Tug-of-love Christmas

Bitter warring exes further hurt their children by withholding access at traditional family time, says Áilín Quinlan

FOR DIVORCE lawyers, the Christmas rush begins in October — that’s when the arguments begin over who has the children for the festive season.

It’s not yet Halloween when warring ex-couples start to come through the door of Patricia Mallon’s office in Cork, arguing over the holiday custody arrangements.

“Christmas Eve, Christmas Day,

St Stephens Day and New Year’s Eve are kind of hot button days — this is because each parent wants the children to be with them as much as possible,” she says.

“Of these, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are definitely the most important days of the year for these families,” says Mallon, a family law solicitor in divorce and mediation, and founder member of the Cork Resolution Centre, which resolves legal issues of all kinds. “There’s a lot of stress when there’s a lack of clarity or decisiveness about what’s going to happen.”

Christmas is a major issue for family law solicitors. “In terms of the amount of family law files in your office, between 40% and 50% would have Christmas access issues that need to be ironed out — it’s a hallmark of Christmas in Ireland today,” says Mallon, who has practised family law for 25 years.

The biggest change, she observes, is the increase in the number of people who have to sort out Christmas access. Although Ireland has one of the lowest rates of divorce in the EU, it has the highest percentage of children living with a lone parent — in 2008, 23% of children in Ireland were raised by single parents compared to 14% for the EU. A former partner may insist on having the child for Christmas Day and may not be prepared to share this time with the other parent. “You listen to the story and find out about what they feel — Mum will say it’s a Christmas tradition to bring the children to her family home with grandparents and aunties. Dad will argue that that’s unfair because he’s had to move out of the family home and back in with his parents, for instance, and wants to see the children,” says Mallon.

Mallon offers both parties mediation to help them reach a solution: “People get very stressed over the worry of Christmas where there is no finality or decision made regarding Christmas arrangements. Where arrangements have not been agreed, everyone’s worried about what’s going to happen. I have seen people break down, cry and argue and get very emotional and stressed over this issue. At Christmas, everyone wants to have the children and everyone wants to be in on the whole Santa part of Christmas Day,” she says.

Things can become unpleasant when Christmas custody arrangements do not run to plan, says Dr Patrick Ryan, of the department of clinical psychology at the University of Limerick. Ryan is frequently called in by the courts as an independent assessor when parents cannot agree. “It’s always acrimonious; on occasion, it can even go to fisticuffs at the point where the child is to be handed over from one parent to another,” he says. “Christmas is a flashpoint because it has all sorts of meanings and connotations. At Christmas, custody arrangements come into sharp focus because people can try to break them, or get around them or amend them in their own favour, and this causes absolute war and huge distress.”

Paul’s story

Even though ‘Paul’ has had his Christmas access arrangements laid down by the courts, things rarely go smoothly: “According to the court order, every second Christmas my son is with me. One year, he’s supposed to spend from early on Christmas Eve to around teatime on St Stephen’s Day with me, and the next year he spends several hours on Christmas day with me,” he says.

This agreement is regularly broken by his ex-partner: “I often have to go to the garda station and explain the situation. They will usually ring my ex-partner and tell her to comply with the court order, or they’ll escort me to her home and wait while my son comes with me. My son and I get on very well together, so all of this is completely unnecessary, but every Christmas there’s trouble. There’s always a problem,” he says.

The most common arrangement, says Mallon, is when both parents see the children for some part of Christmas day — either morning or afternoon. They must decide where the child will stay on Christmas Eve and Christmas night: “Stephen’s Day is less of a hot-button day — once Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are sorted out it gets much easier,” she says.

Most people will come to an agreement, rotating alternative years. “The older children get, the easier it is to resolve issues, because by the time they are 12 or 13 or 14, the child has a very large input into what is going to happen,” she says.

Anna’s story

‘Anna’ has five children aged between eight and 16 with her husband of 20 years. Christmas 2011 is a major issue for the couple, who separated acrimoniously some months ago. “He originally wanted the children for the whole of Christmas. He wanted them Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve,” says Anna.

“I basically refused to go along with this, and, as of now, we have agreed that we will share the children over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and then they are to be with each of us for one week each.”

Several solicitors were involved. “The children think it’s terrible, they want the whole family back together again, but that won’t happen,” she says.

Marriage breakdown and the increasingly common phenomenon of blended families — where Mum and Dad set up house with new partners and their children — can make Christmas complicated, says Mallon. “There has to be major co-operation and tolerance for an arrangement to work — for example, Dad is living with his new partner who has two or three children of her own, while Mum may be living with her and Dad’s children and a new partner. The mother and the Dad have to sort out Christmas and access arrangements.”

