For years now, I have a running gag that goes something like this: “I’m a half-Catholic, half-Jewish, overweight, balding attorney – so, I can make almost any offensive joke with impunity.” The line is always good for a laugh. The first part of it, though, is really the reason that I have a certain perspective as a Family Law attorney, however overweight and balding I may be, when it comes to the holidays.
Growing up with a Jewish dad and a Catholic mom who were, for a while at least, embroiled in custodial litigation, I got the best of both worlds. Eight days of Hanukkah celebration with a dad who was open-minded enough and loved me enough to set up a Christmas tree next to the Menorah. And then Christmas with my mom. I was showered with love and gifts and holiday fun, and in hindsight I’m sure that my crafty self used it to my advantage. (Sorry, Mom. Sorry, Dad.)
I fondly recall celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas with my dad while on the road; while I primarily lived with my mom in the suburbs of Philadelphia, my childhood saw my dad’s employment take him from Philly to Chicago to St. Louis to Dallas to Houston. I can still close my eyes and see the reflection of a small, portable Christmas tree in the floor-to-ceiling window of dad’s hotel room at the Barclay Chicago hotel. I was probably about eight (8) years old at the time – the same age as my son is now, at the time I’m writing this blog.
Doing what we do for a living, the extent to which I am blessed is not lost on me. I am lucky enough to come home to my wonderful children each and every day. I’ve never missed a chance to see my kids’ faces light up on Christmas morning. I’ve never missed the opportunity for a shared couch-and-football-nap after a filling Thanksgiving dinner, or to pretend that I don’t really know where the Easter Bunny put all of those eggs. Due to the realities of custodial litigation and the aftermath thereof, even the most amicable of resolutions often fail to afford divorced parents each and every holiday with their children. Our clients, no matter how well we do for them, generally don’t have those same opportunities that I do with my children. Alternating holidays is more often than not the byproduct of there being two parents but only one Christmas Day.
Growing up, I didn’t always celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day. For me, Christmas Day was sometimes a few days thereafter. I even recall eating Thanksgiving dinner once on a Sunday. Aside from the fact that I grew up to become a Family Law attorney, though, I think I turned out okay. Credit should go to my mother and father — at least as far as I knew, my parents prioritized me and my holiday experience ahead of whatever ill feelings they may have had for one another. If they were fighting about visitation time or Christmas gift lists or anything else, I sure wasn’t privy to it.
To our clients, I encourage the same standard. My advice to clients generally includes me pleading with them along those lines.
Holidays are inherently more important and magical for your child than for you, I tell clients, and they deserve to enjoy that magic. If you cannot set aside your differences with your parenting counterpart, at least do everything possible to insulate your children from those differences. Ideally, if you can do so without incident, bring everyone together for the holidays – step-parents included.
Be reasonable. Not only is it the right thing to do, but reasonableness is also valued by the Family Court. Go over and beyond, if possible, to foster and facilitate a bonded relationship between your children and the other parent. Not only is it the right thing to do, but such effort is also a factor considered by the Family Court in making custodial determinations: S.C. Code § 63-15-240(B) sets out those factors considered by the Family Court in issuing custodial orders and, according to S.C. Code § 63-15-240(B)(6), the Court considers “the actions of each parent to encourage the continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent, as is appropriate, including compliance with court orders.”
Most parents think about how they only have so many Christmases with their children before they grow up. Divorced or separated parents would do better to re-focus their thinking, and start instead from the perspective of the children: Your children only have so Christmases before the light of that magic is extinguished – do everything you can to make sure that each and every Christmas, whether they’re with you or not, is as pure and perfect for them as possible.
Meanwhile, it would be naïve to assume that everyone is on the same page. If the other parent is a problem, unless it is some sort of emergency endangering life and limb, take the high road if you can. Preserve the holiday for your children. Then, after the dust has settled and the cookies have all been eaten, that’s when you come to see us so we can start talking about putting the selfish parent on the Naughty List – or at least on the Family Court docket.
Don’t be the problem. Be the solution. Be fair. Be reasonable. And remember – those who hang tattered stockings shouldn’t throw coal.