While it may be assumed that ‘Peace and goodwill’ are out of the question for divorced or separated parents at Christmas, new research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) suggests that parents should not despair.
The study shows that, over time, festivities replace hostilities for the vast majority of families. Researcher, Dr Jennifer Flowerdew commented “Despite the difficulties that arise in the immediate aftermath of relationship break-down, our study shows that Christmas is still seen as the time when families focus on what unites them rather than what divides them.”
Findings show that in divorced families, similar to other families, Christmas is a time when people are acutely aware of the emotional significance of ‘family’ and will seek to forge, renew or strengthen those ties that they value.
As Dr Flowerdew explains: ‘For all our families, Christmas continues to symbolise ‘time out’ from the pressures associated with paid work and life outside the domestic sphere, and ‘time in’ with children, parents, wider kin and friends. As such, it is seen as a time to prioritise family connections and relegate its divisions.’
These findings result from a re-analysis of data from previous research which followed a sample of divorced or separated parents and their children over a nine year period. The research is based on the view that family change is a process rather than a one off event, and that one of the best ways to understand this is to track family members over time, exploring their changing experiences and the changing nature of their relationships.
Taking this long-term view offers a valuable insight into key relationships within the family. For example, in the case of parent-child relationships, non residential parents will often seek more contact with their children at Christmas than at other times of the year and parents may put more effort into working out satisfactory arrangements for contact at this time than at any other.
But the festive season also places other highly valued family relationships in the spotlight. While parent-child relationships are often thought of as the most significant of family ties, sibling relationships are perhaps the closest and yet most volatile of family ties. Finding a balance between being separate and yet connected to a sibling is important, and this is nowhere more evident than in post- divorce and step- families, where the options for working out these balances across two or more homes are all the greater.
The range and nature of these relationships – including half-, step- and full- siblinghood – can be highly varied. Step-siblings, for example, may or may not fall into the conventional pattern of age spacing found among siblings with the same parents. A step sibling might be an exact contemporary, born in the same year or even month, and sharing interests linked to their particular generation. On the other hand, children in step families may be of different generations, producing very different kinds of bonds between them. Wider family ties, including those with aunts, uncles and grandparents are also important; in step families the options for extending the range of these ties is opened up in interesting ways.
The nature and significance of these complex family relationships becomes all the more transparent at Christmas, as linked families work out who will spend time together, and when and where. Accommodating everyone’s needs may be a challenging task to work out in the lead up to Christmas.
In these circumstances, Dr Flowerdew explains: ‘As at other times of the year, flexibility remains a vital organising principle in trying to meet everyone’s needs, and crucially, their understanding of what is ‘fair’. This emerges as important in all the families in our study, whether or not Christmas holds a particular religious significance for them.’
The lives documented as part of this study are still under construction. But this analysis reveals the fluid, negotiated nature of family life, the extent to which family ties are created and refined through the stream of time, particularly at key times in the yearly life cycle, such as Christmas, and the potential for change and growth.
‘Over Christmas, it’s very flexible. In fact, it becomes almost as if we were married, in the sense that the kids want us both to do things. So they wake up one morning, ring me, I’ll take them out and then take them back to their mum’s. And she’ll say ‘Oh, don’t bring them back ’til later because I’m going to so and so’. So, it’s very much a case of we share it between us really.My mum lives round the corner and over Christmas particularly, my ex-wife often takes the children round there if she’s going shopping or anywhere’ (Lawrence, father).
‘Dad’s bought a house near Mum’s and Natalie, his new girlfriend is going to be moving in soon with her daughter. We normally stay at Dad’s but the occasional time, like this Christmas Day night, we’re going to stay at Natalie’s.Dad will be there and we’ll see Mum during the day’ (Harold, aged 15 years).
‘I share Christmas. So, one Christmas I am with my mum, then that year I go and spend New Year with my dad. Then the other Christmas I go to my dad’s and then I spend New Year with my mum. That is how we share it. And Grandma comes over’. (Callum, aged 8 years).
‘Being a parent to a two year old.to love him and to care for him, that’s not difficult.The actual difficulty for me is that I’m not asked to do anything.I don’t have him Christmas and I don’t have him birthdays…’ (Rick, father).
‘My brother’s always been there for me, even though he lives at mum’s and I don’t. He said he’d look after me and protect me if anything happened to me and he always has done. I talk to him about what it’s been like at dad’s and he talks to me about what it’s been like at me mum’s, like, we compare it to each other’ (Laura, aged 14).
‘There’s my brother, Josh. And Tom my step-brother who’s eleven days younger than me .I see him very often ‘cos we’re in the same form at school and we do stuff together. And he comes over here if he’s late for the bus or got football training. I think Tom living with me more would be nice’ (Bobby, aged 11 years).
‘My dad and his partner have had a baby.he’s four now.I spend sort of half the week with him.Great! Actually, it’s not. He’s just at that age, I hope. Because if it’s not that.he’s beyond hope.He’s quite a struggle sometimes, like when I’m supposed to be studying.But I do actually think of him as my brother. My brother Fred is close. that’s always been the case. He’s fourteen. We go through everything together really. Although we are like fighting a lot of the time’ (Jack, aged 15 years).
‘My dad and his girlfriend have got a child, that’s my sister.I don’t call her half sister, I just call her sister. She’s the same age as me and she’s at the same school.And she gets the same pocket money as me’ (Bruce, aged 11 years).
Wider kin and friends
‘At Christmas, we go round to my auntie’s with my mum and dad to have Christmas dinner with all my family’ (Tom, aged 8 years).
‘…we have got a very close family. Like I remember once it was Christmas morning and Mum woke me up and said ‘Uncle Peter is coming round to take you to the pub for breakfast’..We were having, like, a family Christmas lunch but Peter had just popped in and taken me to the pub. My brother came as well. Pete took me there for breakfast and then took us to the family lunch’. (Quentin, aged 17 years).
‘Friends are absolutely essential. I couldn’t have done it without them.I had a couple of friends who got me through that first Christmas. My ex-husband’s family was amazing. They came over and stayed with me and I went to stay with my sister-in-law, his brother’s wife between Christmas and New Year’ (Sue, mother).