Other things to be discussed are the Christmas presents for the children and the amount to be spent. Mum and Dad may have to balance the demands of their new living arrangements and cater for new partners and their children.

“All of this must be put into the mix. You have an awful lot of children who are living in families with that type of complex blended arrangements, so at Christmas there would be some moving around between households,” she says.

Family therapist Cathy Breslin worries about the effect on the children of moving around when they should be settling and relaxing. “Having to pack up your stuff and leave to go to another family at Christmas can be very disruptive for a child,” she says. Having to go off and see Dad and his new partner in an apartment or house, and maybe their new baby or the partner’s child, can be difficult. “It’s not a good thing to take children out of their environment, where they feel secure and comfortable, and move them to an unfamiliar environment.”

Although the child is getting the opportunity to spend Christmas with the other biological parent, it can be a disruptive experience, because the new partner may have their own children living in the house or apartment.

“There are a lot of families now where the traditional nuclear family Christmas does not apply,” says Breslin. The emphasis should be on what is best for the children and what they would like to do. “It’s about the adults being mature about what is best for the child. The adults should put aside their own highly emotive attitudes about Christmas and be more selfless. Discuss where the child is happiest. Is it really the ideal situation to take a child out of the home on Christmas morning with a backpack? You need to think about this. Often, issues come to the surface and it’s more about what the adults want and what they think they should have in terms of access to their child,” she says.

Following a separation or divorce, there are unresolved issues between the parents — these can continue to erupt at emotive times such as Christmas and holidays. “Parents should be prepared to compromise and visit the ex’s house, if necessary — if in doubt, seek advice and put your own issues to the side for the good of the child,” she says.

However, the child’s best interests are not always paramount with some parents, says Ryan.

“It’s nearly always about a power struggle between the parents. It’s tied up with all the hurts that came with the break-up of the relationship,” he says.

* Some names have been changed

SEPARATED PARENTS SHOULD AGREE TO ALTERNATE DAYS

LAST YEAR separated mother-of-seven Dr Kate Byrne spent Christmas Day with all of her children, aged from 21 to five.

“Last year I had the children the whole time because, due to unforeseen circumstances, their father was away.

“This year they will be with me on Christmas Eve and right up to late morning on Christmas day.”

Then the two youngest boys will go and stay with their father from Christmas morning until St Stephen’s night.

“The others will stay with me,” says Byrne, who specialises in child and adolescent psychology.

She wanted all seven sons to be together for Christmas morning, she says:

“I think Christmas morning is a big thing. Parents want to wake up to Christmas presents and the tree, so their father would have liked them Christmas morning.

“However, I felt all the boys should be together at least until about 11am when their father will collect the two youngest.”

In most cases where the parents have separated, they will agree to alternate, so that the child spends one Christmas with the mother in her situation and the next with the father in his situation.

However, she says, there needs to be an amicable relationship between the parents for this to work:

“If there isn’t an amicable relationship between the ex’s, there will be a hoo-ha every year which is not good for the children. It’s also not good for the parent who will have nobody around for Christmas.”

TIPS FOR A MELLOW CHRISTMAS

* If you are not getting on with your ex have your Christmas arrangements mediated, says Dr Kate Byrne:

“Go the family mediation services which are all over the country and mediate your agreements over Christmas. If you cannot come to an amicable agreement between the two of you, it’s important to have an uninvolved third party who will help you come to a mutually agreeable decision.

* Recognise that Christmas morning is an issue and automatically alternate it ever year so that each year one parent has Christmas morning while the other has the afternoon.

* Try to be fair. If you are not there will be bad feeling.

* Always think of the children.

* If you have an extended family situation at Christmas where parents, aunts and uncles are coming to your house, she says, it’s important to make it clear that nobody is to say anything negative about your ex-partner in front of the children.

* If you are separated and divorced and have friends who are also in this situation, get together for Christmas. Don’t spend it alone.”

Even with big loving traditional families Christmas can be a minefield so:

* Iron out any potential problems beforehand, such as long-running sibling disagreeements.

* Give every guest a designated task, such as laying the table/peeling vegetables, looking after the drinks.

* Avoid talk of the recession, pay cuts and job losses. A lot of families are struggling to make ends meet as a result of the recession, says Byrne.

* You might be all grown up but sibling rivalry is still alive and kicking.

“When we’re all together we can become childish in how we interact with each other so Christmas can be a stressful time for a lot of families,” says therapist Cathy Breslin.

“One of the things that aggravates this situation is alcohol. Watch your alcohol intake,” she advises.

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