by Batia Gottman, guest blogger
Life in a blended family can be hectic at best. Add the holiday season – Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, and it can ramp up to unbridled chaos! So many activities, so many decisions! And often, a lot of pressure felt to make things perfect for the kids and extended family.
When to open presents? One at a time or all at once? No presents, donations and service to others? Church services or not? Presents only for the kids? Whose house? Which sets of parents? Which cultural observances? Which family’s traditions? Where do the kids of divorced families wind up on the most important days? What about exes who won’t cooperate? What foods to serve? How many presents should kids expect? And all the time demands – the flurry of holiday preparations – school holiday performances, school holiday parties, juggling visitation schedules, gift shopping, holiday decorating, community service, food shopping, house cleaning, meal preparation (including pot luck dishes), office parties, holiday cards, communication with extended family…
Holidays are emotionally loaded. There’s a lot of pressure during holidays for things to be perfect. People often compare their own family experience to what they see on TV and in the movies. All these stresses and expectations could have you screaming and pulling out your hair before things even get off the ground. That is, unless you think things through, plan carefully, make sure you communicate clearly with your new partner and stay heart-connected.
Hopefully, long before the holidays, you and your partner have put in the time to bond with each child, both separately and together, as a core parent and as a stepparent, and you’ve planned some activities each partner’s kids can join. This investment will pay off to make things much more comfortable when everyone is together in the same space for long periods of time.
First off, meet with your partner. Create a plan to make decisions with your exes on just where and when the festivities will happen, and when each of you will have the children join your family’s holiday celebrations. In rare occasions, all exes will put aside their differences for the sake of the children, creating a sort of extended family tribe that celebrates holidays together. If you can see it in your heart to do this, and are willing to work through any communication snafus that may arise, the benefits may be far beyond your expectations. In any event, make every attempt to curtail hostilities with exes as you craft your plans with them.
For our purposes, let’s assume you are in the majority who will celebrate apart from your ex. Once you have a rough idea of these critical decisions, it’s time to have a meeting with the kids about the holidays.
There’s a dual purpose to this meeting. First, you want to set expectations and frame the event. Next, you want to introduce fun and creativity into the mix. “Tips for navigating the holidays with a blended family” by Molly Cerreta Smith gives us a few clues about how to do this. She advises us to “Look to the future, not the past.”
Understand — and help your children understand — that your holidays will be different with the new blended family than holiday celebrations in the past. But look at it as an opportunity to create new and special traditions.
“In most cases family members set themselves up for disappointment by making comparisons with the past,” says Rosalind Sedacca, CCT, who is considered “The Voice of Child-Centered Divorce” and author of How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook Guide to Preparing Your Children – with Love!
Talk to your children about how things are changing, and include them in your decisions.
“Stepparents and stepchildren can erroneously expect the newly formed stepfamily to replicate the close bonds and sense of security within their original family,” she says. “By talking about these realities, sharing expectations and understanding that this new family dynamic is unique and different from the first family, the pressure is released. This opens the door to new traditions, new activities and new ways to spend time together as a blended family.”
Resolve together to make wonderful memories for each other. Discuss the valued traditions for both families, how you feel about them, and which of them everyone feels it is important to honor. Ask the kids for suggestions on new traditions the family can create together. Get creative and silly brainstorming new activities you all can do during your holiday break.
When the Holidays Hit – Things to Keep in Mind
- Ease up on the expectation that you will do everything together. Especially if you have teens in the house, don’t expect them to want to stay around the adults all day long
- “Be chill” – if something goes wrong, and it will, roll with it, and if you can, handle it with humor
- Especially in the early years, curtail your public displays of affection with your partner
- Leave enough time to sneak away for a few moments alone with a child if he or she needs it
- Be open to compromise if the situation changes for any reason
- Insist on respect all around
- Have everyone share what they are thankful for or what the highlights of their year have been
- Be flexible about who is defined as family – it may be a best friend, a favorite uncle or a cousin
- Try to grab a little time alone with your partner, even if it’s just one drink and a chat in front of the fireplace
- Reward yourself for surviving it all
- Savor and enjoy!
Be On the Lookout for Triggers
Understand that holidays are loaded, emotional times, and family members core and blended, may be experiencing highs and lows.
“Despite commitment, love and dedication, creating a new blended family is a huge challenge. A new primary partnership, along with the addition of children from one or both parties, brings endless complication and sometimes even potential chaos to the table.
The ending of a marriage, engagement or death of a spouse alone can be traumatic and damaging to both adults and children. The new marriage may bring an additional host of insecurities as children joust for position and parents reach for unity upon which to base their new blended family. Deep-seated pain, anger, anxiety and fear can hijack seemingly ordinary interactions at a moment’s notice as family members are triggered.” (From our recent blog “Blended Family Trauma Triggers.” http://crwhouston.com/blended-family-trauma-triggers/)
The kids may be missing people who used to be there every holiday but no longer are, or they may be missing the kind of holiday feeling they used to have, because some aspects of the experience are missing or changed. There may be trauma everyone, especially the kids, have experienced from the conflicts they witnessed leading up to their parents’ separation and divorce. The new gathering could easily trigger these feelings. Ease up on each other, and let things slide.
We leave you with words of wisdom from author Elaine Ambrose (How Blended Families Survive the Holidays (Without Calling the Cops) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elaine-ambrose/how-blended-families-surv_b_6041654.html
- Have a sense of humor because it’s better to laugh at the commotion instead of breaking something.
- Take plenty of photographs to identify everyone because Grandma is still baffled.
- Assign responsibilities and anticipate problems when Uncle Bud gets drunk, the baby swallows a turkey leg or Grandpa starts snoring during dinner.
- Make time to appreciate the creative collection of characters in your unique family, believing that each one adds a definite spice. In the spirit of the holidays, choose to make it work.