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Stepfamilies and Holidays

Holidays are like stepfamilies - a little fantasy, a little pretending, some panic and the new reality that we create. The public notion is that the holiday season is peaceful, loving and joyous. And if it's not peaceful, loving and joyous, we end up thinking "There must be something wrong with me."

Because stepfamilies are formed after a loss - usually a divorce or a death - no matter what else the holiday means to the new family, someone has lost the way it used to be. And one can't avoid the fact that one has either half as many family members to celebrate with - or twice as many.

So here are some thought and tips to help stepfamilies cope with the most stressful holiday season for all of us - the 60 day span between Halloween and the New Year.

Communicate your plans to your former spouse and other involved relatives. Be sure to save time for the new couple to plan, check-in and refresh. Take a walk together and don't talk about the holiday or the family.

Simplify. It may be appreciated, welcomed and accepted by everyone. But, if you simplify and merge traditions will you feel short-changed? Two of the hotest holiday topics in the stepfamily are food and trees. Talk about special food and try to have one thing that each person likes for Thanksgiving. You may even have to have two trees for the first Christmas.

Plan ahead. Don't wait for someone else to make plans for your family. Do not plan for the way other will behave - plan only what you want to do and do it. You may wish to limit calls from the other parent during the special celebrations. The new couple will have different expectations. The stepparent may have expectations that are too high. The natural parent may expect that things will go as they have in the past.

Having to drive to an event may mean two cars - who is in each car? The couple and the children may, without thinking, want to divide along 'tribal lines.' It may be important for the new couple to sit and ride together, no matter what.

Make a written itinerary for children and for important adults, including family and school holiday events. Leave as little as possible to chance. Parents can help their children look forward to special moments by letting them know exactly what to expect, how the event will be celebrated and who will be present. Ask for written confirmation on children's travel plans from the other parent. This holiday season may mean the child's first air flight and it may mean the child flies alone. Remember kids may feel guilty about leaving a parent alone.

If your children are away for the holiday don't mope, plan something special for yourself, as a couple. 

Be creative. Start new traditions together. Spend a gift giving day as a family at a hospital or shelter. Give gifts of service to family members - backrubs, washing dishes, babysitting, special favors. Expand the celebration to include the days before and after the holiday itself. Let it become a holiday week. Some families share holidays with ex-spouses and former relatives. If adults are comfortable with the mix it can be less confusing and exhausting for children, especially little ones. 

Set standards for gift giving by talking to children and outlining financial limits. Former spouses may have different financial resources and children can learn to accept the financial as well as other differences between their parents. If no gifts arrive it's always okay to explain that the adults are having a hard time accepting the new family and to validate the anger, sadness and rejection felt by  the children and the adults.

Parents without custody, or grandparents and other relatives living far away, often appreciate suggestions about gift giving. The extended family may have to be taught to include stepchilddren. Money can be a diplomatic gift for a yet unknown stepchild. 

Play, laugh and cry. Perfection is not the goal. Be flexible and plan things that are fun and relaxing for you. Children learn a lot when they see adults taking care of themselves. If there is conflict about  specific plans, you may have to give up your tradition and feel the sadness, anger and loss.

Assess for the next time - what went well, what did not There is one sure thing in stepfamilies - change. Next year will be different. Stepfamilies can be safe and comfortable placed for adults and children.

More Thoughts

  • Are women the holiday magicians and men the holiday stage hands?
  • Make time for yourself with friends outside this new family. Get sleep, keep up with exercise and meditation.
  • Face down the usual response of expecting more from yourself and others during the holidays that you do during the rest of the year.
  • Give presents for relaxation of body and mind. Use a grab-bag, allow only homemade gifts. Give gifts to charity instead of family or don't give gifts at all - go bowling together - or skating.

Try This Exercise

  1. Picture what your ideal holiday season would be like and write in detail what you would like to see happen - including pleasant things from past (your childhood and your adult past), what you would like to do or see, who the important people are to see and spend time with. Go wild. Express your deepest longing and wishes. Keep adding to the list over a week or two.
  2. Now, underline the most important items and set priorities.
  3. Enjoy.
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