Those first vacations after getting separated or divorced can be a little tough to sort out. For starters, you have to totally re-imagine what a family holiday looks like. Your former spouse isn’t going to be there and you’ve got to figure out a way to make that okay for both you and your kids. Plus, you’re likely not used to doing all the driving, wrangling and negotiating of airport security by yourself, and that can be a pretty daunting. Add to this the fact that money is likely tighter than it was before, and that you may dearly want to show your kids that there are still plenty of good times to be had, and it’s no wonder this whole thing may seem like an emotional minefield.
But having a successful vacation with your kids post-separation can be both empowering and healing, not to mention a heck of a lot of much-needed fun. My first trip after splitting up was a bit of a godsend. Dear friends with kids the same age invited us to join them at their timeshare in Florida, so my eldest son and I flew down there for about five days. Having other people in the mix—friends to splash in the pool and explore Disney World with for Cam, adults to chat and clink corny umbrella drinks with for me—made our vacay fun. It was the right trip for the time.
Trips to see my family in B.C., where grandparents and an auntie could share in our adventures and help entertain the kids, were also a big success back then. Later, I graduated to more ambitious solo-parenting journeys, like a road trip from Vancouver to Calgary, where I hadn’t been since my father had passed away that same terrible fall when my marriage ended. I came away from the experience feeling pretty great about the enriching experiences I could provide for my children and my ability to drive nearly 1,000 kilometres by myself.
Of course, it helped that my ex and I have an amicable relationship, so communicating our plans and negotiating the days we’d be away wasn’t nearly as tough as it is for some of my friends.
Nathalie Boutet, a collaborative family lawyer and accredited mediator, often helps newly separated couples navigate the tricky waters of those first vacations. Before there’s a separation agreement in place that stipulates how vacations will play out, it’s hard to sort out who can go on vacation and how long they can go for, she says.
“Either the person doesn’t want the travelling parent to be gone for so long, or they want the same time, or the person doesn’t agree with the location of the proposed travel,” says Boutet.
Here are some of Boutet’s best tips for getting through your first vacations as a separated couple.
Keep it simple. If this is your first holiday post-divorce or separation, everyone is likely feeling the strain, she says. Downtime in a fun, comfortable environment is really all that’s required. “You don’t need to go to Disneyland or China or on safari in Africa. That’s not what kids are looking for. The best times are when the kids got a lot of attention. It doesn’t have to be fancy.” Boutet has a friend who took the kids on a very expensive cruise after the split. “Then they spent three days at our cottage where it rained the whole time and one of the children said ‘That was the best three days of my life.’ That’s because we were together and we played games. They don’t need big stimulating trips; they need people to take care of them.”
Share your plans ahead of time: A healthy co-parenting relationship starts with open and honest communication. It’s always a good idea to provide your proposed travel plans to your former spouse well in advance of your trip, says Boutet. The plan should include the dates of travel, the mode of transportation, including flight or train itinerary and details, the address and phone number of where you will be staying, and how to reach the children throughout your travels.
Be prepared: The last thing you want to endure on vacation is any stress from unexpected hiccups. Remember the obvious like strollers, and make sure you have a good one that can fold away easily for transportation. Also remember to pack your kids’ passports, birth certificates and health insurance cards. Depending on the country you’re traveling to, you may need to apply for a visa. For example, traveling to America for a holiday usually requires tourists to have a DS-160 visa. Be sure to have checked that out beforehand. You will also need to get a travel note signed in advance expressing your ex’s permission in writing. The Government of Canada has sample letters available here. Occasionally a border guard will ask for a notarized letter, so if you’re nervous about that, you might want to go the extra mile and see a notary public who offers this service.
Communication is key: Put yourself in your ex-spouse’s shoes and remember to keep them well informed while you’re away. Agree in advance about the frequency of contact with your children during the trip. While constant phone calls or texts could interfere with your ability to get into a groove on your vacation, I’ve found that sending a few photos by text or email is good thing for both the kids and their dad. It helps them feel like their father is in on the experience to some extent, and he takes real joy in seeing that they’re having an enriching experience. If things are particularly tense for you right now, setting expectations prior to your travels will give both parents peace of mind. It’s also important for the children involved to feel safe and comfortable while their travelling, says Boutet. “They will feel better knowing they can contact their mom or dad if they feel like it.”
Be reasonable: “It’s heart wrenching to think of not having your kids with you, especially at the start,” says Boutet. “You have to put up with that loneliness and fear.” But it’s important to remember that it’s a good thing for children to have the time and space to be alone with each of their parents so they can develop a new kind of relationship post-separation, she says. Letting that happen will help establish trust all around, especially between you and your ex-spouse. That trust goes a long way to creating a secure environment for the kids, and to reducing stressful conflict between you and your ex. And that’s good for everybody.
Photo: Maja Petric, Unsplash