It’s one, big family when you remarry and bring each other’s kids together. Here are some tips to having a happy blended holiday with your stepchildren.
The complexities of the season take on even larger dimensions when two different families are newly brought together — blended — into one. It takes adjusting when you first make a go of it, and it may stoke a new fury with your ex-spouse or partner. It’s best to go into the holidays strategically and with the purpose of trying to see everything from the point of view of the kids.
“Put things into perspective,” says Helen Duncan Gavin, LCSW, a therapist with NorthKey Community Care who has also helped develop a program aimed at helping parents navigate divorce. “One day is not a holiday, it’s what you make of it,” she says. Gavin is a divorced parent herself and encourages parents not to walk into things stubbornly holding to their traditions. For example, don’t focus on the fact that Christmas dinner is always at 2 p.m. Instead, adjust the train of thought to ask, “How is this going to work for my kids?”
In a blended family with children merging from both sides, flexibility becomes even more important. Layers of step-parents, ex-spouses, in-laws and ex-in-laws are all valid participants of your child’s holiday experience. One teenager says that within one year, she gained five siblings — both step and biological on both sides. She says traveling all of the time got to be tiresome, but then adds, “But celebrating with my family, it is all worth it in the end.”
That sentiment of it being “worth it” is what parents should shoot for. It’s a learning experience and may take a few years to get it right. Mom and stepmom Sandra Combs says this was the case for her. In the beginning, her attempts made her feel as if meaningful time together was sacrificed in the logistics of it all.
Gavin says she spent many Christmas days eating Chinese and going to the movies alone as a single mom. Her children would leave to spend time with their father on Christmas day. She really enjoyed that time to herself. “It’s just a day. One. Day,” she emphasizes. The kids deserve the chance to spend some of that with the rest of their family.
Gavin reminds us that, “Your ex is someone you chose to have kids with. This is your partner in parenting, not a stranger off the street. This person should be a part of the important things for your child.
Sometimes that’s a hard reality to confront. The wounds from a divorce are real and tangible. Now, you have to set those aside and focus on the child, or children. They love you both. The goal is to encourage the relationship with their other parent, even if they say they don’t want to. One teenage boy says, “I don’t feel close to that side of the family.” When he goes to visit for the holiday it feels like an obligation to him.
“It’s like medicine,” Gavin says, “You don’t ask your kid if they want to take their antibiotics.”
Unless the child is in an abusive situation, they don’t have a choice. Knowing their family — all of them — is good for them.
Once time is negotiated, specific traditions will also require some individual flexibility. Combs says the Christmas tree holds a lot of significance in their family. Most of their ornaments offer memories from the past. Another important tree tradition for her children revolves around taking turns choosing the angel for the top of the tree and the kids know whose turn it is. Her new husband has four children from a previous marriage and the youngest wanted to be part of the angel-picking, too. Combs remembers how difficult it was the first year trying to navigate these things she hadn’t yet considered. How was she to continue these traditions? Should she buy an oversized tree to accommodate more ornaments? Combs admits that during the first year she fumbled a bit. She allowed her new stepson to jump right in and choose the angel, bumping the daughter whose turn it was. Her daughter felt that she was favoring the new stepson. It’s a growing process, one that may take a few holidays to figure out. Be patient with yourself as well as the rest of the family while you figure out what works. For their second Christmas, Combs was able to gather a few items that represented each child and allow them to decorate the tree with these special items. “Just as our family has morphed over the years, so has our tree,” she says.
This part takes real communication between the different families. Gavin says she has seen overwhelming and unnecessary competition between parents when it comes to gifts. Dad and step dad Joe Moore says, “It never fails that one parent or the other will buy an awesome gift for their set of children.” When one parent purchases a gift that far exceeds the plans or means of the other parent, it can lead to confusion for the child unless the parents have worked together and know what to expect. The child may wonder if a bigger gift means more love. This can also lead to feelings of jealousy in new step-siblings. For Moore, he wondered if he should feel guilty for spending (or not spending) the money? Should he be able to dictate what his ex-wife buys? Should she have that say-so in his purchasing decisions?
The opposite also happens. One young girl who has new biological siblings from both of her parents’ second marriage speaks of the assumptions that are made about her gifts received. “Everyone expects that since I celebrate twice, they only get me a few items while my other siblings get a ton of presents.” It makes her feel left out.
Parents should communicate without judgment, to help each other make the holiday fair as well as special. Assumptions will sabotage any holiday. Another gift problem Gavin warns about is the rule some parents have of not allowing the child to take gifts home with them after the holiday. This is really difficult and stressful for the child. If you gave them the gift, the item now belongs to the child. “That’s why it’s called a gift,” Gavin says, “Let them take it.”
Divorced Parents Have a Business Relationship
Gavin reminds parents that after a divorce (or breakup) you have a business relationship with the other parent of that child. You’re together in the business of raising a child. In conversation, “talk about the business at hand,” she says. When negotiating for holiday time and how visitation and family time will take place, “work within the realm of that business,” she says. “Don’t bring up the past and throw things.” That’s not appropriate in a professional setting. If parents use professionalism as a guiding philosophy, communication won’t get out of hand. Conversation revolves around the needs of the children.
This is also true when speaking to the child in the absence of their other parent. Berating your child’s parent has no benefit for the child. Do you think they don’t already know the shortcomings of their own parents? It will only make the child feel defensive. Plus, if the child’s young enough that these shortcomings go unnoticed, is that really a bad thing? “Get your ego out of it,” says Gavin, “Your ego has no place in this business relationship.”
Remember to focus your energy on the children and work to make the holiday good for them. When Mom and step-mom Michelle Gillespie reflects on her experiences, she says, “I think, sometimes, that having a blended family during the holidays gives the season more meaning. It takes giving, sharing, and communication to make everything work, and all of the different plans come together for one purpose — family.”
Read Bonnie Jean Feldkamp’s personal experience as she went from spending Christmas alone to managing old and new family traditions with her own blended family on her blog post “Christmas with a New Family”.