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Stepping Stones Counseling Center Guest Articles

President's Message #13, Winter 2000
by Dr. Marjorie Engel

It all began on a New Year's weekend. I had just completed my first day (ever) on downhill skis and had the bleeding blisters and broken fingernails to prove it. Oh, I could stand up (periodically) on the skis but making turns was another matter as I struggled to master the bunny slope. Without the ability to adjust dead-reckoning, I found myself aimed straight toward an unsuspecting gentleman about two-thirds of the way down the hill. After quickly discarding non-viable options (that turning problem), I dropped my poles, wrapped my arms around his belly, slid my skis inside his skis—and this is the way we glided down to level ground some yards ahead.

At dinner that night, while Steve was choking with laughter as he described my snowy assault on a total stranger, I gazed down the length of the elongated table and wondered what in the world I was doing. Wondered?not about my total lack of gracefulness (hey, I was labeled "Mis-Coordination" in my college yearbook so my history of absolutely no athletic skill is a long standing one), but?what it would be like to call this man and our collective five daughters my new family.

Even though I could not know it at the time, that weekend turned out to be the last full calendar holiday the seven of us would share together for a number of years. The following summer, Steve and I did make the decision to marry and create a stepfamily. And we managed the holiday drill pretty well. Part of the reason was that we'd had the years between divorce and remarriage for holiday schedules to evolve into an acceptable routine.

The bigger competition for holiday time came from ordinary family transitions. The girls began moving away from home base for college and jobs so vacation time and transportation were significant factors. Then their subsequent marriages added yet another set of parents to vie for precious holiday hours. Once our grandchildren began to arrive, our daughters and their husbands wanted to celebrate the major holidays in their own homes. So, various combinations of our stepfamily members stayed put and others traveled—only occasionally did we all end up in the same place at the same time. The sisters' weddings turned out to be the biggest family draw. We could count on everyone showing up for the nuptials and party so official holidays were pushed lower on the radar screen.

I mention this scenario because it seems to me that instead of worrying about meeting trains, planes, and busses on over-scheduled days, a lot of us are trying to figure out ways to beat the holiday blues when the children aren't with us at all. Norman Rockwell's depictions of family have created a major problem: the American dream about ideal holidays is way out of line with what is practical or reasonable to expect in first families or stepfamilies!

So, here's a suggestion. When you approach any holiday, make a conscious decision that this is your day as much as anyone else's and that the goal is to bring some joy to everyone, including yourself. You have choices. Give yourself ample time to think about and plan for them. Don't try to recreate visions of the past. Create new activities for this year and future years when the children will be away. Do you and your partner want solitude or to be with other people? Solitude is a great period for a marathon project—building closet shelves or refinishing a piece of furniture—that requires a large block of time and is not easily done with children (even grown ones) underfoot. Treat yourself to your favorite "sinful" food such as out-of-season crab meat or a homemade cheesecake and curl up with the book that has collected dust on your night table.

If you're feeling more sociable, consider hosting a pot-luck holiday meal with other parents in your situation. Or, perhaps this is the time for a brief vacation or a change of scenery. The trip doesn't need to be expensive. Could you borrow an empty apartment or cabin, or visit friends or relatives whose children will also be away for the holiday?

While you are considering your options, remember that holidays include the spirit of giving. Is there a way for you to schedule volunteer opportunities to help those who are truly less fortunate this holiday season? And, perhaps most important of all, send your children off for the holiday with a smile and assurances that you will miss them but you have planned some special activities for yourselves while they are gone. Help your children avoid the loyalty bind by literally giving them permission to go and have a good time!

Those of us serving on the Board of Directors, Advisory Council, and Institute Faculty wish all of our SAA Families a wonderful holiday season.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions as parents and stepparents begin preparations for the holidays:

Question:
We have a wonderful problem. We'll have a houseful of his and hers children the day before Christmas. However, they range in age from six to 16. What kinds of holiday activities will hold the interest of such a divergent age group?

Answer:
During the morning flurry of last minute grocery shopping and gift selections, consider beginning a tradition of the entire family choosing one annual tree ornament. Returning home, children of all ages enjoy baking, decorating, and eating cookies while they help each other wrap gifts. With some encouragement, the older children may enter the spirit of the season by helping the younger ones plan a holiday surprise such as a family skit. After dinner and the holiday skit, the entire family could add this year's ornament to the tree.


Question:
How can a parent keep up with a teenager's food likes and dislikes from one visit to another? I don't want dinner table "scenes" over food this year because they almost mined Christmas for us last year.

Answer:
Respect individuality. Ask. Ask the child. Ask the custodial parent. By phone, letter, e-mail. Meal preparations do not center around a single person's likes and dislikes. However, you need to know medical information such as recently diagnosed food allergies and vegetarian preferences as well as idiosyncrasies such as refusing to eat sandwiches if the crusts aren't cut off of the bread. Christmas is tied to childhood memories so you may also want to ask the custodial parent for the recipe of a "must have" item for the visiting children. When the teen arrives, invite him or her to work with you in preparing a dish of the teen's choice to share with the family.


Question:
Last year, my ex-husband and I each gave our daughter the same gift — the Barbie doll on her "wish list." However each doll was slightly different. There were hurt feelings when it was obvious which one she finally decided to return. How can exes avoid this kind of problem when bad feelings prevent good communication?

