Merry eX-Mas: Surviving The Holidays As A Blended Family

Surviving the holidays with a blended family can be very stressful and the temptation to avoid it altogether is real. With personalities as varied as a box of chocolates, it can be quite a feat to coordinate events, never mind being considerate of everyone’s feelings about the gathering.

The truth is, this is a problem many people face considering over 40% of families in America today are stepfamilies and an additional 2,100 new blended families are added daily.

If you fit into this category, as our family does, there is hope. I can tell you from experience the first few years are tough. The uncertainty of when to celebrate, who’s getting what gift for which person, making the dollar amount “equal” to what the other parent spends and my personal favorite, “My mom doesn’t cook it like that,” are all enough to make anyone say “Bah, humbug” and/or put more rum in the eggnog. I’m not ashamed to say we’ve done both.

Over the past nine Christmases together, our little blended family of 7 has grown into 14. Later in the article I’ll cover some advice from local experts. But first, I am going to share with you my 4 big take-aways as a wife, ex-wife, mother, and stepmother. These tips  have helped to transform our Christmases from noticeable awkwardness and a little tension to a very fun, festive and stepfamily-oriented celebration.

Consider celebrating on a day other than the actual holiday.

My parents were not divorced, so I have no idea how children feel when they are forced to choose where to celebrate Christmas, or any other holiday for that matter. My husband and I have always been very intentional in planning celebrations that will not conflict with anything else the kids may have going on with the other parent.

Put yourself in their shoes and imagine the stress of having to tell one parent that you’ve chosen to go to the other celebration. The day doesn’t really matter – it’s being together to celebrate as a family that matters.

Include everyone in the planning process.

Each person in the blended family needs to know they are important and feel valued as a member of the group. Ask questions such as: “What day and time of day works for you? What is your favorite dessert? What do you think should be the dollar limit on gifts for Dirty Santa?”

Involving each person in the decision-making creates a feeling of ownership and belonging that is so important for families trying to make a go of it. This works especially well for older children. For younger children discussing plans with an ex-spouse is vital.

Make your own traditions.

Many of us are fortunate enough to have fond childhood memories of family Christmas traditions. For my FOO (family of origin) it was picking out one present to open on Christmas Eve before we all went to bed. It was so exciting, and of course, much to my parents’ dismay, my sisters and I would always pick the “big” gift to open.

Whatever your new tradition, make it fun and make it yours, not a carryover from life before being blended. Our blended family’s new tradition is far from traditional – International cuisine and karaoke!

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Richard Carlson’s book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and it’s all small stuff: Simple Way to Keep the Little Things from Taking Over Your Life has a poignant message that we should all take to heart during the stressful and overly busy time of the year that starts somewhere around Thanksgiving and runs through New Year’s Day. “…When you let go of your expectations, when you accept life as it is, you’re free. To hold on is to be serious and uptight. To let go is to lighten up.” Enough said.

As I alluded to earlier, we reached out to local expert Misty Juola, LPE, Director of Clinical Services for Rivendell Behavioral Health Services, to find out her advice for coping with this potentially stressful time of the year. “The greatest stress for blended families around the holidays is often deciding how to share the time with each parent and other family members while also maintaining a balance. This can especially be a challenge when there is a great deal of traveling involved.”

Fortunately, there are some things we can do to help create a fun celebration. “Some tips to reduce stress are: plan ahead and communicate as openly and positively as possible. The holidays can be stressful for everyone, so make sure to take care of yourself, use your support system, and remember to relax and have fun. What kids need the most is to know that they are safe and in a loving home environment. If tensions do arise with ex-spouses, it is best to communicate those feelings between parents. Children do not need to be put in the middle of parental disagreements as this can increase their anxieties.”

So, good luck. Every year the holidays come and go with an ample of amount of stress to go around – blended family or not – but ultimately, it’s about love, togetherness and celebrating the greatest gift ever given and that is cause for peace, joy and happiness for all.