President's Message #3, Summer 1998
by Dr. Marjorie Engel
Ready or not, summer vacation and extended visitations are upon us. Children in homes across the country will be as pool balls in a break — going in all different directions. Everyone is supposed to be filled with joyous expectations. Too many of us are filled with dread. While custodial and non-custodial parents are making arrangements for the transfer of their offspring from one to the other and back again, it's time to point out that most divorced and remarried parents elect to do the hard work of joint or parallel parenting their children. Problems arise when parents and stepparents find themselves in a difficult situation with no prior experience and no quick answers. Sometimes both families simply need ideas and suggestions from those parents and children who have "been there, done that, and bought a "T" shirt."
For instance, when you're sending children to their other parent's home, instead of being a travel agent for guilt trips, find out what's on the agenda for the vacation. You can't help your child pack without knowing if special items are needed — dress or good pants for dress-up events, swim suit for the beach, or backpacking/camping gear. These items are the beginning of a checklist of things to pack and for repacking to go home. Checklists make the job easier and also serve a practical purpose — for example, medication that absolutely must be taken during a visit and also when the child returns. And a child who sleeps with a special blanket or toy may be inconsolable if it's left behind at either home. Consider sending along the children's usual bed pillows (I'm a grownup but I still lug my special pillow wherever I travel) — and maybe even the favorite bedtime book.
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 on to the internet and find data about the area to be visited, watch the 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 many conversations about the differences and similarities in the environment of your children's two homes.
And don't forget to provide information to the other household about some of your child's changes and idiosyncrasies. Has your daughter "shot up" three more inches in height and changed her long tresses to a pixie cut? Will the little one eat sandwiches if the crusts aren't cut off? Was an allergy to lactose diagnosed since the last visit? Are bananas on your son's "Ugh, I hate them" list? Is an adolescent going through a vegetarian phase? The temptation might be great to show how much the absent parent doesn't know but, for the sake of the children, you have to help out. It's the child who will feel lost at the airport if you don't send a picture ahead of time, the child who will become ill if you don't warn about the food allergy, and it's the child who won't eat if bananas are cut up on the cereal or a medium-rare steak is put on the plate. That's the way it goes. You have to be there for your kids.
When you're receiving children from their other home, how do you get from the possible dread of the vacation to joyous expectation? To begin with, if you want the system to work — if you want a more effective parenting relationship with the children — you will have to find ways to get along the parents in their other home. 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 for your plans so you have time to obtain the items yourself. This keeps the kids out of that awful middle spot.
Think about things you do when you are traveling away from home for any length of time. Do you take family pictures with you? Then suggest that the children bring framed pictures of the family they are temporarily leaving behind 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. If both homes are set up for e-mail, that method of communication could replace some of the long distance calls and save money at the same time. Do you send postcards when you are on vacation? Well, you get the idea — and you don't have to be best buddies with people in the other household to do these kinds of things.
Now that the travelers have arrived, what can you do to create the feeling, "Welcome!" Virtually every experienced stepfamily and professional advises giving time to relax and settle in. Time to settle into a new, even if already familiar, space. That's quiet time to unpack (in a space that's reserved for them alone, even in their absence), bathe, nap, snack — almost anything that is not swooping right in with questions, plans, and house rules. Maybe you have a ritual that the first night dinner is always the new arrivals' favorite meal. Is there something that all ages in the household could enjoy together for the evening without putting anyone on the spot? Like maybe a video and popcorn. There's time tomorrow to become "regular members" of your household.
And that leads me to my quarterly question to our members. Collectively, we must have a zillion ideas about how to lay the groundwork for happy and successful visits — whether the visits are for a week or a month or over school breaks or holidays. Granted, we all have our share of horror stories. That goes without saying. What would really help is to hear about your vacation or holiday problem and how you solved it — or better yet, avoided a recurrence the next time around. Share your story or stories, give us written permission to use the ideas (a notation at the bottom of your letter is fine), and we'll include as many ideas as possible in a future Stepfamilies.
Dr. Marjorie Engel is president of the Stepfamily Association of America