Blending families tends to be stressful no matter what time of year it is. You’re trying to find a “new normal” when one or both parents have children from a previous relationship. Mix in the stressful holiday season, and parents may want to lie in the fetal position under a mound of wrapping paper until January rolls around!
Competing family plans and traditions can cause anxiety and even moments of panic. Just trying to schedule holiday parties around visitation schedules can raise one’s blood pressure, and that is before we get to the challenges of blending family traditions! So how can you lower the stress?
Here are two tips:
Take some deep breaths and discuss these questions as far in advance as possible:
For those homes where one or more ex-spouses also share time with the children, scheduling can become very difficult. Finding time for everyone to see everyone on the holiday may no longer be possible. In most cases, custody agreements have established holiday and visitation schedules. When there is not an established agreement, working scheduling out early can be very helpful. It might require imagination and ingenuity to ensure the new family celebrates in a way that encourages bonding and unity. Try hard not to blame your spouse if his/her “ex” is making scheduling difficult. It’s also very important for stepparents to be especially sensitive to their stepchildren’s hearts at these times. There should be no hint that their time with their other parent is in any way a problem.
How many families do you know that have two full Thanksgiving meals on the same day in order to hit all the parties? Christmas can be even more difficult as trips to visit family are often scheduled around opening presents at home. Be prepared simply not to see everyone you used to see. Again, custody agreements may set up a holiday schedule that largely shapes with whom the children will spend their holidays. Spouses in a blended situation should prioritize time with each other’s families, involving their children as much as possible. Consider seeing one family on one holiday and another family on another, or alternating Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
There are as many traditions as there are families, but every family has at least one. Thanksgiving: do you give thanks one-by-one or have someone special pray? Christmas Eve: do you favor a candlelight vigil or last-minute shopping? Christmas Day: do you stay in pajamas and play with the toys or visit family in your holiday best? For Christmas, be sure to discuss expectations for gift-giving and the timing for opening gifts for each other and for the children.
Can’t do without your mom’s special stuffing recipe? Does the topper on the (real? artificial?) Christmas tree have to be an angel or a star? It’s important to know which traditions are LOVED and which are just…traditions. Choose some traditions from both families and make new memories together.
“His” and “Hers” are fine for monogrammed towels, but creating a new family tradition can help the family to feel more like one family instead of two families who decided to live together. Avoid splitting the family in order to fulfill old expectations when possible. Rather, think about some adventure or activity you can do together, and plan it early.
Make a point of reflecting and teaching about the real meanings of Christmas. This helps each of us recognize that it's not just about the family traditions I want, but about the gifts of God. Gratitude and giving are traditions that build character and when done together, can strengthen family relationships. Here are a few ideas to help refocus:
Blended family gatherings are a unique opportunity to experience even more deeply the joy of reconciliation and love that the birth of Jesus ushered in on Christmas day. Colossians 3:15 says, “And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are all called to live in peace. And always be thankful.” Choose an attitude of thankfulness to focus your heart on his joy this season.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra