Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A stepfamily's Christmas in Australia

Deck the halls or deck the ex? When one in four Australian clans is a stepfamily, Christmas can mean double helpings of stress. Counsellor Sonja Ridden, author of Help, I'm a Stepmother, provides a guide through the season's minefield.

It's been a while since Anna felt even remotely jolly at this time of year - since her first Christmas as John's wife number two, to be precise. It's not that she hadn't looked forward to her first Christmas of wedded bliss or to giving John's two daughters the presents she had lovingly picked for each of them. In fact, she could hardly wait.

So, what went wrong? Well, it all started on Christmas morning, as soon as John's ex-wife had dropped off the children. Sally, 12-year-old stepchild number one, rushed straight past Anna's welcoming arms, barricaded herself in the room that Anna had so thoughtfully prepared for her and refused to emerge. This caused six-year-old Rachel, stepchild number two, to burst into hysterical tears, John to turn into a pleading and (Anna thought) pathetic weakling of a father, and induced Anna's parents to exchange very disapproving looks.

All that was bad enough, but the straw that broke the camel's back was her mother-in-law's comment to John (just loud enough so that Anna couldn't help but hear it): "I knew the kids wouldn't take to her. I can't imagine why you insisted that they spend Christmas Day with you." At this point Anna fled from the room, eyes awash with tears, thoughts in turmoil, dreams in tatters and her heart filled with bitter disappointment, rejection and painful feelings of failure. The Christmas she had been looking forward to with such anticipation had turned into a nightmare.

Even now, years later, Anna's eyes still fill with tears as she relates her tale to me. An unusual story? Not really. After 23 years as a step-parent myself, and after speaking almost daily with blended family members in my counselling practice, I understand the pain that is often part and parcel of the experience. With one in three Australian marriages a remarriage and an estimated one in every four families a stepfamily, I suspect this scenario and several variations will be played out in many Australian homes this Christmas.

Although some stepfamilies blend more successfully than others, Christmas is often a time of stress and distress. The season may well bring back memories of happier times. To children, it can be a painful reminder that their long-held dream of bringing mum and dad back together is just that - a dream. To the single parent, especially if he or she was left for another relationship, Christmas can bring incredible sadness. For repartnered parents whose children are in the care of their ex, the "jolly" season unearths suppressed guilt.

More practical problems arise from the fact that children are members of two households whose needs, wishes and plans may be mutually exclusive. It isn't easy to bring together the desires of two sets of parents, potentially two or more sets of stepsiblings, several sets of grandparents, extended family members and whoever else needs to be considered.

Because there are so many Christmas challenges faced by blended families, I'll share just a few that were recently discussed in one of my stepmother support groups.

Sandra speaks with undisguised annoyance. "Geoff's guilt kicks in every Christmas. There is this childish competition between him and his ex as to who buys the bigger and better presents. The kids couldn't care less and we end up forking out money we can't afford." Karen agrees: "You end up paying twice because it's your money that pays for the presents you buy for them and it's the child support money that pays for the ones their mother buys. How stupid is that?" Vanessa declares that she finds the time-sharing aspect harder to deal with than anything else. "We love having the kids, but just as we get into the Christmas spirit they have to leave again. It's so disruptive and really upsets my husband, but our parenting agreement demands that we hand them over Christmas Day and the ex is a stickler for rules. So, what can we do without going to court again?"

Cathy hates Christmas because Robert agrees to everything his ex demands without giving a thought to the feelings, needs and wishes ("God forbid!") she might have.

We talk about the children whose Christmas is spent in the car racing from one place to another. They end up grumpy and exhausted from all the rushing around, sick from all the food, overloaded by the gifts and the stress of the day. We discuss partner's exes who call five times on Christmas morning to check everything is all right. "After all," says Beck, "I might have fed them a poisoned apple."

We moan over biological children and stepchildren fighting over gifts. We grieve for those fathers who spend Christmas in the depths of depression because they are unable to see their littlies, or because their adult children still haven't forgiven them for "breaking up the family". We consider the mind-boggling complications and mixed feelings of those who are stepchildren as well as stepparents, and realise at the end of our meeting that we've barely scratched the surface of a blended family's Christmas challenges.

Most of the stepparents I encounter in my practice, in my stepmother support groups, and in the step-parenting courses I run have discovered, after struggling through a number of disastrous Christmases, that their traditional routines no longer fit. Wise stepfamily adults realise at this point that their new circumstances require a new approach that will ultimately create different but equally cherished traditions for blended family members.

Of course, not all stepfamilies have the same needs or preferences. However, I find there are certain principles that will at least provide a realistic springboard for achieving the best Christmas a stepfamily can hope for.

One of the keys is flexibility. This helps us bend graciously when our plans are changed, when circumstances arise that interfere with the hopes and dreams we have for the "perfect" Christmas. Another is the maturity that allows our Christmas plans to be guided by the needs of our stepchildren rather than our own.

A particularly important key to blended family Christmas success is creativity. Kevin's creative solution turned out to be the perfect fit for his family. He invited everyone for Christmas in the park. "Everyone" included his current wife, his ex-wife with her current partner, his wife's ex-partner (with his current de facto), all of the children - his, hers, theirs and everyone else's - and to top it all off, his mother and stepfather as well as his father and girlfriend, and of course all other in-laws. A massive undertaking, and despite some awkwardness and tension, a raging success that Kevin plans to make an annual event.

Helen, who is unable to see her children during the Christmas period, makes a weekend in the Blue Mountains each year their special time together. Her children love having two Christmases, complete with carols, tree, gifts and a healthy dose of Christmas cheer. After all, who else gets to do that?

Christmas can be stressful for anyone, but we have a choice. We can make the season's happiness dependent on following our longheld traditions and rituals, on the number of gifts we give or receive, or we can decide that Christmas isn't about those externals. If we focus on the opportunity to shower our loved ones with gifts that no-one can buy - gifts of thankfulness, affection and appreciation - we've gone a long way towards making Christmas a special time for our blended families. If we celebrate it in the spirit of acceptance, forgiveness and love, we'll embody the true meaning of Christmas and create memories for our stepfamilies that are truly priceless.

(c) Sonja Ridden
As published in "The Age" on December 1st 2003


Meesha said...

I'm so glad to have stumbled across your blog. Great stuff! I'll be back to read more.

Sonja Ridden said...

Hi Meesha, I am glad that you've come for a peek and I hope that you'll come by more often and keep on enjoying the content.