The holidays descended upon us quickly after my husband and I married mid-October and began our new life together. My expectations of a joyous holiday season faded as the reality of combining two households with different traditions and outside family members settled in.
I wasn’t prepared for the chaos and heartache that accompanied our first set of holidays together. Blending four young children, managing a harried schedule with two ex-spouses and competing with the “other households” for time together and adequate gift exchanges ignited a simmering blaze that burned throughout the season, leaving behind a trail of hurt feelings and unmet expectations.
However, I learned some valuable lessons on negotiating with others and compromising on details that didn’t have to go my way. I also resolved to take proactive steps in the future to help relieve some of the turmoil and division that occurred among family members. Here are a few suggestions to enable your family to enjoy one another and create lasting memories, instead of simply surviving another holiday season.
Set aside unrealistic expectations. Accept that there will be unhappy moments. Children experience fluctuating emotions as they cope with the loss of their traditional family and accept their new stepfamily. They may act out or withdraw during periods of grief. My stepchildren lost their mother to cancer after my husband and I had been married nine years, and holidays became especially difficult for them. Memories of past holidays sometimes prevented them from enjoying our family celebrations. However, I learned that a difficult day or week of frequent tears didn’t have to ruin the entire holiday season.
Be proactive. Start planning your schedule early. Have a family meeting and talk about the logistics of the season—when to decorate, what to eat, how to do gift exchanges (draw names, include grandparents, etc.) and what special programs need to be put on the calendar. Ask each family member to take part in the planning and decision-making. Begin negotiating the visitation schedule early to allow time for discussion.
Be flexible and agreeable with other family members, when possible. Be willing to make sacrifices to fit everyone’s schedule. Offer alternatives when negotiating and recognize that Thanksgiving and Christmas can be celebrated on a day other than the official holiday and still be a special day. We’ve altered our Christmas gift exchange many years to allow everyone to be together. Try to be fair to all parties involved and commit to do your part toward peaceful interactions with your ex-spouse. Separate old marital issues from parenting issues and examine your heart for resentment or bitterness that might be preventing you from friendly communication.
Consider your children’s needs. Children don’t choose to join a stepfamily and they don’t deserve to be pulled between family members. Allow them the freedom to love their other parent and go to the other home without a guilt trip. Help your children buy gifts for other family members. And don’t set a lot of rules about where gifts are kept or played with. If your child receives a gift he’s asked for all year and leaves for Dad’s house that afternoon, it’s likely he’ll want to take it with him.
Start new traditions together and continue to celebrate old ones that fit. Traditions offer a sense of belonging to family members and cement relationships as they’re carried out together. Talk to your children about what traditions are important to them and brainstorm ideas of new ones to start together. Soon after we married, we started a tradition of reading the Christmas story to our children on Christmas Eve to remind them of the reason we celebrate Christmas. Our family also takes time to attend special church services and enjoy a light show together. Traditions are a great way for stepfamilies to create bonds with one another that are strengthened every year as you come together for an established purpose.
With the right attitude and proactive steps, holidays can be enjoyable and memorable as a stepfamily. There may be bumps along the way, but don’t give up on a joyous holiday season.
Gayla Grace writes, speaks and coaches on family and stepfamily issues. As a wife and mom to five children, she enjoys spending the holidays with her family.