The balance act required when you’re first starting the journey of creating your stepfamily. You want all of the important people in your life to feel loved and valued every day – particularly around the holidays and on special occasion such as Christmas. But at times, it can feel like you are standing in the middle of a see-saw with your partner and kids on opposite ends trying your best not to let anyone crash and land on their backside!
Luckily, there is now enough research and practice to let us know what does and doesn’t work in creating a successful stepfamily. Stepparents and their partners no longer have to stumble along trying their best on their own – and that my friends is really good news!
Are you the insider or the outsider?
Dr Patricia Papernow (well-known stepfamily expert and author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships What Works and What Doesn’t) describes stepfamily structure by identifying ‘stuck insiders’ and ‘stuck outsiders’.
When you are with your partner and your child is present either physically or in your conversation, you are a ‘stuck insider’ and your partner (the stepparent) is a ‘stuck outsider’. That’s because you and your children have a history, a much longer history, than you and your new partner. You and the kids share ‘inside’ jokes, ‘inside’ memories, ‘inside’ understandings, ‘inside’ traditions. Your new partner doesn’t share any of this insider history – making him or her the ‘stuck outsider’ in your stepfamily.
Even if your teenagers aren’t pointing out that your partner is an ‘outsider’ to the family relationship every chance they get, it will be blatantly obvious to your partner through the most simplest of things. For example, you and your teenager know what is a reasonable price for a new pair of jeans in your home, you and your 5-year old also know what an ‘inside voice’ sounds like in your home – but your new partner won’t. There will be constant, subtle reminders day in and day out that you are the ‘insider’ and your partner the ‘outsider’.
Christmas enhances lots of things for families, including insider/outsider roles.
Your partner may bring a plastic tree to the household, but your kids have always had a fresh tree. The kids may grieve this difference a little bit without even being able to put a name to the feeling. Your partner can’t understand why the kids aren’t showing the enthusiasm he or she was expecting when putting up the tree and decorating it as a family. And, there you have it – insider/outsider dynamics that can result in everyone feeling a bit out of sorts over something as innocent as a Christmas tree!
To add to this, it’s likely you and your ex will have also parented and/or co-parented together much longer than you and your new partner. Your partner is an outsider in this relationship as well. This can be particularly difficult or emotive for your partner’s first Christmas with you and your kids. (Check out two of our other posts, Surviving Christmas and a Different Christmas for some additional tips for a successful stepfamily Christmas). As soon as you commence a committed relationship with your new partner, you need to check with him or her before agreeing to anything with your ex – including maintaining or promising Christmas traditions to your kids – that may impact on them.
When your kids are with you, you need to be ‘on’ as a parent.
They need and want your time and attention. If you share holidays with your ex, you can feel extra pressure to make the most of the time they are with you. But, you and your partner need time to cultivate your relationship and enjoy the magic that is Christmas too. Feeling that see-saw starting to sway?
This is when it is useful to have a ‘both/and’ not ‘either/or’ attitude. Make a point to spend, regular alone time with your kids – especially during the holidays. Connect with your partner briefly before and after those times acknowledging and supporting her or him to have some time for themselves. This is the perfect opportunity for your partner to get to the gym, catch up with friends, and/or just have some quiet, space somewhere else in the home. Far enough away that they can’t help but overhear or feel as if they have been side-lined from your conversation!
Your connection with your partner will not come from the two of you feeling the same way about your children. It will come from really trying to empathize with each other. – Dr Patricia Papernow
Being in a stepfamily means embracing differences and you and your partner working as a team to come up with creative solutions to issues that arise.
When your partner feels left out (and all stepparents will at one time or another!), acknowledge his or her feelings. An extra hug, a kind word, saying ‘it must be tough for you’ goes a lot farther than suggesting your partner just join in and get on with it. Your partner and your kids also need to have some individual time together to get to know each other and start forming their relationships. Activities like cooking or playing video games are good places to start. They are not too intense and don’t require a lot of face-to-face interaction which allows for some space in the togetherness.
The holidays can also add extra tension here. If you know that your children and your Ex bake Christmas cookies together every year or watch a particular Christmas movie, give your partner the heads-up and provide some suggestions of ‘safe’ activities that they can do together. In fact, skipping the stepparent/child individual time around the holidays can be the safest bet. You partner and stepkids can get back on track spending some individual time together once the festivities are over.
Spending lots or all of your Christmas holiday in blocks of separate, individual time may not be how you and your partner dreamed of spending your first Christmas together as a stepfamily. But, research shows it is the best way to meet the competing needs of both your couple relationship and your kids in those early years of creating the stepfamily and life you love.