We all know that the holidays are filled with stress, even under normal circumstances. Just try adding in a couple of exes, stepchildren and more than two sets of grandparents. Every newly married has to deal with combining families and traditions. If any of the players live far apart, it's even more difficult, and almost always someone winds up feeling slighted. The logistics alone can be more convoluted than Santa's list when you have to add in long car trips or plane rides. It's enough to add angst to any holiday gathering.
When there are young children involved and Mom and Dad don't live together, family togetherness during the holidays can get especially complicated. Custodial agreements often delegate rigid visitation and alternating holiday stays. Children worry about which parent's house Santa will visit; parents worry that the gifts they have under the tree will be duplicated by the ex and his or her new partner. And when Mom and Dad try to outdo each other (subconsciously or on purpose), the kids can become innocent pawns.
However, blended families have been managing for years, and some have even been successful in keeping everyone satisfied. So what are the tricks of the trade?
The simple rule that successful blended families go by is that the children come first.
When Carol and Anthony divorced, it was amicable. Because both of them wanted their two children to take priority and they lived just a few miles apart, they eagerly agreed to share custody. Anthony met a new love, Sandy, and introduced her to Carol as soon as his intentions had become clear. Carol and Sandy had time alone to reassure each other that they would never step on each other's toes. When Sandy and Anthony had their first child, Carol became the honorary aunt. When Carol met her new husband, Bob, and they expanded their family, it was a similar deal. After 20-plus years, they still take turns hosting Christmas and other holidays with all of the children (who remain in town). All of the children were raised calling each other brother and sister, even when there was no actual blood relation. Even today, with the next generation, the four of them share grandparenting joys along with Bob's and Sandy's parents.
Brina wasn't so lucky when she and Mike divorced. He moved across the country and quickly remarried. Although they agreed that their three children would come first, their custodial agreement wasn't to Brina's liking. Though Brina was the primary custodial parent, the agreement gave Mike half of every summer and two out of three major holidays and alternating birthdays. The first time that Brina had to put her three children on a plane just before Christmas, she cried. After the first few years, she made some changes. Holidays are now celebrated at her home exactly one week after their return, and there is two-way communication about gift giving so that presents aren't duplicated; sometimes they even complement each other. Brina, who hasn't remarried, and Mike's wife discuss plans by phone to make sure everything goes smoothly. As far as special events go, the three children and their stepsiblings are always remembered by the three adults and their offspring. With Brina's children growing up, they are being given more choices, and they continue to have comfortable relationships with their mother, father and stepmother.
The Stepfamily Association of America encourages parents to plan ahead to reduce the tumult of the holidays. Also, never make children choose sides. Don't stress how miserable you are going to feel being without them; give them permission to have fun no matter whose house they are celebrating in. And especially if you have to reschedule your family holiday celebration, make new traditions and memories, such as Christmas ice skating in January or sightseeing holiday lights in early December. Try to schedule phone calls or video conferences with the absent parent (and new family) so the child feels included in everything.