SALT LAKE CITY — When Erica Hartwig was a little girl growing up in New York state, she dreaded Christmas. Her parents were divorced and midway through the festivities, her dad would pick her up to drive the 45 minutes to his house, then later they'd make the trip in reverse. The day was disjointed.
So after she and Tate Lindsey Jr. divorced in 2012 after seven years together, they did things differently, with the happiness of their two kids in mind. Tate had become addicted to painkillers following a back injury and she couldn't stay married to him, she says now. They had a "difficult" separation, but the Boca Raton, Florida, duo determined to maintain a warm relationship and continue to celebrate the holidays with the whole family, including his parents, Wendy and Tate Lindsey Sr., who lived nearby.
Big family events like holidays together didn't stop even when she married Josh Hartwig and they had children, too, or when Tate Jr. died three years ago at age 27.
"We (adults) all decided it was not about us; it was about the children having their family together," said Erica of her five kids — Aiden, now 11, Logan, 9, Summer, 7, Kameron, 5, and Hudson, 2. Two are Tate Jr.'s, two are Josh's and the Hartwigs adopted a child they had fostered. "I just want everyone to be included," she said.
"I think people owe it to their kids. If you got married — decided to have these children — they shouldn't be torn apart. It's about making memories together," she added. When the kids are older, they will "want to think of all the faces that were there. If there was always someone missing, how sad is that?"
This month, as families power through the holiday season, experts say the emotional needs of the children should take center stage. Expert consensus is that, for the sake of the kids, divorced and separated parents must try to get along. But many parents can't or won't because they harbor anger and other harsh feelings toward each other. Children are often caught between the parents they love.
"The holidays present one of the more difficult adjustments separated or divorced parents and their children face," said family law attorney Chris Hildebrand of Scottsdale, Arizona. It's the parents' job to provide as much stability as they can — and to "create as much familiarity for the children in each parent's home as the children enjoyed when the parents were together."
The goal is to foster a seamless transition from one home to another — especially important when parents can't manage to spend time together.
The Hartwigs and Lindseys have a lot of practice nurturing family ties and it's a process that's been made easier by the fact that they live not far from each other, so Wendy and Tate Lindsey Sr. sometimes watch the kids when Erica and Josh Hartwig work on weekends. That happens a lot, because Erica and Josh have a wedding photography business, Organic Moments Photography. They are so close that when Hurricane Irma destroyed their house, they turned to the Lindseys for a place to stay temporarily.
If the degree to which Erica and Josh embrace her former in-laws seems unusual, the latter are themselves a great example of getting along. Wendy and Tate Sr. consider all five of Erica's kids their grandchildren, without favoritism, though they are related biologically to only the two oldest. That doesn't matter. Whether they're buying Christmas presents or planning a sleepover or Tate Sr. is writing names on the winter-themed lawn ornaments he carved, the Lindseys include and love all of Erica's children equally.
Keeping the family intact after her son's marriage dissolved is easy and rewarding, according to Wendy Lindsey, who doesn't think of Erica in terms of "ex."
"She's still my daughter-in-law. I talk to her several times a week like she is my own child," she said. "And Josh is very warm and very caring. I think the first time I heard the kids call him 'dad,' he saw the tears in my eyes. It was shortly after my son passed and Josh has always been very sensitive and outgoing; we feel welcome around him. He's pretty great."
One of the most touching moments Wendy said she ever experienced was attending the adoption of their middle Hartwig grandchild, who Josh and Erica had fostered before deciding to adopt. "To see that happy moment and being able to be a part of it with their family, it meant a lot to me."
Making it work
"It's the parents' and lawyers' responsibility to make sure children, who have no say about divorce, are as insulated as possible," said Hildebrand. "That also teaches children healthy conflict resolution skills they can carry forward."
Divorce is emotionally hard on adults, but they will handle it better if they make sure they have a support system of people they can count on, said Maria Shifrin, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan, New York. People who are aware of their own needs are more capable of being a resource for their children. When children see a parent being mindful of their "thoughts, emotions and behaviors, they will feel safe enough to approach you with theirs," she said.
