the following year was going to be and keeping myself busy. Thank god for video games and all those films they put on during Christmas Day! I then made up for it by making sure Boxing Day was the best. Kids at Christmas are magic and even if you only get that half the time, that’s a whole lot of magic to enjoy.
Should you wish to discuss any of the issues raised in this article in the strictest confidence, please contact specialist solicitor and family mediator, Sarah Jackson, on 01225 462871 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org