Even after all these years, it surprises me how powerless one can feel as a stepparent. This crystallized again over the holiday card when I unsuccessfully tried to arrange a group photo of my son and two stepdaughters.
Unlike my 10-year-old son, with whom I can say, "Please be at this place at this time" -- and when he doesn't can yell, "Get your butt down here now" -- every request with my two stepdaughters is a restrained negotiation.
But if you ask step kids how they feel, they will share how powerless they feel in having had no say in their parents' divorce and then having to juggle between two families while negotiating roles, rules and status in each household.
Recently I emailed my stepdaughter telling her that step parenting is a lot like gardening a bed of roses. Instead of getting to dig deep and attach yourself to the root stock, I am only allowed to skim the surface and never feel as though I've penetrated top soil. If I grab the flower the wrong way, it can be prickly. But it is still beautiful in many ways and worth nurturing.
She then emailed me with this response:
"Just like the rose, stepchildren cannot help but have thorns because it is in their nature to protect their roots."
I loved this exchange because it is honest -- and helpful.
The holidays are an emotionally charged time for any family -- but even more so for stepfamilies. According to the Stepfamily Foundation, 50 percent of the 60 million children under the age of 13 live with one biological parent and their parent's current partner. After years of experience, I have learned that the secret to having a good time during the holidays is simply managing expectations.
Gifts for Stepkids:
Unlike my childhood where you can sign gifts from "Mom and Dad," and no one gets mad if Mom bought the gifts, in a divorced household, a signature of "Jill and Dad" feels inferior and empty, another example of being force fed this new family into their lives.
Many kids feel they are sharing their father with another family and already have rationed time with him. When Dad picks out the gift, it feels more special -- and I think they're right. Therefore, the biological parent and stepmom should buy separate gifts. It also goes a long way if a stepfather buys a little trinket that is designed to tell his stepkids that they are on his radar. It shows that affection isn't solely manufactured because of his marriage to their mother.
This is a controversial tip but one I believe in. A father who feels he is already donating resources to his new wife's family and live-in step kids can and should give his biological children extra treats on the holidays. These children often feel like outsiders visiting the new household with the live-in step kids and this gesture lets them know that their link with their father is not fraying. However, this should be a nuanced gesture. It could be a card, a poem, a special promise of a weekend outing. Otherwise, the fathers fall into the trap of being a "Disneyland Dad" who spoils the visiting children instead of creating an environment with rules and expectations for all family members.
Gifts for Stepparents:
The biological parent will get better gifts and more affection. Case closed.
In the same way I know that whenever a child calls with good news, my son will say "Guess what, Mom!" and with my stepkids it will be, "Hi Jill. Is Dad there?" a gift usually reflects pecking order. Biological mothers are saints -- but stepmothers are not necessarily sinners, either. (Well, with the exception of stepmoms like Judith Giuliani). A gift of appreciation for those stepmothers who make the effort to be inclusive, supportive and loving is expected or feelings will get hurt.
Make sure the biological parent isn't clueless around the holidays. It is their normalcy that the child/teenager/young adult is loving towards them so they may not be as aware of a stepparents' feelings of second-class status in the household.
Jeannette Lofas, president of the Stepfamily Foundation, had a case where the stepmother was furious that the kids didn't buy her anything. Lofas told her that the blame should be on her and the father because expectations weren't communicated. Tell Dad to have the conversation with his children to clarify what traditions are expected in each family. Mom should also encourage the kids to acknowledge their stepfather.
Once the tradition begins, it becomes a part of the annual ritual. Furthermore, the more years you're around, the more you become a valued family member . Live by the motto that no act of kindness is wasted even if it's not appreciated today.
Gifts for Siblings from Relatives:
This is a minefield because kids are human ATMs in calculating who gets what and then attaching meaning to each gift.
If one parent has more siblings, his/her child will get more presents from aunts and uncles than a kid who has less of an extended family. In these cases, an extra hug or explanation can diffuse any initial jealousies. Focus the child's attention then on what they have vs. what they don't.
I know of one case where a grandmother was reminded to get her daughter's stepson a gift but clearly favored her two biological grandchildren with better loot. When scolded, she replied, "But they're not my grandchildren. They have other grandparents."
In being politically correct, we can't go overboard in expecting total equality. It doesn't exist. Appreciate all gestures from extended family members and just emphasize the importance of inclusion. My suggestion is to have extra gifts on hand in case you notice that someone feels left out.
Stepfamily Bonus Prize:
Okay. Here's the bonus. Not only do stepfamilies learn to be adaptive for the greater good but stepchildren often take more holiday trips than an intact family. Furthermore, if you spend the holidays in more than one place, the law of averages means you get more gifts - and with lots of effort -- more love.
In conclusion, we are all tending a family garden of some kind. Do not over water or underwater. Find a balance. Maybe it isn't a rose garden. Maybe it should be described as a bed of hybrids, something akin to what Luther Burbank, the divorced 19th century botanist invented by mixing different seeds and creating something totally new. When families blend, relationships expand -- they are no longer solely determined by biology but by ever changing social relationships.