She warned that teens "tend to be extreme" and may express emotions by internalizing, like being depressed, or externalize by acting out or engaging in risky behavior. They may also show rather than tell their emotions "if they don't feel like you can tolerate it because of your own struggles," she said, so it's important children see their parents seeking help if they need it.
Reasons abound to work at making relationships post-divorce work. Among the most important is kids whose divorced parents can maintain a decent relationship adjust better to the divorce, according to Rosalind Sedacca, author of "How Do I Tell the Kids About the Divorce?" and founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network.
Divorced or separated parents may try to vilify each other to the children, which Eric Klein, a matrimonial and family law attorney in Boston and South Florida said makes the holidays — and the family breakup — harder to endure.
While many families alternate years during which each parent has the children over the holidays, David Gonet believes children do best when they spend some time with each parent, if that's possible.
But Gonet, who practices law in the Chicago area, said parents shouldn't force a togetherness that's false if they don't get along — "as this will inevitably lead to a tense situation for the minor child." Instead, he suggested one parent have the kids on Christmas Eve and the other Christmas morning. "Most kids look forward to this arrangement and often say, 'I have two Christmases,'" he said in an email.
Dos and Don'ts:
Even that only works when a child's parents both live close by. Former partners may end up living in different locales. And the adult relationships may be too damaged to make goodwill exchanges possible. But experts say kids benefit when parents do everything possible to get along.
When parents know they'll just bicker if they spend time together or when distance makes such bonhomie unworkable, Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics, recommends parents make a plan in advance for where the children will be each day during the holidays and discuss it so the children will be prepared to switch back and forth between homes. "Remember to be patient and flexible," he adds. "You want your children to have happy memories, not memories of parents arguing."
Experts offer these practical tips:
- Do coordinate schedules, including holiday meals, when kids will attend events with each parent and what gifts the children get from each parent, suggested Hildebrand. Make sure schedules let the kids enjoy other extended family or family friends, too.
- Do keep conflicts and legal discussions away from the kids, Klein said.
- Minimize disruptions to holiday routines. Do what you normally do at the holidays: Go to church, visit Santa at the mall, etc.
- Don't insist gifts stay at the parent's home who gave them. "This demand sends a very upsetting message," Hildebrand warned. It tells the child the gift is not theirs, but belongs to the parent who gave it. And it emphasizes the family is split, leaving the kids with two separate lives. "Children are not emotionally developed and equipped enough to really be able to digest that. I think it just furthers the divide."
- Help the children understand that both houses are "a loving home for the children," he said.
- Do acknowledge when holidays are especially rough because of painful loss or separation, said Shifrin. Celebrate, but follow your instincts regarding what the kids can handle, then adjust the routine.
- Do be happy when the kids are having fun and getting gifts they like, said attorney AllynMarie Smedley of Woodbury, New Jersey. Parents who get upset if a child talks about good times with the other parent may encourage their kids to keep part of their life hidden, she warned.
- Do remember the adults chose the divorce, not the children, said Orlando, Florida-based single parent and divorce coach Dawn Burnett. "Have gratitude. Find something about juggling your child with your ex that you can be thankful for."
- Don't spoil a visit with the other parent by telling the children all the great things you had planned for them instead, said Mary E. Ramos of Ramos Law Group in Houston, Texas. "You can make the whole holiday season better for your kids by not giving them a reason to resent the visit with your former spouse," she said.
- If you can't be civil during the drop-off and pickup, consider using a professional car service like Kango. Parents download the app to schedule rides, said Nashville-based marketing expert Frances Blount.
Most people cooperate with their former partner for the kids' sake, Hildebrand said. The most contentious time is typically early in a breakup, when emotions are more raw. But people generally settle down and find they can work together.
If love of the kids isn't reason enough to work hard to create fond memories, a new study from the American Psychological Association offers this inducement: Kids who remember their childhoods with fondness grow into healthier adults who have less depression and chronic illnesses when they're older.
"We know memory plays a huge part in how we make sense of the world — how we organize our past experiences and how we judge how we should act in the future," said lead author William J. Chopik from Michigan State University in background material for the study, published in the journal Health Psychology.