When I was a child Christmas Eve was an elaborate event in my dad’s Italian family. For that special night my nana prepared an exceptional menu of meats, fish, pastas and pastries that would make angels salivate. My cousins, aunts and uncles, godparents and various other people filled the house with boisterous talking, bellowing laughter, and an occasional argument. Nana’s girlfriends spoke only Italian, and they smelled a little odd. But their pinch to your cheek, or bone-crunching hug, only added to the fun.
Think My Big Fat Greek Wedding and you will get the picture. I cry every time I watch that movie. It brings back wonderful memories of the holidays at Nana’s, and causes me to recall a time when I belonged to something bigger than myself. I felt loved and secure.
Now Nana is gone, the house is sold and the family is scattered. My quest to find meatballs like hers has proved fruitless, and I’ll never again walk into her familiar kitchen that affectionately whispered, “Welcome Home.” The sights, sounds and smells of the holidays have a way of triggering all sorts of memories and emotions, don’t they?
After 25 years as a stepmom I recall a number of tense holiday seasons when I wanted to walk out to the Nativity scene in my front yard and ask Baby Jesus to move over. I’d whisper, “This is not the life I bargained for. I don’t care if it’s freezing outside, the manger gives me splinters, or the hay makes me sneeze—at least it’s calm, quiet and safe.”
The holidays can be stressful because they represent a symbol of family belonging. And there’s the rub for a stepmom. When she feels “outside” of the family circle, the occasion can throw gasoline on an existing flame: the event can magnify her loneliness and discomfort.
But there are ways to overcome. Here are a few insights to help with stepfamily holiday hassles.
Stepfamilies Are Unique
Stepmom Sherrie explains the situation to her sister. “Julie, if you think the holidays are hectic at your house, try coordinating schedules, decorating, shopping, school programs, dinner and gift giving with the parents of three households. Add to the mix that most of the adults involved don’t even like each other, and you have a taste of what Christmas is like in a stepfamily. Everything is more complicated, because there are so many people who influence the plans including the biological mom, her parents and siblings, and her husband’s family.”
The multiple-home, multiple-parent, multiple grandparent and in-law complexities of a stepfamily often rise to the surface during special occasions. The collision of various traditions, preferences, and cultural norms can produce an interesting dynamic. In addition, it seems that holidays and special occasions bring out the best and the worst in people.
Stepmom is in the Hot Seat
Guess which family member typically feels the brunt of the holiday strain? The stepmom does. That’s because the calendar and planning of family celebrations often falls on her. A stepmom may feel overwhelmed and shocked by the flurry of activity and the sudden responsibility to coordinate everything.
Typically the greatest holiday discord comes when the two homes cannot agree on a reasonable visitation schedule. When the biological parents and/or stepparents refuse to work together to determine what is best for the kids, tension arises. It’s not uncommon for one parent to view “winning Christmas morning” as a victory in the divorce battle. But as stepmom Jennifer shares there isn’t much to celebrate. “The bio mom and I try hard to work towards a reasonable solution and we’re as flexible as possible. But this rarely works because my husband is not willing to give up control and refrain from demanding his way. Then the situation turns back to yelling and screaming and everyone suffers.”
Traditions play a huge role in the holiday dynamic. When family rituals and customs are sustained they reinforce identity and define what is “normal.” I’d love to pass on to my stepsons the Italian family traditions I’ve experienced. But I quickly learned that they already have their own traditions, based on family background. What feels cozy and familiar to me isn’t “normal” for them. This lack of shared tradition makes each side feel different, disconnected, and separate, thereby generating discomfort and stress for everyone.
When several family members who are unsettled about the stepfamily are gathered together for a special occasion the cumulative anxiety may create an explosion. The underlying raw emotions that each person carries may be inflamed by others in the room. Therefore, take caution before throwing numerous family members into close surroundings if you suspect they are incapable of handling the tension. It’s best to celebrate separately until these issues can be resolved. Trying to resolve family conflict during special occasions is usually unproductive.
One of the main stressors for kids of divorce is not knowing which house will be “home for the holidays.” As soon as possible make a plan. However, hold on to the reality that you cannot control the parents. If at the last minute one of them decides to withhold the kids as a weapon to hurt each other, even if the divorce papers dictate differently, you can’t fix it. Step back and let your spouse deal with the situation, which may mean going to court.
Bridging the Gap is the Goal
Slowly implementing new traditions, while holding on to old ones, is a good way to start. Stepmoms often want everything to be new and different than the first marriage, or the first wife, but it’s unwise to throw out everything that’s familiar.
Sit down as a family and discuss what the kids enjoy and what they would like to do this year. Learn what traditions mean something significant to them, and which ones they can toss. And then try one new small thing. “I know you have always had an artificial tree in the past, would you like to get a real one this year?”
During the holidays your family may not look a Norman Rockwell painting, but then neither does mine. To have a happier holiday I‘ve learned to: lower my expectations, treat the family with love and compassion, work on the things I can control and let go of the ones I cannot, surround myself with people I enjoy, and remember the reason for the season.
Ahhh…now where’s is that cup of eggnog?