It’s October –and Stepfamily Holiday Wrangling Begins

If you have never been part of a stepfamily, you may not realize that September and October are the start of days and nights of tension and dread for blended familes. Parents and their partners begin the negotiating and haggling (also known as “planning”) that must be done for all the fall and winter holidays.

Imagine this fairly common (fictionalized) scenario and cast of characters:

This is a second marriage for both Jay and Carly. Jay has 3 children and Carly has 2. His parents are in Pennsylvania and his ex-wife Angel, who lives 30 minutes away in Wake Forest, has parents in the mountains of NC. His parents want Jay to bring the 3 children to Pennsylvania for several days over Christmas. And his ex-wife has invited her parents to Raleigh and they want to see the children for the week of Christmas.

Carly’s parents have a large extended family and everyone goes to their house in Winston-Salem. It’s been that way for years and she knows there will be a problem if she tries to make any changes to this tradition. Her ex- husband Ted used to go with her to her parents’, but since their divorce, he has been going to his parents’ house in New Bern and this year, he’s asserting that it’s his turn to have the children go with him (especially since he let her take them to her parents’ Christmas gathering the last two years).

Now to make it a little more complicated, add in children’s events, remarriages of ex- spouses and work schedules.

Boggling, isn’t it. Multiple sets of grandparents, numerous children, all mixed with the heightened emotion and nostalgia and longing and traditions of holidays and vacations. Just keeping all the details, schedules and relations straight is a major task– but this scenario is quite common and familiar to stepfamiles.

So what needs to happen to avoid tears, fury, multiple arguments and standoffs (which usually lead to re-hashing and reenacting old arguments from the past marriage, perhaps detouring into saying things like “you always have to have your way” or “you always do what your parents want” and “you are so inconsiderate” and “your family is so…..”. Painful polarization. Disappointment. Anger and worry that you will not get what you want and even worse, you will disappoint your new spouse.

What can you do to make this smoother?

  1. Remember you have to to be flexible, share and Take Turns. Now this is Bad News to many of us. We don’t want to take turns with the kids and we don’t want to have to share them over a major holiday. We all want them at our house on Halloween every year. But it’s not possible, the kids can’t be at both places at once and really,this leads to point 2:
  2. The most important focus should be on making sure the children don’t feel pulled, torn and guilty about who they are with and where they are going on vacation or for holidays
  3. Don’t be so selfish- be considerate of other people’s feelings. Consider that if you miss your children on Christmas morning, your ex goes through the same disappointment when he or she doesn’t have them that day. So be nice and share and be sensitive to their hurt feelings. You have disappointment and frustration and so do they.
  4. Reduce your expectations and take the pressure off The Day or The Moment. By that I mean you can celebrate Christmas anytime. For years, we had Christmas the weekend before the 25th or over New Year’s because my step-children went to Ohio with their mother and stepdad to be with their grandmother on Christmas Day. It can work. (you can do this with birthdays too)
  5. Be appreciative of how difficult it is for everyone trying to juggle plans and be appreciative out loud, to your ex, for his or her willingness to negotiate and talk through all the plans. And if they go out of their way to be flexible, you really really need to thank them (more than once). It goes a long way towards building a cooperative, respectful working co-parent relationship. Then remember that they were flexible when they ask you a year later to return the favor.
  6. Do not sabotage or mess up the agreed upon plans. When you work out a plan, stick to it. One of the most damaging circumstances is when one ex agrees to plans, then ignores the plan in order to just do what they want. This erodes the fragile trust in the co-parenting relationship.
    Most stepfamilies have a few tales about how an ex was supposed to return the children by a certain time and either didn’t bring them back that day or brought them back much later than the agreed upon plan. There’s nothing quite like spending a few hours cooking a holiday dinner and waiting and waiting and then getting anxious- then the ex shows up 3 hours late, doesn’t apologize and doesn’t seem to care that they ruined your dinner plan. Remember the Be Thoughtful and Considerate #3? And remember, children know the plan was unfairly altered and this makes them lose trust and respect for the parent who lied and broke their promise. (If you are on the receiving end of the sabotage, be careful how you explain things to the children. They don’t need to be exposed to the full turmoil because it clouds their enjoyment and makes them tense and worried. Try to move past it and focus on enjoying the day which means the adults need to be adults and not go on rants about how awful the child’s dad/mom is. The adults can vent to each other privately behind closed doors)
  7. Collaborate with your ex concerning expenses, gifts. Children make out like bandits when they have two families and many doting grandparents, aunts, step-aunts, step-uncles. They have double birthday parties, too many holiday meals. So work together to give them normal, sensible amounts of presents. (giving your teen a new laptop for his birthday might make you really happy, but then if his dad gives him an iPad, he’s learning to expect excess. Instead, you and his dad could share the cost of the laptop and he gets one reasonable gift. Or you agree to take turns giving the bigger more expensive gift and you let the kids know you collaborate on this so they understand why one parent is giving a small gift)
  8. Know that the negotiating takes time and patience and understanding and probably several conversations. Use joint calendars like Yahoo or Google calendars or something like The Family Wizard to share information and coordinate the schedules. Remind yourself to be polite, civil and patient.
  9. Stepfamilies are full of expectations, the wish for a new happy family, a wonderful trip, lots of love and fun. All which can occur but it’s complicated and takes time. It’s like getting into a boat with several people you don’t know very well and having to be together, work together and get along. And as a child, you may not have wanted to get on that boat with those people, you had another boat you liked with people you knew. Sullen moods, unfriendly attitudes are to be expected. But if you as a parent or step-parent accept it as normal and take it in stride and really work to understand, you may find a nice relationship begins to develop. Contrary to to fairy tale horror stories, there are many many children who love their parents and step-parents and are quite adept at navigating the numerous different relationships.
  10. Work at the communication in your marriage. The tensions of dealing with your childrens’ needs, your ex’s wishes, your own feelings and your new partner’s feelings can be very wearing. Use couples’ counseling to help you through all this until you can do it on your own.
    Knowing there will be difficult talks makes most of us avoid, procrastinate. Which means the pressure will intensify and emotions will escalate as you are calling and recalling grandparents, brothers, airlines, ex-husbands. And since you have a Job…you really can’t work well responding to angry emails, urgent texts or multiple phone calls from highly stressed family members who need to know right now that you will go along with their plan or else Everything Will be Ruined. So start early asking everyone involved: “what are you thinking/wanting as far as – Halloween, vacations, trips, religious holidays- ”.

Next year, start in August, not October!