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Doing The Stepfamily Holiday Shuffle or... Two Homes for The Holidays

The Season is here. It is a frantic, exciting, over-hyped, beautiful time of the year. From our own childhood's past and now within our stepfamily's present, the holiday season has the potential for great joy and huge disappointment. Managing it successfully requires all families to do some planning. Stepfamilies need a solid plan, a map, and a compass.

In the early years, many parents imagine their new stepfamily will embrace the wonderful traditions they have known in years past. Favorite foods will be shared, present giving rituals will be enhanced, and the holiday's excitement that was in all of us as children will return anew. We learn quickly that holidays are difficult. Everyone in the stepfamily has an idea of what a great holiday should be. They want what to do what they used to do when their real family was whole.

Patricia Papernow, a Cambridge, MA psychologist, describes the comfort one feels when there is a commonality of experience that allows each member of a family to feel included, to know what to expect from others, and to have a sense of history that all share. She calls this the "strengthening of middle ground". It grows with time and understanding. It is missing in early stepfamily life.

For the first few holiday seasons, many stepfamilies learn how not to celebrate. Tension levels grow, tempers flare, and holidays are disasters waiting to be over. For some parents and children it is the first time they are separated at an important time of the year. For others, new children come from the other side. The visitors get lots of attention while the residential kids are feeling left out or somewhat ignored.

Some families try to be inclusive and share the holiday. Children celebrate Thanksgiving two or three times, eating turkey and the trimmings at each family sitting. Others have Christmas in six places: four grandparents homes, their mom's and their dad's. At least Chanukah has eight nights!

How can we work out the parent's and children's needs to be together and to share special moments within the realities of time and space? No easy answers. Experience is a good teacher. Here are a few tips that we find useful:
  • Try to make the holidays special but do not think of this as the holiday season to end all others. Keep the perspective that we build traditions one year at a time. They feel more like traditions when we have done them for a while with joy attached.
  • Try to plan family events that you will enjoy too. Being a super-parent or stepparent generally leads to disappointment and frustration. Even if the children are not thrilled every moment, part of the tradition becomes that they do stuff you like too.
  • Remember that children who are with nonresidential parents for the holidays are part of that family for these special days. Making them a part of the family, not special visitors, helps them belong to the family and avoids the jealousy of residential children. Family rules apply for all family members. Rules help to define a sense of "us".
  • You cannot please all of the people, all of the time. Giving in to unrealistic or provocative requests of children that upset the other children or your new partner will cause resentment. Use the cardinal rule of "Couple Strength": the couple makes decisions together and makes them stick.
  • When children are coming or going, it creates stress for us. Having a child leave for the holiday may bring an empty or sad feeling for a parent. Children may feel sad too, even if they are excited about going to the other parent's home. The house can feel cold or uninviting without the presence of the children. Some adults use this time to recharge their batteries by leaving home and spending the holiday in another location. A mini vacation without much holiday glitz can be a good antidote for the missing-children syndrome.

Finding what works for you and your family takes time and experience. Keeping a focus on the new couple and their joy enhances coping mechanisms and provides pleasure. Practice what works. Change what does not. Plan carefully. The holiday you create will be your own. Happy New Year!

Robert Klopfer, Co-Director, Stepping Stones Counseling Center