I wrote this article for The Age Newspaper some years ago. Well, Christmas is here again and so are multitudes of stepfamilies and blended families who struggle with the emotional strain as well as the massive logistical exercise that this time of year presents for them. In the hope that this article 'speaks to you' in whatever way it needs to in order to make your Christmas a better experience. Enjoy!
Deck the halls with boughs of holly..... t’is the season to be jolly,....
Anne felt a sharp pang of annoyance when she found herself whistling this tune. It’s been a while since she’s 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 handpicked for each of them. Not at all! In fact, she was so excited about the prospect of showering her stepdaughters with love, kindness and the gifts she’d purchased, that she could hardly wait. So, what went wrong? Well, it all started on Christmas morning, just as soon as John’s ex-wife had dropped off the children. Sally, 12 year old stepchild number one, rushed straight past Anne’s welcoming arms, barricaded herself in the room that Anne had so thoughtfully prepared for her and refused to emerge. This caused 6 year old Rachel, stepchild number two, to break into hysterical tears, John to turn into a pleading and, she thought, totally pathetic weakling of a father and induced Anne’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 Anne 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 Anne fled from the room she’d so cheerfully decorated some days ago – 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 Anne had been looking forward to with such anticipation had turned into a nightmare.
Even now, some years later, Anne’s eyes still fill with tears as she relates her Christmas horror story to me. An unusual story? Not really! Having personally experienced 23 years as a stepparent and 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 1 in 3 marriages being a remarriage and an estimated 1 in every 4 families being a stepfamily, I suspect this type of scenario and several variations thereof, will be played out in many Australian homes this Christmas.
Although some stepfamilies blend more successfully than others, Christmas often is a time of great stress and significant distress for its members. After all, the Christmas season that traditionally is a time of family togetherness 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 and feelings of depression. For repartnered parents whose children are in the care of their ex-partner, the ‘jolly’ season more likely resurfaces suppressed feelings of guilt. Other more practical problems arise from the fact that children are members of two households whose needs, wishes and plans may be mutually exclusive. Naturally it isn’t easy to bring 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 in the Christmas plans under one hat.
So, what are the Christmas challenges faced by blended families? Because there are too many by far to list, I’ll just share a few that were recently discussed in one of my stepmother support groups. Sandra tells 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….”and 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 shares that she hates Christmas because Robert agrees to everything his ex demands without giving a thought to the feelings, needs and wishes (God forbid!) that she might have. We talk about the stepchildren whose Christmas is practically spent in the car racing from one parent to another, to grandparents, uncles and aunts and who end up grumpy and exhausted from all the rushing around, sick from all the food and overloaded by the abundance of gifts and the stress of their day. We discuss partner’s exes who call five times throughout Christmas morning to check that everything is alright. “After all”, says Beck “I might have fed them a poisoned apple!” We moan over biological children and stepchildren fighting over their gifts, because “the other one’s is better than mine…and that’s so unfair!” and bemoan the plight of those fathers who spend Christmas in the depth of depression because they are unable to see their littlies, or their adult kids who still haven’t found it in their heart to forgive them for ‘breaking up the family’. We consider the mind-boggling complications and mixed feelings of those who are stepparents as well as stepchildren and realize 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 Christmas routines no longer fit. Wise stepfamily adults realize at this point that their new circumstances require a new approach which will ultimately create different, but equally cherished traditions for blended family members. In seeking to create new traditions it is important to remember that not all stepfamilies have the same needs or preferences. Different complexities and individual issues require different measures. However, I have found that there are certain principles that, whilst not giving any guarantees, will at least provide a realistic springboard for achieving the best Christmas one can hope for despite challenging circumstances.
So, what are the keys to success? One of the keys is flexibility. Flexibility helps us bend graciously when our plans are changed, when unforeseen circumstances arise that interfere with the hopes and dreams we have for the ‘perfect’ Christmas. Another is the key of maturity that allows our Christmas plans to be guided by the needs of our stepchildren rather than our own. Maturity also enables us to let go of needing to do things our way and helps us encourage our stepchildren to be involved in the Christmas decision-making and planning process. 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. I can just imagine wives and ex-wives shuddering at the very thought, but for Kevin it worked. For you it may not! That’s why creativity is the name of the game. Helen who is unable to see her children during the Christmas period, each year makes a weekend in the Blue Mountains their special celebration 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 hold many stresses for anyone, but we have a choice. We can make the season’s happiness dependent on following our long-held 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 be embody the true meaning of Christmas and create memories for our stepfamilies that are truly priceless. Happy Christmas everyone!!