Survive and Thrive This Season with Your Blended Family
'Tis the season for turkey and tinsel and stars and menorahs and family celebrations. Sounds great, but there's one problem: You have what's euphemistically called a "blended family." That means 'tis also the season for clashing schedules, strained visits with ex-spouses, stressed-out kids and way too many gifts to buy.
You love your children – be they biological, "step" or some of each – and you want them to have joyful holiday memories. But sometimes you wish you could pull a "holiday Rip Van Winkle" – fall asleep in November and wake up in January.
Stephan Poulter, a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in West Los Angeles, Calif., and author of Father Your Son: How to Become the Father You've Always Wanted to Be (McGraw-Hill, 2004), feels your pain. Not only is he a divorced dad himself, he spends much of his time counseling clients on how to navigate the blended family minefield. He knows that the typical problems tend to assert themselves even more strongly around the holidays.
"Figures from the 2000 census bureau indicate that 67 percent of all families are 'blended,'" Poulter says. "So you certainly aren't alone in dreading the holidays. Even 'traditional' families find this time of year stressful. When you add custody issues, logistical problems and emotional baggage left over from divorce, it's easy to see why the five weeks or so between Thanksgiving and New Year's can be difficult. But you can make the holidays fun and relaxing, not just for your kids, but for yourself."
Poulter offers the 12 tips for surviving (and even enjoying!) the holiday season:
1. Accept the custody agreement.
Sure, it's hard to be away from your child on Thanksgiving or Christmas. But this is not the time to fight it. Your child loves his other parent as much as he does you. Furthermore, he doesn't deserve to have his holiday ruined by parental fighting or insidious guilt feelings for "making Mommy and/or Daddy sad." No matter how hard you have to bite your tongue, bite it. Your child is worth it.
2. Frame the "split holiday" in a positive light.
Your child may feel dejected about having to spend half her Christmas break with you and half with her other parent. But if you put a good spin on it, that's less likely to happen. You can do this via your own attitude (don't make bitter remarks or roll your eyes when your ex's name comes up) and by pointing out how great it is that she has two parents who love her very much.
3. Revenge is a dish best not served at all during the holidays.
While we're on the subject, the entire holiday should be as free as possible of the emotional baggage you may be carrying regarding your divorce. Obviously, don't bicker in front of the kids. But also, don't indulge in more subtle manifestations of your anger, like oneupmanship: "Oh, Dad got you an X-box? Well, I got you a home entertainment system for your bedroom! Let's invite your friends over to watch movies all night!"
4. Plan, plan, plan. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Some of the biggest challenges you face during the holidays are not emotional, they're logistical. What do you do when four sets of grandparents want your family to have Christmas Day at their house? How do you ensure that your child doesn't get duplicates of his "if I don't have it I'll die" gift? What happens when your family gathering falls on the same day as the Hanukkah service at your ex-spouse's Temple – and your child is wanted at both? The only way to solve these issues is through advance planning and communication: with your extended family, your children and, yes, your ex.
5. Don't over-schedule.
If your child is spending every other day on a plane or in a car being shuttled from Mom's to Dad's to Grandma's to the other Grandma's, she will not enjoy the holidays. Neither will you. Avoid the temptation to try to squeeze everyone in. If possible, work out an agreement with your spouse to minimize the amount of running around you and your child have to do. Also remember that it's OK to say no. You don't have to attend every party or family gathering or religious service that presents itself. Some quiet, restful time at home is good for everyone.
6. Don't be a slave to the calendar.
It's not carved in stone that you have to serve the turkey on November 25. If your ex has the kids on Thanksgiving Day, why not hold your own Thanksgiving dinner, complete with grandparents, on Sunday, the 28th? (If you're worried that everyone will be tired of turkey, consider breaking with tradition and serve, say, fondue instead.) This will give everyone an event to look forward to during the often dreary, post-holiday lull.
7. In gift giving, think quality and equality.
Try not to duplicate. If you have, say, a biological child and a stepchild, make sure they get the same quality of gifts. That doesn't mean the gifts should be identical. (The "duplicate" approach fails to take individual tastes and personalities into account and should be avoided.) Children, especially those who have been through a divorce, are sensitive to discrepancies. Communicate closely with your current spouse – and possibly your ex as well – to prevent them from occurring.
8. Yes, you should buy gifts "from your child" to your ex.
Again, this is no time to be petty or vengeful. Your child loves his other parent and wants to give him or her a gift. Buy the gift on your child's behalf. If you're feeling especially generous, you might even buy a gift from your child to his stepparent. If you cringe at the idea, consider these purchases to be gifts for your child – your generosity will truly make him happy.
9. It's better to draw names than overdraw your bank account.
Sometimes in blended families there are three or four extended family gatherings every year. That can add up to a lot of presents to buy! To relieve the financial pressure, suggest that everyone in the group draw names (and set a low price limit for gifts). This will likely be a huge relief to everyone concerned, and taking the emphasis away from materialistic excess is a good lesson in the "true meaning" of Hanukkah and/or Christmas for your child.
10. Allow your child to express normal feelings.
When your child is away from her father or mother at the holidays, she will almost surely miss him or her. Assure her that these feelings are normal and OK. Suggest that she call her other parent regularly. If your child is away from you, share her excitement when she calls to describe the gifts she's received. Her feelings are valid. Let her express them, and don't take it personally.
11. Create new traditions with your blended family.
Traditions help us identify with our families and create cherished memories. To help your kids and stepkids form a strong and lasting bond, start a fun new tradition. Go ice skating every Christmas Eve. Or make cookies and distribute them throughout the neighborhood. Or let your kids have a tree-decorating slumber party the weekend of Thanksgiving. Whatever your "event" might be, you and your kids will look forward to it every year.
12. If you're alone during the holidays, plan something special for yourself.
Spending the holidays alone can be hard, especially if you are a single parent whose ex has the kids for Christmas or Hanukkah. Don't hang around the house feeling depressed. You might want to book a weekend at a spa or resort. Go visit an old friend who lives out of town. Or do something that's rewarding for you and helps out someone else, like volunteering at a soup kitchen or adopting a homeless pet.
"Most of us have idealistic, even unrealistic, expectations for the holidays," Poulter says. "But life can be messy and unpredictable, and few people really have the Norman Rockwellesque experiences we'd like. That's as true of traditional families as it is of blended ones. So if I had to sum up my advice to parents of blended families, I would say this: Be creative, be flexible, be generous and be forgiving. Your kids will enjoy the holidays more, and so will you."