All the marketing that we are bombarded with in the lead up to the festive season, means we tend to associate Christmas with summer holidays, friends and, most importantly, family.
Stepfamilies take the chaotic-ness, stress and busyness of the holiday festive season and compound it tenfold – not least because they typically span at least two households, with each household having its own unique traditions and persons within those households having various expectations on how the children should participate. Let’s face it, two parents, their partners and maybe siblings, all mixed in with grandparents, aunts uncles, visiting relatives and friends can be a recipe for disaster, or at the very least some sort of adjustment disorder, stress related ulcer and high blood pressure – add alcohol into the mix and things can get even more intense and twitchy!
Stepfamilies have to deal with a number of additional holiday factors that non-divorced families don’t.
Factors such as:
- Who gets to have the children on Christmas Eve and wake them up Christmas morning;
- Which family might buy the iPad or PlayStation 4 or bicycle (and where those new toys will reside), and;
- Whether a trip to see relatives on mum’s side is appropriate if it means the children will not get to see dad on Christmas day (or vice versa).
- Step-parents, when participating in their partner’s family events, may feel outnumbered and out of their element, overwhelmed and maybe even like an outsider – the same can probably be said for stepchildren.
I’ve always found that it is helpful to remain mindful that the pressures associated with this time of year make it the perfect time for former spouses and family members to develop major conflicts. Be aware of the fact that emotions are heightened and budgets are stretched and try not to walk into arguments. It is more important than ever to choose your battles carefully and give in gracefully when you can.
If there is parenting plan or Court orders in place, you will generally know well in advance where the children should be on Christmas Eve and on Christmas day and surrounding dates. Accept it. Work with it. Work out plans with the other parent, and with your extended family members, as early as possible. Ensure those plans accommodate the children’s comings and goings, school Christmas programs and other significant commitments.
When planning you and your family’s celebrations, consider the distance and driving time between where you will be celebrating and where the other parent will be and account for traffic congestion. If significant travel is involved, where possible, attempt to lock in details early enough that air, bus or train fares etc. are affordable.
As hard as it may be, try not to allow you or your partner and your extended families to get caught up in the idea that the 25 December is the only day on which your family can celebrate the meaning of Christmas, open presents or have a meal together. Exchanging gifts on Christmas morning may have been the way that you always did it, but if your stepfamily needs to exchange presents on Christmas Eve or on Boxing Day (or 15 December or 28 December or indeed any other date) in order for everyone to be there, then embrace creating a new tradition. I hate to say it, but it is typically us adults that get too caught up in the emotion associated with the actual date.
In my entire professional career I have yet to meet a child or teenager who was unhappy about celebrating Christmas more than once or having repeated opportunities to give and receive presents or to have Santa visit them twice! Babies and toddlers, by reason of their young age, have no concept of time or the ability to know what month it is or keep track of dates!
If your children are in the envious position of being able to spend time with you and with their other parent on Christmas day, I’ve found that it also helps, to put some thought about when you open presents. If your child/stepchild opens a new expensive toy 15 minutes before they are scheduled to head out the door to see their other family, it is only natural (especially if they haven’t had much time to play with it) that they may want to take it with them. If you don’t agree to big, expensive, new items walking out the door then don’t give them for Christmas or give it to them the night or day before (so they have time to play with it), or give them that present when they return. Another option is to give them such gifts on their birthday. Otherwise, let it go.
Above all, take the time to reassure your children/step-children that even though you will miss them when they are gone, it is okay that they spend time with their other family and have fun. Giving children the freedom to love both of their families and enjoy time spent in both households (on Christmas or at any other time of the year) is one of the greatest gifts you can give.
Tips for surviving Christmas:
- Make it simple, low key and about togetherness rather than expense.
- Keep communication lines open. Pre-planning conversations and listing workable options before you place the call can keep you from reacting emotionally.
- Don’t get caught up in things needing to be the same or celebrated in the same way, or at the same time and place as they have always been.
- You cannot control someone else’s actions or response, but you can control your own.
- Don’t neglect your marriage/relationship.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff.
- Above all, be realistic – you are unlikely to please everybody.