It’s Still a Family
It doesn’t matter how far the distance, or what the custody arrangement, you, your ex, and your children are still a family. Do all you can to allow that feeling to flourish within your children.
Do everything in your power to maximize the amount of contact with both parents every day. If the children are with mom for the week, there should be a daily call from dad. You will have to find the right balance that is based on your custody situation and your children. Too much or too little contact from the away parent may leave your children longing for them. You want to be in contact with your children, but respectful of your ex’s time with them. The last thing you want is to be intrusive.
The more links you can make with your children, your ex, and yourself, the better. You will never have a storybook unified family, so the more connections you can make as a family, the better. Your children need to feel that they are part of a family unit, no matter what the living situation may be. Let them know that no matter what the living situations is, that you are still a family and always will be.
Getting Together As a Family (No Matter How Awkward You Feel)
Every year, my children, my ex, and I all get together for our daughters’ birthday dinners. The children get to choose the restaurant, and we come together as a family, to celebrate the special occasion. People think I’m crazy when they hear my dinner plans. Often there is a follow-up questions such as: “Together!?” or “All of you?” or “Why the hell would you want to do that!?”
Granted, my ex is not usually my first choice in dinner partners. However, we are our daughters’ first choice. They want us both to be there to celebrate with them. They want us to be together as a family on their special day. What kind of parents would we be, if we can’t put aside our hurt feelings, anger, or frustration for a few hours each year? To deny our children this limited, coveted family experience would be placing our feelings before theirs. One thing that I’ve learned about these family get-togethers is that the situation is usually only as awkward as you make it.
So what is it like going to dinner as post-divorce, co-parented family unit? I’ll admit that it is not easy, especially soon after the divorce. In fact, the first few occasions were a bit of a struggle and the only way I got through them was focusing on our children; they are what really mattered. They may be the only common bond between you and your ex, but if you both cherish them, they are all that you will need to get through it.
It may be worth discussing some ground rules with your ex prior to getting together. Agree to keep conversation light; there should be absolutely no discussion of the divorce, your relationship, significant others, or the like. You are coming together to celebrate something can both agree on: the joy your children brought you when they came into the world. All discussion, focus, and attention are to remain on them alone.
My ex and I have agreed that these birthday dinner get-togethers will remain an ongoing tradition. This is something we will do every year to reinforce a feeling of belonging for our children. So that no matter how unconventional it may seem, they will always know that they have and belong to a family. We have also agreed that this tradition is one that we will honor exclusively; significant others and their children will not be included on these occasions.
Christmas Morning & Holidays
Another tradition we have continued for our children’s sake is spending some time together on Christmas morning. We alternate who hosts the event each year along with where our daughters spend the night on Christmas Eve. I’ve found that this has become a bit more complicated to arrange now that I am remarried. When Christmas morning is hosted at my house, my current, very understanding wife will usually head to a family member’s house for a couple of hours.
Early on, I encountered surprised judgements from family and friends regarding this choice; they thought we were crazy. As the years have progressed, everyone (including my ex and I) have grown accustomed to it. It’s one more opportunity for us to instill a sense of family and belonging in our daughters.
I’ve used Christmas morning as an example, but this practice can be applied to whatever holiday you like. The key thing to remember is that the get-together should be preplanned and have as many of the logistical details agreed to ahead of time. Be cognizant that you ex’s family may have unique traditions that are important for them; try to be understanding and work with your ex to accommodate those traditions when possible.
Other Shared Occasions & Events
There are going to be school plays, extracurricular activities, and other events that you and your ex (and possibly members of your extended family) will both want to attend. It should be communicated in advance to extended family members that these occasions are no place to argue or interfere. Let your family members know that you and your ex have agreed to put your kid’s feelings first and you expect the same from them. There will be a first time you encounter this scenario, and it is best to discuss it with your ex ahead of time as it may set the precedent for future interactions of this kind. Agree on how it will be handled, where people will sit, and what will happen afterwards.
For example, if you and your ex’s family are attending a school performance, and your extended families can comfortably sit together without issue, I think that’s great (and you should). If you are more comfortable sitting elsewhere during the performance, that is totally fine too. You should know prior to arriving how it will be handled. It’s commonplace for the child’s loved ones to gather after a performance to congratulate or meet with them. It’s going to be far more awkward for your child if Mom’s family is in one area and Dad’s family is in another, but if that’s what’s necessary to prevent any issues, then do it that way.
You will likely find that, after some time, situations like these and how they’re handled will evolve and change. The first few of these type of interactions I encountered had plenty of smiles in front of grinding teeth. Now, if I arrive early and the venue is filling up, I will try to save seats for my ex and my ex-mother-in-law. My motives are purely selfish in that I would hope she’d do the same for me. It’s also an investment in keeping things decent between my ex and I, so our girls ultimately benefit. Keep an open mind and be willing to step outside your comfort zone as often as you can so things are easier for your children.