Answer:
Young children seldom need much encouragement to write a letter to Santa that includes their "wish list." Before sealing the envelope addressed to the North Pole, make a copy of the letter. Indicate items you would like to provide and mail the copy to your ex. Older children are happy to make the list because they know Mom and Dad will be conferring over something pleasant regarding them and not a problem. If there are items you both feel strongly about selecting and wrapping for your child and you reach an impasse, consider age old remedies — toss a coin or use the rock/paper/scissors game. The important thing is for you and your ex to make the decision and not put your children in the awkward position of having to make a choice between parents who provide essentially the same gifts.


Question:
My two young children will be making their first visit to their father's new home for the Christmas holiday. What can I do to help them feel more comfortable while they are away?

Answer:
Some preparation for environmental changes may be helpful. This is especially true if your children are crossing time zones or facing major weather changes. Haul out an atlas and maps to peruse, log onto the internet and find data about the area to be visited, watch the television weather channel, use the library to find relevant travel books, and look into getting some age-appropriate geography games. These will provide the basis for conversations about the differences and similarities in the environment of your children's two homes.

When helping the children pack, include a few well-loved things from your home. These items may be a favorite game, stuffed animal, or a special small toy. Consider including the pillow case, from the child's preferred set of sheets, to provide familiarity during those first few nights of the trip.


Question:
My daughter's father lives 3,000 miles away. She will be spending the holidays with her father and his new family. How can she and I remain in touch without her father feeling that I am interfering with his visitation time?

Answer:
While notes, post cards, and e-mail are always options, phone calls are often the best solution over the holidays. With your ex, set up a schedule of regular phone calls at a mutually convenient time. Be prepared to negotiate payment of the long distance calling expense. Parents have agreed to various options — alternate calling; if the call lasts longer than 3 minutes, the other parent returns the call; and older children may financially contribute to the phone bill.


Question:
My wife has remarried. Her new husband is wealthy and they shower our children with gifts and trips. How can I show my children that I love them and enjoy being with them during the holidays when I cannot hope to match their current lifestyle?

Answer:
Holidays have become a hectic time for children as well as adults. Many children look forward to a break from their busy schedules. This is the time for you to encourage shared holiday activities that make memories. Spend an evening with your children driving through your community to see house decorations. Encourage their creative talents by having the children decorate your home and tree. They may enjoy creating original salt dough ornaments and decorating gingerbread men. Few kids will turn down the opportunity to bake and eat holiday cookies. Your children will get the message that you love them and enjoy being with them when you actually spend time with them doing relatively quiet activities and listening to their ideas, thoughts, and questions.


Question:
My wife and I are loving stepparents to each other's children. Our problem is that the grandparents treat each set of children differently. How can we avoid having the children be hurt by such obvious favoritism?

Answer:
Children expect similar, not necessarily equal, treatment from family members. You may want to tell relatives how you would prefer gift-giving to be handled for all of your children. Provide sizes, color preferences, and other information about the children's current interests. Be sure to thank the relatives who are cooperating. If the communication is ignored, parents may arrange for extra gifts to be opened during a private visit with the grandparents. When some parents know in advance that there will be favoritism treatment, they adjust their own gift-giving to compensate for the inequity.

Conversations with your children may be in order. Remind kids who receive many gifts that it is unkind to gloat in front of stepsiblings who do not receive such bounties. Empty-handed children need consolation as they learn that life is not fair. Parents need to confront the issue by acknowledging, "You must feel really sad about this." Wall else fails, try to accept the situation. All you really have control of is what goes on in your own household.


Question:
This will be my first Christmas as a stepmom. What kinds of things can I do to make my stepchildren feel comfortable in our new home over the Christmas vacation?

Answer:
Volunteer information about any special plans you may have so the children can arrive with appropriate clothing and gear — or learn early enough that they don't already have what they might need so you and their dad have time to obtain the items yourselves. Think about things you do when you are traveling away from home. Do you take family pictures with you? Then suggest that the children bring a few photos and encourage their open placement in the child's space in your home. Do you call home every so often just to check in? Then coordinate periodic phone calls for times that are convenient in both households. Create a welcome feeling by providing quiet time to relax and settle in. That's quiet time to unpack (in dresser drawers and toy box space that's reserved for the children alone, even in their absence), bathe, nap, snack — almost anything that is not swooping right in with questions, plans, and house rules. Perhaps the first evening's entertainment could be a video and popcorn— something all ages in the household could enjoy together for the evening without putting anyone on the spot.


Question:
Both biological children and stepchildren will be with us the weekend before Christmas but will not be with us during the holidays. Do you have suggestions for making the weekend before Christmas a special holiday event?

Answer:
Your weekend before Christmas is ripe for the seeds of new holiday traditions. It may be the time for a tree decorating party with friends, a family outing to the Nutcracker Ballet, a short trip that includes a winter sport such as ice skating or snow skiing, or learning about another country's Christmas traditions and preparation of that country's holiday meal.

Instead of private, family-centered Christmas celebrations, you may also consider a family community service project for your special weekend. Your local newspaper will have information on programs sponsored by social and faith-based organizations. It is always appropriate to give the gift of giving.


Question:
This is the first year that my children will not be with me on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. How can we possibly celebrate the holiday together when the date will be all wrong?

Answer:
Don't try to recreate the past. When there has been a divorce, holidays are just not going to be the way they were in past years. This means you can't be locked into only Christmas Eve or Christmas Day for holiday activities. Brainstorm a little and create a new holiday ritual for this year and future years when "the date is wrong." Perhaps a December party you host for your children's friends that includes a gingerbread man decorating contest. Or a special trip to the theater for an age-appropriate play or musical. You and the children may also decide upon another date for your family's big celebration this year for instance, a family member's birthday or July 4th.

Dr. Marjorie Engel is president of the Stepfamily Association of America


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