Oh man. The holidays. Forget gathering by the roaring hearth with mugs of hot cocoa to indulge in some quiet repose; most of us are barraged with shopping for that perfect gift, parties galore, gallant attempts to continue to eat healthy and keep up the workout routine, and not get the flu in the process. All while keeping a sense of calm amidst the chaos.
As if any of us need any more family drama. Now add in some step kids, exes, a family photo shoot, and you’re likely to implode.
Let’s not forget the good stuff, though. The sweaters, the holiday movies, the smell of nutmeg, pumpkin pies, and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Oh, yes, I am all about the most wonderful time of the year. Mike and I watch The Holiday and Love Actually, every single year. (We haven’t missed one yet and we get all gooey over it every time. #cheeseballs!)
For those of us in blended families, though, there can be added complications on top of all the regular ones. Whether you’re in an amicable co-parenting relationship or not, sharing kids over the holidays requires scheduling, fairness, and usually, a lot of emotions. We have four kids ranging from 11 through 16. Our holiday split switches each year, and because 2018 is an even year, I get my kids on Thanksgiving AND Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning. Having all the kids together this Christmas Eve means there will be a feeling that everything is as it should be.
Until things start to go wrong. And they will—That’s life. In my career as an adult, I’ve learned that because things don’t always go to plan, it’s much better to have a plan that you can work from rather than to surrender to the “un” plan.
For me, the big stresses this time of year are scheduling, emotions, and kids giving you grief because something isn’t “fair.” Through much trial and error, I’ve found some ways to help overcome this unneeded stress.
1. Scheduling. Scheduling can be a challenge, because no matter how diligent you are, you can’t control whether your ex will adhere to the schedule.
Many of us can recall anxiously waiting for our children to be dropped off at a certain time so we could enjoy the holiday meal together. The food might be hot on the table but your ex is late. Others have tried to split the day—one parent gets the kids for the first half of the day and the other parent will get the second. Sounds like a win-win on the surface, but that’s before you take into account the fact that the kids are likely to show up full, on a sugar high, and not at all interested in the meal you’ve spent all day working on.
What To Do
Have a plan. Try to remember you’re not the only one affected when things don’t go according to plan; your kids are, too. Whether they are old enough to say it or not, they feel the stress as well. Let them know in advance what the plan is for each holiday, down to the time they are getting picked up or dropped off. They now know what to look forward to and so do you. For me, it’s written in our Marital Settlement Agreement. That might sound more formal than necessary, but it’s all too easy for a loose, flexible schedule to get derailed, whether it’s based on miscommunication or someone’s feeling extra emotional because of the holidays. Confusion abounds, chaos ensues; I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t want that negative energy, especially during the holidays. So, have a plan and schedule in advance!
By the way, part of your planning committee should be the gifts. My ex and his wife and I will get the kids’ Christmas lists and then communicate with each other who is getting and giving what. This eliminates the double buying of gifts and one parent out-giving the other. (We’ll talk more in another post about what to do if your ex isn’t as willing to cooperate when it comes to holiday gift buying.)
2. Emotions. Emotions often run high during the holidays, not just for people in blended families. But it can be particularly challenging for people in blended families, even for people who have been sharing holidays for years. I’ll just say it: It’s really hard to be away from your kids during the holidays! Don’t get me wrong—it’s a blessing to wake up to my husband on Christmas Day. But something just doesn’t feel quite right when you realize there’s no one running and jumping into your bed at 6am to open presents. This is a vulnerable time and you may find yourself overwhelmed in frustration. This isn’t fair. I should get to be with them 100% of the time—they’re my kids! Your brain, in overdrive, suddenly begins calculating the number of Christmases you have left while they’re still kids and freak out when you cut that number in half . . . It can really be emotionally eviscerating. If you find yourself at this point, take a deep breath. I’ve been there, and the best thing you can do is be strong: take the straw and suck it up—or, in my case, it’s more like a stemless wine glass, chardonnay and an actual straw).
What To Do
Make New Traditions, But Keep The Old! One is silver and the other… okay you get the point.
Every year when we take the Christmas decorations down from the attic and unpack the ornament boxes, our oldest (16) asks for the special frog ornament. It’s his mom’s ornament that he wants to keep here and have placed on our tree. It’s a tradition he’s always had, and I keep the ornament wrapped up in special paper. Another tradition we have is the Christmas Pixie, who comes to our house and delivers wrapped gifts like cereal boxes—the only sugar cereal I let in the house for the year—huge jars of peanut butter, a bottle of soda etc. There are traditions that Mike and I brought with us and there are some that we created together. Blending two families does not mean having to give up things you might have done in the past, nor does it mean you cannot create new traditions for just your family.
Whether these holiday traditions are old or new, having them means you get to look forward to celebrating them when your kids are with you, whether that’s Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. It can be a tough one, but remember that the holiday is not just about you and your feelings. It’s about you as a family, and while it may not be a family in the traditional sense, you are still one and there is value and meaning to the things you do together.
3. “That’s not fair!” Whatever holiday you celebrate, there’s bound to be gifts involved and when you’ve got a mix of kids that’s his, hers, and ours you will almost certainly find yourself being accused of unfairness. It can come in many forms, but most often looks something like this:
“Why did he get more presents than I did?”
“She’s always getting more stocking stuffers than me!”
“They get so much at their dad’s house. Why don’t you give us as much?”
“I want what she got!”
Or Grandma got one kid something and not the other, or too much for her biological grandchild and not enough for the step grandchild. There’s a myriad of ways this can present itself, and no matter what form it takes, it can easily overwhelm. Emphasizing the experience of spending time together as a family will take some of the focus off of the material possessions. Yes, getting gifts is fun, but it becomes decidedly less fun when you’ve got two houses trying to outdo each other, which almost often results in frustrated parents and children who have so many new toys and gadgets they don’t really get to enjoy any one particular thing.
Most importantly, try not to let all of that get you down. Really try to look at the bright side, because there’s a lot. I’ve been through plenty of high-stress, emotionally draining situations, but I have so many more moments filled with a deep gratitude. And that is because I chose to see the good in a situation as much as I could. (I’ll also be writing soon on how to take awful icky situations and actually turn them into something good.)
It’s not an easy thing to do. If your situation is a new one, it might feel impossible. But you really do have the ability to choose to make the best of those stomach churning situations, and use it as an opportunity to strengthen your family and make new holiday memories. Choose to make it better, you will be so happy you did, I promise.